The SAT Prep Black Book
8 Things You Thought You Knew About The SAT Are Wrong
“As a general rule the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.”
- Benjamin Disraeli
If you’re taking the SAT, you’re going to get a lot of advice from other people about the best way to approach the test. It might surprise you to know that the vast majority of SAT information that most people have access to is very, very incorrect. In my years of teaching people about the SAT, I’ve heard all sorts of myths, rumors, and lies about the test. Believe it or not, some of this misinformation comes from the College Board itself. Some of it comes from colleges, guidance counselors, and teachers. And still more comes from your friends and peers, and from popular web sites. Most—but not all—of the people who spread this misinformation are well-intentioned, but that doesn’t change the fact that bad information leads to lower test scores for you, and that’s bad.
With that in mind, I’ve set out a few common SAT myths, misconceptions, and lies about the SAT. But first, I’ll tell you how to verify any SAT rumor you might hear in the future.
How To Find The Truth About The SAT
One of the strangest things about all the SAT myths and rumors that are out there is that it’s so easy to disprove them with a little research, but nobody takes the time. This is a huge mistake.
Make a commitment to yourself that you won’t accept a single new piece of SAT advice from anyone, no matter the source, without checking it out for yourself to see if it’s true. (Yes, I’m including the Black Book in this statement—I’m sure it stands up to the test, unlike most of the other SAT advice you’ll encounter.)
How do you check it out? If the advice is related to the SAT itself, you can usually check to see if it’s true by looking at some sample tests WRITTEN BY THE COLLEGE BOARD. Of course, you can get these by consulting your copy of the Blue Book, The Official SAT Study Guide. Do NOT, under any circumstances, attempt to learn anything meaningful about the SAT by consulting a fake SAT test written by a test prep company or a web site. Many simply don’t know how to write them correctly, and those fake tests are totally useless.
(Note that I’m not suggesting you take the College Board’s advice about the SAT—I’m suggesting that you try out all SAT advice against the actual sample SATs written by the College Board. The College Board is often wrong about its own test, as strange as that might sound. You can prove this by comparing the essay-scoring chart on page 105 of the Blue Book to the actual high- and low-scoring essays that also appear in that book. What the College Board says it rewards is not what actually appears in those essays.)
If the advice is related to the way a particular college or university uses the SAT in its admissions process, one way to check it is to call up the school yourself and get the real answer, or visit the school’s web site. The admissions people typically won’t lie to you (notice I didn’t say they’ll NEVER lie to you). Unfortunately, admissions departments are not a perfect source of information. They may not always give you a straight answer about the role the SAT plays in their schools’ selection processes. Fortunately, though, schools don’t usually lie about their raw data—you can usually do an online search for a school’s median SAT scores and grade point averages for the previous year’s admissions pool, and that information is typically trustworthy.
So that’s it—the only two places you should look to when you want to confirm something about the SAT are (1) the actual SAT, and (2) the schools you’re interested in attending. That’s it.
Notice who’s not on that list: guidance counselors, friends, students and alumni of your target schools, even your parents. I’m not saying that all of these sources will be wrong all the time—I’m simply pointing out that these sources are never the final authority on the SAT. They might give you good information, but you’ll never know for sure if it’s good until you verify it with the actual test or with the schools you want to attend.
Now that we’ve established how to test all SAT-related advice, let’s talk about some of the bad information that’s out there.
Misinformation From The College Board
We’ve already talked about how to use the College Board’s resources. As you’ll see if you look at that section of the manual, much of the College Board’s advice about taking the SAT is based on what can only be called a set of illusions about what the SAT really is and what it really does. (What’s the rest of it based on? I can’t tell, but most of it still isn’t any good.) Let’s take a look.
SAT Misconception 1: The SAT tests the skills that a good college student needs.
This is the major gimmick of the College Board. I explain what’s wrong with this idea in almost every section of this manual: basically, there’s no way that a standardized test can possibly measure a student’s ability to perform in college, because college is a non-standardized environment.
This particular idea—the idea that the SAT actually measures something besides how well you do on the SAT—is very dangerous to SAT-takers. Since you’re an SAT-taker, I want you to know the truth.
I can’t tell you how many times a well-meaning student has told me that he wants to turn the SAT into a real intellectual challenge. He’s going to take advanced calculus as a junior so he’ll know enough math; he’s going to read Cicero over the summer in the original Latin to learn how to craft a sentence; he’s going to volunteer twenty hours a week tutoring young children to sharpen his mind and purify his soul.
Now, all of those things are great. They’ll make you a more intelligent person and a more attractive candidate in the admissions process. But they absolutely will NOT help you on the SAT, because the SAT is NOT an indication of how intelligent or well-rounded you are. The SAT is basically an indication of how well you can read one sheet of paper and fill in the right bubbles on another sheet of paper that gets fed into a machine.
So, then, what’s the best way to get ready for the SAT? By attacking it on a technical level. By pulling it apart and finding all the hidden rules and patterns that dictate how the questions are written. Establish processes that let you attack every single question like a machine. Master the small list of skills that are tested over and over again. In other words, do the stuff I teach you to do in this Black Book.
Give up the idea that the SAT tests college-related skills. We’d all like it to do that, but that isn’t what it does. Read Cicero if you want to, but it won’t help on the SAT much more than watching Sesame Street every morning.
Fact: The SAT is NOT a test of the skills you’ll need in college. The best way to approach the SAT is to attack it on a technical level and turn yourself into an SAT machine.
SAT Misconception 2: “Educated” guessing is a good idea.
I’ve already covered this one in some depth. In case you missed it, though, check out the section on guessing.
Fact: Guessing on the SAT is NOT a good idea.
SAT Misconception 3: Hard questions appear at the end of each group of questions.
On page 14 of The Official SAT Study Guide, this sentence appears:
Within a group of questions, . . . the easier ones come first and the questions become more difficult as you move along.
This is another one of those things everybody knows about the SAT that isn’t actually true. The College Board tells you it’s true. So do most major test-prep companies. But it isn’t—at least, it’s not always true, and it’s not true for every test-taker.
There are two ways I can prove that you won’t necessarily find the tenth question in a group more difficult than the first question. First, turn to any answer key page in the Official SAT Study Guide (the Blue Book) to see the difficulty levels that the College Board has assigned to all the questions for that sample test. You’ll see that it’s absolutely not true that every question is at least as difficult as the one before it. So that’s one way to disprove this misconception.
But there’s another, much better reason to ignore the idea of an order of difficulty on the SAT. The College Board assigns difficulty levels to questions based on how well other students do against the questions—for example, if most other people get a question right, the College Board decides it’s an easy question. That means that the difficulty ranking assigned by the College Board has nothing to do with the specific concepts in the question, and assumes that you’re exactly like the average test-taker, which you aren’t. Most test-takers don’t know how the test works, and don’t know how important it is to read everything carefully. But you do know that. Most won’t read this Black Book. But you will. So you’re better prepared for the test than the people who are used to determine the difficulty ranking, which means you’re likely to find that the difficulty ranking becomes increasingly meaningless to you.
So there are two major flaws with the idea of the difficulty ranking. First, the College Board doesn’t present questions in a strict rank order. Second, and, more importantly, the ranking system it uses is meaningless to a well-trained test-taker anyway.
Fact: Any given SAT question might be easy or hard for you, regardless of whether it appears early or late in a group of questions.
Misinformation From Colleges
Believe it or not, colleges don’t know that much about the SAT, even though they are the driving force that keeps it a popular test. After all, the latest changes to the SAT, which have made it more beatable than it ever was, were made largely at the request of the California University System—who thought they were turning the test into a better tool for measuring college-readiness, a tool that would be almost impossible to game. So be careful about what colleges say when it comes to the SAT.
SAT Misconception 4: Colleges don’t care about the SAT.
I was actually taking a tour of Princeton years ago when someone asked the admissions rep giving the tour what Princeton thought of the SAT. He said that Princeton didn’t care at all about a student’s SAT score.
We asked him to repeat himself, and he said again that a student’s SAT score didn’t matter to Princeton at all.
Now, I’m not ready to say this guy was lying. He knows more about Princeton’s admissions process than I do. But let’s look at some facts from Princeton’s own data.
Princeton’s own fact sheet for a recent entering class shows that the middle 50% of those admitted for that year were in the top 1 percentile of all SAT-takers. That’s awfully coincidental for a school that doesn’t care about SAT scores, isn’t it?
In addition, Princeton (like almost every other reputable school in America) takes the trouble of requiring students to submit SAT scores in the first place. Given that roughly 15,000 students apply to Princeton in a given year, let’s assume that it takes an average of one minute for someone to receive a score report in an application, process it for review, and pass it along to a decision-maker for final consideration in conjunction with the rest of an application (probably a low estimate, but go with me here). That would mean that Princeton spends approximately 250 hours every admissions cycle—basically a month and a half of 40-hour work weeks for one employee—gathering data that it doesn’t care about. Does that make any sense to you?
I’m only using Princeton as one example here. Lots of colleges tell their applicants they don’t care about the SAT—but if that’s true, why do the scores of their admitted applicants fall into such a narrow range every year? And why do they require you to submit scores from the SAT in the first place?
Fact: Colleges sure seem to spend a lot of time gathering SAT data from their students for it not to matter to them—and it’s very coincidental that every college’s pool of admitted students falls into a narrow SAT scoring band. The data suggest that most schools care about the SAT, even if they occasionally say otherwise.
Misinformation From Your Friends And Family
Now we’re getting into a sore area. Most students are willing to accept that the information they get from the outside world might not be that reliable. But now I’m going to start talking about bad information you might be getting from the people closest to you, and that can hit home.
So let me repeat something one more time: I’m not suggesting that your friends and family are lying to you on purpose, or that they’re out to make you score low on the SAT. I’m just saying that they might be misinformed, and when they try to pass their advice on to you it might not actually be any good. As always, take the time to verify any advice by going to the source—real sample tests from the College Board.
The advice you tend to get from friends and family is a hodge-podge of strategies, study tips, and who knows what else, so this section might seem a little scattered. Also, it’s just about impossible to cover all the rumors floating around out there, so I’m only going to point out some of the major ones.
SAT Misconception 5: SAT Math stuff is for math people, and SAT Verbal stuff is for verbal people.
You hear people complain about this all the time. “I can’t do well on the Math part of the SAT because I’m too creative,” they’ll say, or, “I’m too analytical to do well on subjective questions like Passage-Based Reading ones.”
This isn’t true at all. First of all, the human brain is too adaptable to be good at using only numbers or only words; if it weren’t, we’d never survive. Except in the rarest of cases, people are not strictly good at either math or language.
But more importantly, the sections on the SAT don’t really test Math and Reading skills, at least not in the way the people typically think of them. They just test general reasoning, using basic math and language concepts as the means to an end. In other words, the SAT Math Section isn’t a traditional math test, the SAT Critical Reading Section isn’t a traditional reading test, and the SAT Writing Section certainly isn’t a traditional writing test. So even if your brain were designed to do well on only math or only language, it wouldn’t matter on the SAT because the SAT doesn’t test either of those things directly anyway.
Want proof? Have you ever met someone who thought she was a “math person” who scored hundreds of points lower on the math section than on the other parts of the SAT? I meet people like this all the time. You might even be one of them.
If you are one of them, do yourself two favors. First, stop pigeon-holing yourself. You can be good at anything you want to be good at. Second, realize that the SAT isn’t really a math test or a language test, and just take it for what it is—a highly repetitive standardized test of basic skills and reasoning. Check out all the rules, patterns, and solutions in this Black Book. While they all involve paying careful attention to detail, not one of them rewards the kinds of skills that would be rewarded in the typical English, literature, or math class.
Fact: Anyone can do well on any part of the SAT—or on all of it—by attacking the test intelligently. That’s what this Black Book is all about.
SAT Misconception 6: Answer choices are distributed evenly throughout each section.
A lot of students have told me they changed their answers on the SAT because the answer choices they originally liked didn’t seem evenly distributed—it seemed like there were too many (A)s in a section, for example. When I ask them why they would worry about a thing like that, they say that somebody told them that the answer choices are always distributed evenly on the SAT.
This is partly true—over time, all the answer choices on the SAT are used equally. But within a particular section, the answer choices can be distributed quite unevenly. A particular section might clearly favor one, two, three, or four answer choices, or it might distribute its answer choices almost evenly. You never know.
Let’s prove it. Turn to page 432 in The Official SAT Study Guide. You’ll see an answer key from an actual SAT written by the College Board. Take a look at how often each answer choice appears in each section.
As you can see, there’s absolutely no way to predict how many times a given answer choice should appear in a given section. So don’t worry about the distribution of the answer choices you pick—just focus on trying to get every single question correct, and let the answer choices you select fall where they may.
Fact: Answer choices may or may not be distributed evenly on a given section. Don’t worry about it.
SAT Misconception 7: You can time the SAT to get a higher score.
Some people will tell you that you should take the SAT at a particular time of year to get the highest possible score. The theory is based on the fact that the SAT is a norm-based test, which means that when you take it you’re compared to other test-takers, not to some objective standard. So the idea is to try to take the test at the time of year when the people taking it with you are likely to do the worst.
This idea can’t possibly work, for a variety of reasons. The simplest reason is that you can’t predict when the weaker test-takers are more likely to take the test. Some people say they’re more likely to take the test late in the academic year, because they’re procrastinators. Some people think they take it early in their senior years so that they’ll just barely make the admissions cutoffs. But even if one of these theories could be proven (they can’t), you’d be ignoring the fact that the best test-takers are the ones who take the test often and early—and they’re likely to be in the mix at any given point. So even if there were a time of year when the weakest test-takers took the test, the strongest test-takers are just as likely to be out in full force on any given date as they are on any other.
And there are other problems with this idea as well. For instance, if it were true that a particular month reliably attracted the weakest test-takers, then word would quickly spread to all the super-competitive, obsessive test-takers, who would start taking the test that month in order to gain a supposed advantage, and end up canceling out that supposed advantage.
(Of course, there are also other, more technical reasons why this idea is doomed to failure—the sample size is too large, for one thing, and statistical norming doesn’t only take into account the people who take the test with you, for another. But don’t worry about that for now—just remember that you can’t time the test.)
Fact: It’s impossible to time the SAT for a variety of reasons. Just take it when it fits your schedule.
We’ve just gone through several common SAT misconceptions. There are a lot more of them out there—you’re certain to run across more of them as you continue to prepare. Just remember that you should always double-check everything you hear. You don’t want to get a lower score than you deserve because you followed some bad advice.