The SAT Prep Black Book
Only Work With Questions From The College Board!
“One must learn by doing the thing.”
Three of the most important themes in this book, which you’ll see reflected on almost every level of my SAT advice, are the following:
oSAT questions are written according to specific rules and patterns, and
olearning to beat the SAT is a matter of learning to identify those rules and patterns and exploit their inherent weaknesses systematically, because
omost of the problems that most people have on the SAT are the result of poor test-taking skills, not of deficiencies in subject-matter knowledge.
I’ll expand on these ideas in the rest of this book, but for right now I want to impress something upon you that is extremely, extremely important: It is absolutely critical that you practice with real SAT questions written by the actual College Board itself, and not with any other kind of practice test or practice questions.
Only the real questions written by the actual College Board are guaranteed to behave like the questions you’ll see on test day. Questions written by other companies (Kaplan, Princeton Review, Barron’s, or anybody else) are simply not guaranteed to behave like the real thing. In some cases, the differences are obvious, and, frankly, shocking. Some companies write fake practice SAT Writing questions in which the passive voice is the difference between a right answer and a wrong answer. Some fake SAT Math questions rely on math formulas the SAT doesn’t allow itself to test. Many fake SAT Reading questions require literary analysis. And so on.
Fake practice questions that break the rules of the real test will encourage you to develop bad test-taking habits, and will keep you from being able to develop good habits. For our purposes, then, fake SAT questions written by any company except the College Board are garbage. They are useless. If you want to learn how to beat the SAT, you have to work with real SAT questions.
Real SAT questions from the actual College Board are pretty easy to acquire. You can find some on the College Board’s website, but the most common source is the College Board’s “Blue Book,” The Official SAT Study Guide. I keep a page with the best deals on the Blue Book here: http://www.SATprepBlackBook.com/blue-book.
The second edition of the Blue Book has ten practice tests in it, which should be more than enough for anybody if you use them correctly. See the section of this book called “How To Train For The SAT” for more on that.
What About Harder Questions?
One of the most common objections to the idea of using real test questions is that some companies (most notably Barron’s) are known for writing practice questions that are harder than real test questions—the argument is that working with more difficult questions will make the real test seem like a breeze.
Unfortunately, this approach is too clever for its own good, because it overlooks the nature of difficulty on a test like the SAT. If the “harder” practice questions from a third-party company were “hard” in the same way that “hard” SAT questions are “hard,” then training with harder question might be a good idea. But those fake questions are harder in a way that makes them totally unlike real questions, so they’re a waste of time.
When a third-party company writes fake questions to be hard, it does so by incorporating some of the skills that a high-school student would need to use in advanced classes: knowledge of advanced math concepts, subtle literary analysis, and so on. But these skills have no place whatsoever on the SAT, because the SAT limits itself to very basic ideas, and tries to fool you by asking you about basic things in weird ways.
So if you want to raise your SAT score, the skill you need to develop is the ability to look at strange questions, figure out whatever basic thing they actually want you to do, and then do it. That’s what this Black Book teaches you to do. In fact, the more familiar you become with the SAT, the more you’ll see that “hard” SAT questions aren’t really any different from “easy” ones when you get right down to it. This is why it’s pointless to use fake questions, even if they’re supposed to be more challenging than real questions.
Whenever students ask whether they should use “harder” questions to get ready for the SAT, I always answer with this analogy: It’s true that performing on the flying trapeze is harder than making an omelet, but getting better at the trapeze won’t make your omelets any better, because the two things have nothing to do with each other. Just because something is harder doesn’t mean it’s helpful.
I really can’t stress this enough: If you’re serious about improving your performance, you need to practice with real SAT questions written by the College Board, because real test questions are what you’ll see on test day. There are no exceptions to this.
(I frequently have students who try to ignore this particular aspect of my SAT-taking approach, and the results are always bad. Seriously. Trust me on this. Use real questions from the College Board. There’s a reason I keep repeating this idea :) )