The SAT Prep Black Book
Frequently Asked Questions
I thought it would be a good idea to start the book with a section of Frequently Asked Questions, since certain issues and feedback seem almost universal. So let’s dive right in.
How long will I need to practice?
There is no set amount of time that every student should plan to spend practicing. It varies heavily from person to person. Your goal should be to develop a deep understanding of the way the SAT works, not to log an arbitrary number of practice hours. For more on this, see the section called “Things To Think About For Scheduling” in the chapter called “How To Train For The SAT—Mastering The Ideas In This Book.”
Where did you learn these strategies?
I didn’t “learn” these strategies in the sense of having some book or tutor explain them to me. I developed them on my own based on my own reasoning and analysis of the test. Over the years, I have refined both the strategies themselves and the way that I teach them to students. For more on my background and the way it has informed my test-prep training, please see the relevant articles on my blog at www.TestingIsEasy.com.
What’s the best way to start implementing your strategies?
The best way to get started is generally to learn the strategies in an abstract way first, and then to see several sample solutions that implement the strategies against real College Board questions. Finally, it’s important to try to implement the strategies yourself, and to try to figure things out on your own as much as you can when you get stuck. For more ideas on specific drills and exercises, please see the “Drills And Exercises” section in the chapter called “How To Train For The SAT—Mastering The Ideas In This Book.” For a selection of videos that demonstrate the ideas in this book, please visit www.SATprepVideos.com (those sample videos are free to readers of this book).
Do these strategies work on the ACT? What about on the SAT Subject Tests?
All well-designed standardized tests must follow certain rules and patterns when they create their test questions—otherwise the tests wouldn’t be standardized. But those particular rules and patterns don’t have to be the same for every standardized test. ACT questions have their own standardized design elements that are different from those of SAT questions but still fairly similar to them. The SAT Subject Tests have the added wrinkle of involving a bit more subject-matter knowledge in most cases.
So the short answer is that the specific strategies in this book are aimed at the SAT in particular. Some will work fairly well on other tests, and some won’t. But the general idea of analyzing a standardized test in terms of rules and patterns can still be applied successfully against the ACT and the SAT Subject Tests.
What if I want to score a 2400? What if I only need to score a 1500 (or 1800, or 2000, or whatever)?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to use different strategies to reach different score levels, because the design of the SAT is constant. It would be more accurate to say that in order to score a 2400 you need to be roughly 99% accurate in your execution of the SAT strategies in this Black Book, while in order to score an 1800 you must be roughly 80% accurate, and in order to score a 1500 you must be a little less than 50% accurate, and so on.
So scoring higher isn’t a question of learning separate strategies; it’s a question of how accurate you are when applying a fixed set of strategies.
What if I can’t get the strategies to work?
Most students experience difficulty with some of these strategies at some point in their preparation, even if the difficulty is only limited to a specific practice question.
This can be frustrating, of course, but it’s actually a great opportunity to improve your understanding of the test, because the experience of figuring out how to overcome these temporary setbacks can be very instructive if we let it.
When a strategy doesn’t seem to work against a particular question, the first thing to do is to make sure that the practice question is a real SAT question from the College Board. The next thing is to verify that you haven’t misread the answer key—I can’t tell you how many times a student has reported struggling with a question for a long time, only to realize that he had misread the answer key, and that the correct answer would have made sense the whole time.
Assuming that you’re looking at a real College Board question, and assuming that you haven’t misread the answer key, the next thing to consider is whether the strategy you’re trying to apply is really relevant to the question. Sometimes people mistakenly try to apply a strategy for the Improving Sentences questions to an Identifying Sentence Errors question, for instance.
If you’re pretty sure the strategy you’re trying to apply really should work on a particular question, then the issue is probably that you’ve overlooked some key detail of the question, or that you’ve misunderstood a word or two somewhere in the question. At this point, it can be a very useful exercise to start over from square one and go back through the question word-by-word, taking nothing for granted and making a sincere effort to see the question with new eyes.
If you do this well, you’ll probably be able to figure out where you went wrong and why the question works the way it does. If you make an effort to incorporate the lessons from this experience into your future preparation, then it can be tremendously beneficial to your performance on test day.
On the other hand, if you keep staring at the question and you still can’t figure out what the issue is, then I would recommend that you move on to something else for a while—but do make sure you come back to the troubling question at some point and try to work it out, because the standardized nature of the SAT makes it very likely that any troubling strategic issues you run into during practice will reappear on test day, in one form or another.
Which practice books should I buy?
I designed this book so you would only need “the Black Book and the Blue Book”—just this book, and the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide, which you can get here: http://www.SATprepBlackBook.com/blue-book. You can also sometimes find copies in the school library or in a local library, but those might have other people’s work in them already, so I don’t recommend doing it that way.
I’m having a hard time visualizing some of your techniques. What can I do?
Visit www.SATprepVideos.com, where I’ve made some sample video solutions available for free to readers of this book, to help you visualize some things more clearly.
Which vocabulary words should I memorize?
I would say that you shouldn’t memorize any, at least not in the traditional sense of that idea. As I mention in the section on Sentence Completion questions, vocabulary isn’t the main obstacle for most test-takers. The main obstacle for most test-takers is that they don’t know how the questions work in the first place, and that they don’t follow the test’s rules and patterns closely. This is one of several reasons why so many people who memorize hundreds of so-called “SAT words” complain that it hasn’t helped their scores. (See the section in this book on Sentence Completion questions for more on this.)
But it can be very useful to learn how the College Board uses words like “humor,” “argument,” “undermine,” and so on. These kinds of words aren’t on most people’s minds when they talk about learning vocabulary for the SAT, because they don’t typically appear as answer choices on Sentence Completion questions. Instead, these words tend to appear in Passage-Based Reading questions, and they can cause you to miss questions if you don’t know the specific ways the College Board uses them. (For more on that, please see the chapter on Passage-Based Reading questions.)
I know you say that the answer to each question is always spelled out on the page, but I found a question where that’s not the case. Now what?
I completely understand that there are some questions where the answer doesn’t seem to be on the page somewhere, but I promise you that the issue is always—always—some error on the part of the test-taker, not on the part of the test. (This assumes that you’re working with a real SAT question published by the College Board, of course. Fake questions from other companies don’t have to follow any rules, and the strategies in this book—the strategies for the real SAT—do not typically apply to fake questions written by companies like Kaplan, Princeton Review, McGraw-Hill, and so on. That’s why it’s so important to have a copy of the Blue Book.)
So if you think you’ve found a real SAT question that doesn’t follow the rules, you need to try to figure out where you’ve gone wrong. It may be that you haven’t read some critical part of the text, or that you misread it, or that you misread an answer choice. It may be that some of the words on the page don’t actually mean what you think they mean. It may be a combination of all of the above, or even something else. But, somewhere in there, you’ve made a mistake.
I know it can be frustrating to hunt back through the question and the text to find your mistake, but I strongly advise you to do it, especially if your goal is to score really high. The process of figuring out your mistake will help you understand the test much better and greatly improve your future performance. (For more on these ideas, see the chapters called “How To Train For The SAT—Mastering The Ideas In This Book,” “The Nature Of Elite Scores,” and “The Importance Of Details: Avoiding ‘Careless Errors’.”)
I like my answer to a question better than the College Board’s answer. What should I do about that?
It’s normal to feel like the College Board has done a bad job of deciding the correct answer to one of its own questions. But we have to work very hard to overcome that feeling. We need to understand that the SAT isn’t really a test of reading ability; it’s a standardized test with questions and answers that can be reliably predicted because they follow certain rules and patterns.
So your job isn’t really to find the answer choice that seems most satisfactory to you. Your job is to ask yourself, “Which choice will the SAT reward, based on the rules it follows for these questions?”
What do I do for questions about tone and mood, or about the author’s attitude?
Questions about tone and mood should be treated just like any other Passage-Based Reading question, even though they might seem like they require us to interpret the text. For more on these questions, please see the part of this book called “What About ‘Tone, Mood, And Attitude’ Questions?”
Which math formulas are most important for the SAT?
If I had to pick, I would say that the formulas related to triangles, rectangles, and circles seem to me like they come up most often, in addition to the rules about complementary and supplementary angles, transversals, and so on.
But that answer is kind of misleading, for two reasons:
oAll the geometry formulas you’ll need for the SAT Math section are included in the beginning of each SAT Math section, so it’s not like you’ll need to memorize how to find the area of a circle or anything.
oIn general, the best approach to the SAT Math section is to resist the use of formulas wherever possible.
For more on the right way to approach SAT Math, please see the SAT Math section in this book.
Which type of calculator should I use?
In general, I would recommend that you use the calculator that makes you feel the most confident on test day. It’s also important to remember that there’s very little a calculator can do for you on the SAT, because the challenge with most SAT Math questions comes down to figuring out which basic math concepts are involved in the question, not doing some kind of complicated calculation. For more, see the section of this book that deals with SAT Math.
I found a question that requires trigonometry, and you said I would never need to use trig. What gives?
There are no questions on the SAT 1 that require the use of trig. If you think you’ve found a real SAT 1 question from the College Board that can only be solved by using the sine, cosine, or tangent functions from trig, then there is something in the question that you’ve overlooked or misunderstood. I would strongly advise you to keep analyzing the question until you can figure out a solution that wouldn’t require you to know trig, because the experience of figuring that out can be one of the most productive and effective ways to improve your understanding performance on the SAT. See the section of this Black Book called “The Importance Of Details: Avoiding ‘Careless Errors.’”
I tried to apply your strategy of answering questions based only on the similarities among the answer choices, and it didn’t work. Why not?
That pattern can’t be used to predict the correct answer to a question 100% of the time, as I explain in the section of this book that covers SAT Math. It’s a strong general tendency, not an absolute rule. So instead of using these general answer choice patterns to answer questions outright, we want to see them primarily as indicators of the issues that need to be resolved when answering the question, and we want to be aware that the elements that appear most frequently in the answer choices are very likely to be the elements of the correct answer, but that there are no guarantees. When you consider the similarities and differences among a set of answer choices, the final determination as to the correct answer needs to be based primarily on your understanding of basic math and the design of the SAT. See the section on SAT Math for more on that, especially the sample solutions.
I found a question where the right answer doesn’t follow the rules of grammar. How can that be?
Remember that the College Board isn’t necessarily following the grammar rules that you learned in school, or even the rules that native speakers follow when they speak. Instead, the College Board has its own set of grammar rules. While those rules largely overlap with the current grammar of American English, there are some points where they differ sharply. Remember that your goal on the Writing section isn’t to make them sound good to you, but to figure out which answer choice the College Board will reward based on the rules and patterns it follows. For more on this, see the parts of this book that deal with the SAT Writing Multiple Choice questions.
What should I do if I can’t think of good examples for the SAT Essay?
Remember that it’s okay to use personal examples, and that you’re not penalized for using examples that are factually inaccurate. In other words, you can make up any kind of example you feel like, and tailor it to the exact needs of your argument. For more on this, please see the section of this book that deals with the SAT Essay.
I found a question where the right answer wasn’t the shortest answer. Now what?
The shortest answer to an Improving Sentences question will be the correct answer if it’s grammatically acceptable to the College Board. If you’ve found a question where the shortest answer choice is not correct, then it must contain a grammatical flaw, at least in the eyes of the College Board—remember that “SAT grammar” isn’t always the same as American English grammar. For more on the rules of “SAT grammar,” see the part of this book that covers the SAT Writing Multiple Choice section, and the Appendix.