The SAT Prep Black Book

Advice For Non-Native Speakers Of American English

“Knowledge, then, is a system of transformations that become progressively adequate.”
- Jean Piaget

The SAT involves a lot of reading, so it poses special challenges for students who aren’t native speakers of American English. There are some things we can do to overcome these challenges to some extent.

First, Focus On Questions In Which Language Is Not A Problem

Before we start worrying about building up your vocabulary or grammar knowledge, the most important thing—and the easiest—is to focus on eliminating mistakes in the questions that you can understand well enough to answer with confidence. It doesn’t make sense to try to learn a lot of big words if you haven’t reached a point where knowing the words actually helps you to answer a question. So master the strategies in this book as much as you can before you start trying to memorize stuff.

Next, Focus On “Testing” Vocabulary

Most non-native speakers try to memorize the same lists of words that native speakers try to memorize—and it’s just as big of a waste of time. Maybe even bigger.

Instead, focus on the kinds of words that come up often in the actual wording of the questions, rather than on words that seem exotic. For the Math section, learn words like “perimeter,” “vertex,” “quotient,” “median,” and so on. For Critical Reading, learn words like “undermine,” “assert,” “hypothesis,” “argument,” “preclude,” and “contradict”—the kinds of words that actually frame the questions themselves, rather than the words that might show up as answer choices on Sentence Completion questions.

These are the kinds of words that native speakers would normally have no problems with, but that non-native speakers may never have studied specifically. They are absolutely critical if we want to understand what the test is actually asking us—and, most importantly, they are words that you will definitely encounter over and over again as you practice and take the real test, which sets them apart from those 1,000-word lists that people memorize in the vain hope of improving their Sentence Completion performance significantly.

The best way to discover which parts of “testing” vocabulary need your attention is to mark particular words and phrases that you encounter in real practice questions—again, pay particular attention to the stems of the question rather than the answer choices, although “testing” vocabulary words can also appear in the answer choices. In general, you can distinguish “testing” vocabulary words from relatively useless vocabulary words because the “testing” words will tend to be re-used much more frequently within a given section than the kinds of exotic words that appear on commercial vocab lists. If you run into a word like “undermine” in 3 or 4 different Critical Reading questions and don’t feel like you know what it means, then it’s probably a good idea to go online and look up the translation into your native language.

Then Focus On SAT Grammar And SAT Style

Notice that I’m specifically advising you to focus on learning SAT grammar and SAT style, which are guaranteed to differ from the kinds of grammar and style you learned when you studied English in school.

This is an area in which you can actually exceed a lot of native speakers if you put in a little effort, because most American students never study English grammar anymore—they often can’t recognize parts of speech in a sentence. But if you’re a non-native speaker who plans to take the SAT, there’s a very good chance you’ve studied English extensively, so it will probably be easier for you to understand what the SAT rewards and punishes. You’ll have to make small tweaks to your understanding of “textbook” English to answer every Writing question on the SAT, but, again, those should be easy enough to take care of if you’ve been studying English for a while.

(By the way, before you worry too much about SAT grammar and style, you should make sure that your target schools even care about the Writing score in the first place. Some schools don’t think that the Writing part of the SAT is very valuable, and they may not consider it in their admissions decisions. You can often find out whether a school cares about that part of the test by looking at the school’s web site, or by calling the office directly. Also be aware that the school may pay more attention to the Writing scores of non-native English speakers than they would to those of American students. But if you find out that your target schools don’t care about the Writing section, then of course there’s no real point in getting better at that part of the test.)

Next, Consider The Essay

If the schools that you’re applying to are interested in the Writing score on the SAT, then you need to try to write the best essay you can. Remember that this is mostly a matter of length. But it’s also important to try to avoid too much awkward phrasing—a little bit of awkwardness doesn’t seem to hurt in most cases, but if you have a lot of it you increase the chance that an essay-grader will notice it and feel like he has to penalize your for it.

Also try to avoid using large words for their own sake. Remember that, in spite of the College Board’s essay rubric, the graders don’t care if your vocabulary is advanced. But if you use a lot of large words in a way that sounds forced and unnatural, you run the very real risk of making the grader think that your writing is awkward. So stick with the grammatical structures and the vocabulary that you’re sure of, and focus on getting the length and the organization of the essay right.

Finally, Worry About “Vocabulary” Questions (If You Must)

After you’ve made sure that you never miss a question when there’s no language barrier, and after you’ve beefed up your “testing” vocab, and after you’ve worked on the Writing section (assuming that your schools care about the Writing section) . . . only then would I maybe start trying to expand my vocabulary for Sentence Completion questions if I were you.

I know that it’s frustrating to look at a question and feel like the only reason you’re missing it is that it has words you don’t know, but you have to remember that memorizing words from a list is very unlikely to have a significant positive impact on that situation, for all the reasons that I mentioned when we talked about Sentence Completion questions. If your goal is to get the most points you possibly can—and that really should be your goal, of course—then you have to realize that you’ll probably have the easiest time picking up extra points by prioritizing things the way I’ve laid out here.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve found these tips useful. Remember that the SAT is a very unique test, but it’s also a very repetitive test, and even a very basic one in a lot of ways. By focusing on the issues I’ve pointed out above, you should hopefully be able to maximize your score without wasting your time on things that won’t really help you.