The SAT Prep Black Book

One Final Piece Of Advice
(Or: Every Question I’ve Ever Been Asked About The SAT Has Basically The Same Answer)

“The ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ‘ought to be.’”
- Richard Feynman

I’ve helped a lot of people with a lot of standardized tests, and in a lot of formats. This means I’ve also gotten a lot of questions from a very wide variety of test-takers. Most of the time those questions are very polite and sincere, but sometimes they’re downright accusatory—something along the lines of “You said I could use a certain strategy on this kind of question, but it didn’t work and my score went down. What are you, some kind of idiot?”

So I wanted to close this book with some words of advice and encouragement for students who are still struggling with some area of the SAT.

First, the advice: In literally every single instance that I can recall in which a student has become frustrated with an idea in this Black Book, the underlying issue has always—ALWAYS—been that the student has overlooked or misunderstood at least one important detail.

Let me say that again.

When you try to apply the ideas in this book to real SAT questions from the College Board and get frustrated by your inability to determine the correct answer reliably, the reason is just about always that you’ve misread or misunderstood some important detail somewhere.

So when you’re having a hard time with a question, whether during practice or on the actual day of the test, you must always, always, always assume that you’ve made a mistake somewhere, and then set out to find and correct that mistake. You need to develop an instinctive faith in the standardization of the test, and an assumption that, if something has gone wrong, it’s gone wrong in your own head, and you can fix it.

Let me also say, very clearly, that all of us—myself included—will run into situations in which we are completely certain that the test has finally made a mistake. No matter how convinced we may be that this is the case, we must remember that we’re actually the ones who’ve made the mistake, and we must go back and re-evaluate our decisions until we can figure out where we went wrong.

The most common type of mistake that I see students make is the general mistake of misreading something. Sometimes a question asks us to compare Passage 1 to Passage 2, but we choose the answer that compares Passage 2 to Passage 1 instead. Sometimes the question asks for the area and we find the perimeter. Sometimes we miss the word “not” in a Sentence Completion question and choose the antonym of the correct answer. Sometimes we overlook the word “positive” in a math question that describes a set of numbers. And so on.

At other times, we may think we know something that actually turns out to be wrong. Yesterday I was talking to a student who incorrectly thought that “taciturn” meant “peaceful” (this is the kind of misunderstanding that often comes from memorizing lists of vocabulary words, by the way). Until a couple of months ago, I though “pied” meant something like “famous” or “skillful,” because of the story The Pied Piper. But it turns out that “pied” just refers to clothing that’s made out of lots of different pieces of cloth stitched together, and I was completely wrong. Or a student might incorrectly think that zero is a prime number. These kinds of mistakes are harder to figure out during the actual moment of taking the test, because it’s usually not possible to realize that something you believe isn’t actually correct until after you’ve chosen the wrong answer and found out it’s wrong.

No matter what the mistake, though, it ultimately comes down to some specific detail (or details) of the question that you have gotten wrong in some way. When you get stuck, your first instinct must always be to re-read the question (and the relevant part of the passage or diagram, if there is one), taking absolutely nothing for granted and expecting that you’ll find out something is different from what you previously supposed. If you re-read a few times and still can’t identify your mistake, you have to be ready for the possibility that some definition that you think you know (whether it’s a word like “taciturn” or a word like “prime”) might actually be wrong. And you have to consider skipping the question altogether.

Now that I’ve finished with the advice, let me offer some encouragement. I know how hard it is to stare at a question and feel defeated. I know the frustration you feel when you’re sure you’ve answered a question correctly and you find out later that you were wrong. And I know that it’s tempting, in those moments, to reject what you’ve learned here and assume that the SAT really is unbeatable, like everybody says.

But I’m here to tell you that those moments of frustration are also the moments that offer the most opportunity for progress. When you’ve wrestled with a question for a while and then you finally figure out how it works and where you went wrong, you learn a tremendous lesson about the test, and about how you’ve been approaching it. And your score improves.

When you truly figure out a challenging question, you learn something that you’ll be able to apply on future questions, because the SAT is standardized. You also develop a stronger trust in the design of the test, which will help you in the future. More importantly, though, you can learn something about your own problem-solving process, because you can start to figure out what parts of the question kept you from understanding it correctly in the first place, and you can start to reflect on the process you used to uncover and correct that mistake, so that you can make that process much smoother in the future.

With the SAT, as with most areas of life, we make the most progress when we’re confronted with a difficult situation that we eventually overcome. Good luck!