The SAT Prep Black Book
Certainty And The SAT
“One must verify or expel his doubts, and convert them into the certainty of Yes or No.”
- Thomas Carlyle
I’ve spent more hours than I can count helping my students raise their SAT scores, and all of that time has made me realize that there is a serious problem blocking most SAT-takers from realizing their full potential.
It’s not a problem that has to do with strategy, memorization, timing, focus, or anything like that. This problem is at the root of the very nature of the SAT itself. And if you don’t come to terms with it, your score can only be mediocre at best.
The problem is that the SAT only gives you one correct answer choice for each question, and this correct answer choice is totally, definitively, incontrovertibly the correct answer—there are no arguments to be made against it (once we know the test’s rules).
But a lot of students never realize this. In this book, I talk a lot about all the specific ways that the SAT is different from tests you take in high school. But I really want to pound this one difference into your head, because it will affect every single thing you do as you prepare for the test.
So I’m saying it again—read closely:
SAT Multiple-Choice questions always have ONE, and only ONE, correct answer. Furthermore, the issue of which answer choice is the correct one is absolutely beyond disagreement. As surely as 2 and 2 make 4, and not 5 or 3, every single SAT question can only be correctly answered in one way.
A Real-Life Example
Why is this such a big deal, you ask?
Imagine this common high school situation, which you’ve probably been through yourself. Your history teacher is going over the answers to a multiple-choice test with you. It’s a test he wrote himself, and he wrote it just for your class. And as he’s going through the test, he tells you that the answer to number 9 is choice (D). Half the class groans—they all marked (B). One of the students who marked (B) raises her hand and makes a convincing argument as to why she should get credit for marking (B). She explains that if you read the question a certain way, (B) and (D) are equally good answers. The teacher, who wants to be open-minded and fair, reconsiders the question, and decides that it’s poorly written. In light of the student’s argument, he can understand why (B) might have looked like the right answer. And, because he’s fair, he announces that he’ll give equal credit for both (B) and (D).
That sort of thing happens every day in high schools all across the country. It’s the natural result of a system in which teachers have to write their own classes’ exams, and don’t have enough time to proof-read them or even test them out on sample classes in advance. Inevitably, some poorly written questions get past the teacher. The teacher corrects the problem later by giving credit as necessary, throwing questions out, or whatever.
What message does this send to students? Unfortunately, students come to believe that the answers to all tests are open for discussion and debate, that all questions are written by stressed-out teachers who work with specific students in mind, that any question is potentially flawed and open to interpretation.
Then, when these students take the SAT, things get crazy. They can never settle on anything, because they’ve been taught that the proper approach to a multiple-choice test is to look for any way at all to bend every answer until it’s correct. They mark wrong answers left and right—usually they manage to eliminate one or two choices, and then the rest all seem equally correct, so they take a stab at each question and move on to the next.
As we know from our discussion on guessing, most of these students are wrong way more often than they think, and they lose a lot of points.
And the thing of it is, they never even realize what’s holding them back.
Two Key Realizations
If you’re going to do well on the SAT, you have to realize two things. First, you have to know that the SAT is a totally objective test, and that every single question has only one right answer. This is not like a test you take in high school. Those tests are written by one or two people, usually with very little review. The SAT, on the other hand, is written by teams of people. Before a question appears on the SAT, it’s been reviewed by experts and tested on real test-takers. SAT questions are basically bullet-proof. No matter how much it might seem otherwise, every question on the SAT has only one good answer. You can’t approach it like you approach a high school multiple-choice test, where anything goes and you’ll get a chance to argue your point later on.
Once you come to accept that, the second thing you have to realize is that you—specifically YOU, the person reading this right now—can find the answer to every SAT question if you learn what to look for. You can. And with the right practice, you will.
So let’s wrap this whole thing up nice and simple:
1. The only way to do really well on the SAT is to mark the correct answer to most of the questions on the test.
2. The only reliable way to mark the correct answer consistently is to be able to identify it consistently.
3. Before you can identify the correct answer consistently, you have to know and believe that there will always be one correct answer for every question—if you’re open to the possibility that more than one answer will be correct, you won’t be strict about eliminating answers by using the rules and patterns of the test.
4. Most students never realize this, and as a result they never maximize their performance. Instead, they treat the SAT like a regular high school test, which is a huge mistake for the reasons we just discussed.
Now that we’ve established this very important concept, we have to talk about something that comes up often in testing situations . . .
What Do You Do When It Looks Like There Might Be Two Right Answers To A Question?
Even though you know there can only be one answer to every SAT question, there will be times on the test when you think more than one answer might be correct. It happens to everybody. It happens to me, and it will happen to you. When it does happen, you must immediately recognize that you’ve done something wrong—you missed a key word in the question, you left off a minus sign, something like that.
There are two ways to fix this situation. One way is to cut your losses and go on to the next question, planning to return to the difficult question later on, when your head has cleared. This is what I usually do.
The second way is to keep working on the difficult question. Try and figure out what might be causing the confusion while the question is still fresh in your mind, and resolve the issue right then and there. I’m not such a big fan of this one because I tend to find that things are clearer to me when I return to a question after skipping it. But some people find that moving on without answering a question just means they have to familiarize themselves with it all over again when they come back, and they prefer to stay focused on a particular question until they either find the right answer or decide to give up on it for good.
To see which type of person you are, just do what comes naturally, and experiment a little bit with both approaches.
The main thing to remember, for every question, is that there is only one correct answer. If we read a question and we think we see more than one possible answer to a question, we’re wrong. That’s it—no discussion.
To become successful on the SAT, you MUST realize that every multiple-choice question on the SAT has exactly one correct answer, and you must train yourself to find the correct answer every time. This isn’t a regular high school test. Don’t treat it like one.
(I realize, of course, that every once in a while an SAT question is successfully protested. This happens with such rarity that it’s best to proceed as though it never happened at all. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor every SAT question you ever see being totally objective and valid.)