Getting Ready, Set, and Going: Preparing for the SAT - Surveying the Field: An Overview of the SAT - SAT For Dummies

SAT For Dummies

Part I

Surveying the Field: An Overview of the SAT

Chapter 2

Getting Ready, Set, and Going: Preparing for the SAT

In This Chapter

Tailoring SAT prep to your life

Making the most of the time remaining before the test

Handling last-minute nerves

Working effectively on the morning of the test

What? You’ve discovered how to tie your shoelaces and you still haven’t started to prepare for the SAT? Tsk, tsk. You’re in trouble. You should have begun to study in utero (before birth) by having your mother play vocabulary tapes next to her stomach. And all that time you wasted in kindergarten playing with blocks when you could have been studying square roots! You’ll have to give up sleeping to make up for lost time. And don’t even think about that party.

Does the preceding paragraph sound like the voice inside your head? If so, you need to take a deep breath and release that anxiety. SAT prep can start at many different points in your life and still be effective. In this chapter, you find long-term and short-term strategies for SAT prep, as well as medium-length prep for the Average Joe and Josephine. And for those of you who suddenly realized that The Test is next week, I provide a panic-button scenario. Lastly, I explain what to do to maximize your score the night before the test (speaking of panic) as well as the morning of SAT day.

Flying with the Early Bird: A Long-Range Plan

Okay, so you’re the type of person who buys summer clothes in December. (By the way, thanks a lot. Because of you, all the department stores feature bikinis when I’m trying to buy a sweater.) To put it another way, you’re not in diapers, but the test isn’t coming up within the next year. Congratulations. Check out the following long-range SAT prep plan:

Sign up for challenging courses in school. If you’re in high school, eschew (reject) courses such as “The Poetry of Greeting Cards” and “Arithmetic Is Your Friend.” Go for subjects that stretch your mind. Specifically, stick it out with math at least through Algebra II and Geometry. If high school is in your rearview mirror, check out extension or enrichment adult-ed courses.

If possible, take a vocabulary-rich course. When I say that a good vocabulary is key to SAT success, I’m not indulging in hyperbole (exaggeration). If your school offers classes with a lot of reading, go for them. Some schools even have whole courses devoted to vocabulary (mine has a course in Greek and Latin roots). These classes may not be as exciting as “Cultural Interpretations of Music Videos,” but they pay off.

Get into the habit of reading. Cereal boxes, Internet pop-up balloons, and 1,000-page novels — they’re all good, though they’re not all equal. The more you read, and the more difficult the material you read, the more your reading comprehension improves.

Do a daily crossword puzzle in your newspaper or check out Crossword Puzzle Challenges For Dummies by Patrick Berry (Wiley). I know. Crossword puzzles seem like a good way to become a candidate for Nerds Anonymous. But you can discover a lot by pondering(thinking deeply about) language on a daily basis. Plus, some people (me, for example) actually enjoy crossword puzzles. But then I never claimed to be anything other than a nerd.

Write letters or e-mails to the editor. The editor of anything. Find a point of view and start sending off your prose — to the school or local paper, to national magazines, to radio or television stations. The SAT essay calls upon you to make a case for your point of view. The more you get used to creating a written argument, the easier the essay will be. As a side benefit, you may have a civic impact.

Keep your math notebooks. Resist the urge to burn your geometry text the minute the last class is over. Keep your math notebooks and folders of homework papers. From time to time, go over the important concepts. The notebook may evoke (call to mind) the context in which you studied right triangles or square roots. For example, if you see a stain next to an explanation of factoring, it may take you back to that immortal day when Herbie threw a spitball at you while the teacher was working out a factoring problem on the board. If you’re mentally back in the class, you may find that you remember more of the mathematical explanation the teacher gave. (Of course, if you spent the rest of the class lobbing spitballs back at Herbie instead of paying attention, you’re out of luck. Turn to Part IV for a general math review.)

Look through the chapters in this book that explain the structure of each type of SAT question. When SAT day dawns, you shouldn’t be facing any surprises. Be sure that you’re familiar with the directions for each section so that you don’t have to waste time reading them during the actual exam.

Take all five practice exams in Part V of this book. After you identify your weak spots (not that you actually have any — just areas where you could be even more excellent), hit the practice chapters for the types of questions that bother you.

Take the PSAT/NMSQT. This “mini-SAT” gives you a chance to experience test conditions. It may also open the door to a pretty snazzy scholarship, the National Merit.

As the SAT approaches, you long-range planners can relax. You’re in a fine position to condescend (act superior) to all the goof-offs who didn’t even begin to think about the exam until junior year in high school. (What? You’re one of those goof-offs? Never fear. I offer you some hope and help in the next section.)

Hitting the Golden Mean: A Medium-Range Plan

In this category you’re conscientious but not obsessive. You have a bit less than a year before SAT day (in high school terms, you’re a junior), and you have a reasonable amount of time to devote to SAT prep. You’re in fine shape, though you may have to take some ribbing from the “I’ve got a career plan even though I’m not old enough for working papers” types. Here’s your strategy:

Do all you can to extract maximum vocabulary growth from your last school year before the SAT. Make friends with words. Listen to talk radio (the stations with on-air fundraisers, not the drive-by call-in shows that feature a hot discussion of the Yankees’ chances for a three-peat) or watch sophisticated talk shows on television (not the shows that feature oatmeal addicts and the men and women who love them). Take some thick books out of the library and use them for more than missiles to hurl at your annoying little sister. Peruse (read thoroughly, scrutinize) the newspaper every day, preferably one that stays away from extensive coverage of celebrity Botox.

Work on your writing. If your school offers an elective in nonfiction writing, go for it. Or volunteer to write for the school newspaper. Write letters or e-mails to the editor (see a fuller explanation in the section “Flying with the Early Bird: A Long-Range Plan”). Become comfortable with the sort of writing that makes a case for a particular point of view because that’s what you have to do on the SAT.

Get a math study-buddy. I’m not talking about a tutor. Yes, you can find out a lot from someone who dreams quadratic equations. But you can also profit from studying with someone who is on your own level of ability. As the two of you work together, solving problems and figuring out formulas, you can pound the knowledge firmly into your brain. All teachers know that you learn best what you have to explain to someone else. Plus, a study-buddy probably can explain what he or she knows in a different way. If the teacher’s explanation didn’t do it for you, your friend’s may.

Resurrect your Algebra II book or borrow one from a friendly math teacher. Look through the chapters that made you tear your hair out the first time you went through the book. Refresh your memory with a sample problem or two.

Look through SAT For Dummies, 8th Edition. Read the explanations of each type of question. Be sure that you know the directions and format by heart.

Take one of the practice exams in Part V of this book. After you know which sort of question is likely to stump you, do all the relevant practice questions.

Take the PSAT/NMSQT. You can’t pass up a chance to experience the exam in its native habitat (a testing center), even if the test is shorter than the real SAT.

If you follow this plan, you Golden Meaners should be in fine shape for the SAT. (I refer to the ancient Greek ideal, the Golden Mean, also known as the perfect middle. If this expression makes you say, “It’s all Greek to me,” you may want to read some Greek mythology. References to those stories show up all the time on the SAT.)

Controlling the Panic: A Short-Range Plan

The SAT is next month or (gulp!) next week. Not ideal, but not hopeless either. Use the following plan to get through it alive:

Read Chapter 1 of this book carefully. Find out what sort of questions are on the exam and when guessing is a good idea. Take a quick look at the chapters that explain each type of question.

Do one complete practice exam from Part V. Yes, I know. Nearly four good hours gone forever. But you should hit one exam, just so you know what the SAT experience is like.

Work on at least some of the practice questions for all your trouble spots. Obviously, the more practice the better, but even a little can go a long way in SAT prep.

Clear the deck of all unnecessary activity so you can study as much as possible. I don’t recommend that you skip your sister’s wedding (or your physics homework), but if you can put something off, do so. Use the extra time to hit a few more practice questions.

Should you take an SAT prep course?

Complete this sentence: SAT prep courses

(A) don’t make a huge difference in your score

(B) employ Ivy League graduates who are paying off college loans until their film deals come through

(C) provide jobs for unemployed doctoral candidates finishing dissertations on the sex life of bacteria

(D) keep underpaid high school teachers from total penury (poverty)

(E) are great places to pick up prom dates

The answer: All of the above. I won’t explain (B) through (E), because unless you’re desperate for a prom partner, you’re probably interested only in (A). The company that makes the SAT has studied the effects of SAT prep courses and found that in general they have a minimal effect on your score — about 10 points for verbal and 15 to 20 points for math. A few long-term courses do make a slightly bigger difference (25 to 40 points combined verbal and math), but because you have to devote 40-plus hours to them, you get approximately one extra point per hour of study. Not a very efficient use of your time! You’ve already proved your brilliance by purchasing SAT For Dummies, 8th Edition. If you work your way through the book with some care, you’ll have done enough.

I teach seniors, and every year I see at least a couple of students put themselves in danger of failing English 12 because they’re spending all their homework time on SAT prep. Bad idea. Yes, you want to send good scores to the colleges of your choice, but you also want to send a decent high school transcript. Prepare for the test, but do your homework too.

Snoozing through the Night Before

No matter what, don’t study on SAT day minus one. The only thing that last-minute studying does is make you more nervous. What happens is simple: The closer you get to test day, the more you take notice of the stuff you don’t know. On the eve of the test, every unfamiliar vocabulary word is outlined in neon, as is every obscure (not well known, hidden) math formula. And every time you find something that you didn’t know — or forget something that you did know at one time — your heart beats a little faster. Panic doesn’t equal a good night’s sleep, and eight solid hours of snoozing is the best possible prep for three-plus hours of multiple-choice questions.

Also, resist the urge to call your friends who are also taking the test. Chances are they’re nervous. The old saying, “Misery loves company,” definitely applies to the SAT. Instead, place everything you need on The Morning in one spot, ready and waiting for use. Lay out some comfortable clothes, preferably layers. If the test room is too cold, you want to be able to add a sweater. If it’s too hot, you may find removing a jacket or sweater helpful without getting arrested for indecent exposure.

After you set up everything for SAT day, do something that’s fun . . . but not too much fun. Don’t hit the clubs or party down with your friends. Find an activity that eases you through the last couple of pre-SAT waking hours. Go to sleep at a reasonable hour (after setting your alarm clock) and dream of little, penciled ovals patting you gently on the shoulder.

Getting there is half the fun

On the morning of the SAT, what should you avoid more than anything?

(A) a relaxing session of your favorite cartoons

(B) a two-hour detour on the road to the test center

(C) a kiss from Grandma

(D) a slurp from your dog

(E) a swim with your pet goldfish

The answer is (B). Did you ever watch an old sitcom on television, one with a pregnancy plotline? Inevitably the mad dash to the hospital is lengthened by a detour, a traffic jam, or a wrong turn. On SAT day, you don’t want to be in that old sitcom. Make sure that your journey to the test center is event-free. Try the route there at least once before test day, preferably at the same time and on the same day of the week (that is, Saturday morning, unless you’re taking the test on Sunday because of religious observances) so you know what sort of traffic to expect. Leave the house with plenty of time to spare. The idea is to arrive rested and as relaxed as someone who is facing 200-plus minutes of test can be.

Sailing through SAT-Day Morning

SAT day isn’t a good time to oversleep. Set the alarm clock and ask a reliable parent/ guardian/friend to verify that you’ve awakened on time. If you’re not a morning person, you may need a few additional minutes. Then, no matter how nutritionally challenged your usual breakfast is, eat something healthful. Unless it upsets your stomach, go for protein (eggs, cheese, meat, tofu, and so on). Stay away from sugary items (cereals made primarily from Red Dye No. 23, corn syrup, and the like) because sugar gives you a surge of energy and then a large chunk of fatigue. If you think you’ll be hungry during the morning, throw some trail mix, fruit, or other noncandy snacks into your backpack. Then hit the road for the test center.

If disaster strikes — fever, car trouble, little brother’s arrest — and you can’t take the SAT on the appointed day, call the College Board and request that they transfer your fee to the next available date.

Bringing the right stuff

Be sure to have these items with you:

Admission ticket for the SAT: Don’t leave home without it! You can’t get in just by swearing that you “have one at home on top of the TV.”

Photo identification: The SAT accepts drivers’ licenses, school IDs, passports, or other official documents that include your picture. The SAT doesn’t accept Social Security cards or library cards. If you’re not sure what to bring, ask your school counselor or call the College Board directly.

No. 2 pencils: Don’t guess. Look for the No. 2 on the side of the pencil. Take at least three or four sharpened pencils with you. Be sure the pencils have usable erasers or bring one of those cute pink rubber erasers you used in elementary school.

Calculator: Bringing a calculator is optional. You don’t absolutely need a calculator to take the SAT, but it does help on some questions. A four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator is acceptable. Anything with a keyboard (a minicomputer, in other words), a phone, or a handheld PDA (personal digital assistant) is barred, as are electronic writing pads and devices that use a stylus to input information. So is any device that needs to be plugged in or that makes noise. If you’re the type of person who wears both suspenders and a belt, just in case one fails, bring a backup calculator and extra batteries. Also, be sure to bring a calculator that you’ve used before. Test day isn’t the time to acquaint yourself with a new device!

Handkerchief or tissue: I add this one because as an experienced proctor, I know that absolutely nothing is more annoying than a continuous drip or sniffle. Blow your nose and do the rest of the room — and yourself — a favor!

Watch: In case the wall clock is missing, broken, or out of your line of vision, a watch is crucial. Don’t bring one that beeps because the proctor may take it away if it disturbs other test takers.

After you arrive at the test center, take out what you need and stow the rest of the stuff in a backpack under your seat. Don’t forget to turn off your cellphone or beeper, if you have one.

The test proctor doesn’t allow scrap paper, books, and other school supplies (rulers, compasses, highlighters, and so on) in the test room, so be sure to leave these items behind. Also, no iPods or other music devices. You have to swing along to the tune inside your head.

Handling test tension

Unless you have ice cubes where everyone else has emotions, you’re probably nervous when you arrive at the test center. Try a couple of stretches and head shakes to dispel (chase away) tension. During the exam, wriggle your feet and move your shoulders up and down whenever you feel yourself tightening up. Some people like neck rolls (pretend that your neck is made of spaghetti and let your head droop in a big circle). If you roll your neck or move your head to either side, however, be sure to close your eyes. Don’t risk a charge of cheating. Just like an Olympic diver preparing to go off of the board, take a few deep breaths before you begin the test and anytime during the test when you feel nervous or out of control.

You get one break per hour, which you probably want to spend in the bathroom or out in the hallway near the test room. During breaks, stay away from your fellow test victims, including your best friend. You don’t want to hear someone else’s version of the right answer. (“Everything in Section 2 was (B)! I got negative 12 for that one! You didn’t? Uh oh.”) If you like pain, allow yourself to talk over the test with your friends after the whole thing’s over — great SAT-day night date talk, if you never want to see your date again. After you finish the exam, you can obsess about wrong answers until the cows come home. (Where do cows go? To the mall? To the office? I’m from New York City, so the only cows I see are pictures on milk cartons.)

Starting off

The test proctor distributes the booklets with, I always think, a vindictive thump. (Vindictive means “seeking revenge,” the sort of attitude that says, “Ha, ha! You’re taking this awful test and I’m not! Serves you right!”) Before you get to the actual questions, the proctor instructs you how to fill in the top of the answer sheet with your name, date of birth, Social Security number, registration number, and so forth. Your admission ticket has the necessary information. You also have to copy some numbers from your test booklet onto the answer sheet. You must grid in all those numbers and letters. Filling in bubbles with a pencil is such a fun way to spend a weekend morning, don’t you think?

Don’t open the test booklet early. Big no-no! You’ll be sent home with a large C (for Cheater) engraved on your forehead. Just kidding about the forehead, but not kidding about the sent-home part. The proctor can can (no, not can-can) you for starting early, working after time is called, or looking at the wrong section.

The proctor announces each section and tells you when to start and stop. The proctor probably uses the wall clock or his/her own wristwatch to time you. When the proctor says that you’re starting at 9:08 and finishing at 9:33, take a moment to glance at the watch you brought. If you have a different time, reset your watch. Marching to a different drummer may be fun, but not during the SAT. You want to be on the same page and in the same time warp as the proctor.

Focusing during the test

Keep your eyes on your own paper, except for quick glimpses at your watch. No, I’m not just saying so because cheating is bad and you’ll get busted. Keeping your eyes where they belong is a way to concentrate on the task at hand. If you glance around the room, I guarantee you’ll see someone who has already finished, even if only three nanoseconds have elapsed since the section began. You’ll panic: Why is he finished and I’m only on Question 2? He’ll get into Harvard and I won’t! You don’t need this kind of idea rattling around in your head when you should be analyzing the author’s tone in passage three.

If your eye wants to run around sending signals to your brain like I glimpsed number 15 and it looks hard, create a window of concentration. Place your hand over the questions you’ve already done and your answer sheet over the questions you haven’t gotten to yet. Keep only one or two questions in eye range. As you work, move your hand and the answer sheet, exposing only one or two questions at a time.

You aren’t allowed to use scrap paper, but you are allowed to write all over the test booklet. If you eliminate a choice, put an X through it. If you think you’ve got two possible answers but aren’t sure which is best, circle the ones you’re considering. Then you can return to the question and take a guess. (See Chapter 1 for a full explanation of when to guess and when to skip.)

I had an uncle who always buttoned his sweater so that he had two extra buttonholes left at the bottom. As you grid in your answers, avoid ending up like my uncle. When you choose an answer, say (silently, to yourself), “The answer to number 12 is (B).” Look at the answer sheet to be sure you’re on line 12, coloring in the little (B). Some people like to answer three questions at a time, writing the answers in the test booklet and then transferring them to the answer sheet. Not a bad idea! The answer sheet has alternating stripes of shaded and nonshaded ovals, three questions per stripe. The color helps you ensure that you’re putting your answers in the correct spot. Take care not to run out of time, however. Nothing from your test booklet counts; only the answers you grid in add to your score.

Pacing yourself

The SAT makers do all kinds of fancy statistical calculations to see which questions fool most of the people most of the time, and which are the equivalent of “How many points are awarded for a three-point field goal?” (That was an actual question on an athlete’s final exam in one college, no kidding. Needless to say the athlete was considered a top prospect for the school’s basketball team.) After the test makers know which questions are easy, medium, and hard, they place them more or less in that order on the exam (except on the reading comprehension passages). What this means is that as you move through a particular section, you may find yourself feeling more and more challenged. What this also means is that you should be sure to answer (and grid in) everything from the beginning of a section. As you approach the end, don’t worry so much about skipping questions. You get the same amount of credit (one point) for each right answer from the “easy” portion of the test as you do for a correct response in the “hard” section.

When you talk about easy and hard, one size doesn’t fit all. A question that stumps 98 percent of the test takers may be a no-brainer for you. So look at everything carefully. Don’t assume that you can’t answer a question at the end of a section; nor should you assume that you know everything in the beginning and panic if you don’t.

Should you take the PSAT/NMSQT?

Complete this sentence: The PSAT/NMSQT is

(A) what you see on the bottom of the bowl when you don’t eat all the alphabet soup

(B) the noise you make slurping the aforementioned soup

(C) a test that prepares you for the SAT and screens scholarship applicants

(D) the average tile selection when I play word games

(E) a secret government agency that investigates music downloads from the Internet

The answer is (C). The PSAT used to be short for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, back when the initials SAT actually meant something. Now PSAT just means Pre-SAT. The NMSQT part still stands for something — National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Though it has a two-part name, the PSAT/NMSQT is just one test, but it performs both the functions described in Choice (C). If you’re a super brain, the PSAT/NMSQT may move you into the ranks of semifinalists for a National Merit Scholarship, a prestigious (high-status) scholarship program. You don’t have to do anything extra to apply for a National Merit Scholarship. Just take the test, and if you make the semifinals, the National Merit Scholarship Program sends you an application. Even if you think your chances of winning a scholarship are the same as Bart Simpson’s passing the fourth grade, you should still take the PSAT/NMSQT. The PSAT changed along with the SAT and mirrors the SAT, though the PSAT is slightly shorter and doesn’t include an essay. Taking the PSAT gives you a feel for the SAT itself — the test conditions, the format, and (I hate to admit) the pressure.