The SAT Prep Black Book
What Are The College Board’s Resources Good For?
“At the College Board, our mission is to connect students to college success.”
- Gaston Caperton, former President of the College Board
I talk a lot about how you need to use College Board materials when you study, especially the Blue Book. The College Board is the company that writes the SAT, and they’re the only source of real SAT questions, which are absolutely essential if you’re going to prepare intelligently.
But that doesn’t mean that you should take everything the College Board says about the SAT as the truth. Trusting them too much would be a huge mistake.
I keep telling you to practice with the Blue Book, which is the College Board publication The Official SAT Study Guide. But I don’t want you to listen to the College Board’s advice on test-taking, because it’s usually pretty bad. So I’ve written this section of the Black Book to explain exactly how you should use the College Board’s materials. You have to use them properly if you want to do your best.
The “Blue Book” (The Official SAT Study Guide)
The first thing we’ll look at is the proper way to use the College Board publication The Official SAT Study Guide. I’ve gone through the book page-by-page to explain the best way to approach it.
Third unnumbered page
The third unnumbered page of The Official SAT Study Guide contains a letter from Gaston Caperton, the President of the College Board. It includes this sentence:
The best preparation for the SAT, and for college, is to take challenging courses.
This is laughable.
You should take challenging courses because they help you become a better person. They don’t do anything at all to help you on the SAT, and it can be argued they don’t do anything to help you in college either. I would love it if they did, but they don’t.
Advanced courses will teach you to write well, for example, while the SAT will reward the sort of elementary, cookie-cutter writing that appears in our earlier discussion on the SAT Essay, and in the College Board’s own sample essay. Advanced courses will teach you higher math principles that will never appear on the SAT. Advanced courses will teach you to read and analyze a text like a literary critic, but the SAT will ask you to forego all subtlety and nuance and answer questions like a third-grader writing a book report.
The best way to prepare for the SAT is to get a bunch of sample tests written by the College Board and pull them apart on a technical level to see what they keep doing, and then learn how to do those things—and only those things—well. And that’s what the Black Book is all about.
Pages 3 – 6
These pages sketch out the format and background of the SAT and its development. You can read them if you want, but they’re pretty useless as far as doing well on the test is concerned.
Pages 6 – 8
These pages explain the way the test is scored, and tell you how to interpret your score report. You’ll definitely want to read them when you get your scores back, but if you haven’t taken the test yet you can skip them for now.
Pages 9 – 10
This section explains the College Board’s general theory about how you should prepare for the SAT.
Pages 10 – 11
This lays out the online resources that are available to you through the College Board’s web site.
Pages 12 – 13
You MUST read these pages before test day. They lay out the things you’ll need to take with you to the testing site.
Pages 13 – 15
You can pretty much ignore this part. You should especially ignore the part on page 14 that talks about the difficulty level of questions going from easy to hard within a section. (See the section of this book called “8 Things You Thought You Knew About The SAT Are Wrong.”)
Pages 15 – 17
These pages discuss the traditional guessing strategy. Skip them, and check out my section on SAT-guessing in the Black Book instead.
Pages 17 – 18
These pages give you the College Board’s take on test anxiety. It might be useful to read this if you’re looking for another perspective on the issue, but it isn’t necessary.
Pages 20 – 26
These pages explain how to use the PSAT. They’re useful as general information.
Pages 29 – 30
These pages give you the College Board’s general advice on how to approach the Critical Reading Section. You should ignore it.
Pages 31 – 43
This section gives you some sample Sentence Completion questions and lets you see the College Board’s approach to them. It’s different from the approach I recommend, and it doesn’t take you step-by-step through the process of completing any question.
Pages 44 – 48
These pages give you some sample Sentence Completion questions to practice on. Give them a shot if you want.
Pages 49 – 56
This section explains how the College Board suggests you approach Passage-Based Reading questions. You are STRONGLY cautioned to ignore these pages—they tell you to approach the questions subjectively, which is not only bad advice but would be an invalid basis for the design of a standardized multiple-choice test.
Pages 57 – 96
These pages give you some sample questions. The first questions also have sample responses. Give these a look if you want; you might find them useful for practice.
Pages 99 – 102
These pages introduce you to the Writing Section of the SAT. Ignore them.
Pages 103 – 108
These pages explain how the College Board thinks you should approach the essay part of the SAT. Ignore them. Make sure you especially ignore the scoring manual on page 105—instead, use the advice in this book.
Pages 105 – 119
These pages provide several useless writing exercises. Do them if you feel like it, but don’t expect them to help you on the SAT at all.
Pages 130 – 136
This section provides several sample essay responses. Compare them—and the sample essay responses that appear elsewhere in the book—to the scoring guide on page 105 and decide for yourself if that guide is any real indication of what scores high on the SAT.
Pages 137 – 139
These pages introduce the Identifying Sentence Errors questions, and give you the College Board’s advice for approaching them. Some of the advice is okay, like looking for the mistakes that commonly appear on the test. But other advice is probably not that helpful. For example, you’re advised to practice by reading sentences out loud—even though acceptable spoken English and acceptable written English are pretty different, and you won’t be able to read aloud on test day.
Pages 139 – 144
These pages give you a chance to practice rewriting sentences—something you’ll NEVER do on the SAT. This is pretty much a waste of your time.
Pages 145 – 152
This section gives you some sample questions to practice on. Go for it if you want.
Pages 153 – 154
This section introduces you to the Improving Sentences questions and gives you the College Board’s advice for these questions. As usual, you can ignore it.
Pages 154 – 160
These pages have more writing exercises on them, which are pretty much a waste of time as far as the SAT is concerned. Skip them, unless you feel like doing them for some non-SAT-related fun.
Pages 161 – 168
These pages have samples for the Improving Sentences questions. Do them if you feel like it; it can’t hurt.
Pages 169 – 170
This section introduces you to the Improving Paragraphs questions. Again, it gives some pretty poor advice for these questions.
Pages 170 – 177
This section provides even more writing exercises that won’t help you do multiple-choice questions at all.
Pages 178 – 188
These pages give you sample Improving Paragraphs questions to work on. It can’t hurt to practice with them if you feel like it.
Pages 189 – 214
These pages let you practice all the question types in the SAT Writing Section. Give them a shot if you feel like it. Make sure to check out the sample essays on pages 197 – 212, and remember to compare them to the scoring guide on page 105. You’ll see that high-scoring essays have several grammatical errors, and that the most reliable way to predict an essay’s score is to see how long it is.
Pages 216 – 225
These pages introduce you to the Math Section of the SAT, and give you the College Board’s ideas about the best way to approach it. You can skip this if you feel like it.
Pages 227 – 302
These pages take you through all the mathematical concepts you’ll need for the SAT. This section is similar in content to the Math Toolbox in this book, but the Toolbox is more simplified. If you don’t understand a concept after looking at the Toolbox list, or if you just want another explanation of something, then give this section a try. Just like the Toolbox, this part of The Official SAT Study Guide contains every single math concept you’ll need on the SAT.
Pages 303 – 304
These pages explain how the College Board thinks you should approach multiple-choice questions on the SAT. Ignore this advice, especially the part on guessing (see my advice on guessing earlier in the Black Book instead).
Pages 305 – 342
This section provides sample multiple-choice questions, some with explanations. Give them a shot.
Pages 343 – 346
You MUST read these pages. They’ll explain how to fill out the grids for the Student-Produced Response questions. They’ll also remind you that it’s okay to guess on these questions, because on these questions there’s no penalty for wrong answers.
Pages 347 – 364
These pages give you sample problems for the Student-Produced Response questions on the SAT. Try them if you feel like it.
Pages 365 – 376
This section gives you general math questions to practice with. Try them out.
Pages 377 – 889
These pages are the meat of the College Board’s book. They provide you with sample tests written by the test-maker, which you absolutely must use to get your score as high as possible.
The Official SAT Online Course
The College Board provides an online tool that you can use to get extra help on the test. It’s called the Official SAT Online Course, and you can access it from www.collegeboard.com. It has a variety of tools that you might find useful as you apply to college—sample tests, lessons, study planners, and so on. Use these if you want. The sample tests will be especially helpful as you search for more official SAT questions if you exhaust the ones from the Blue Book. The lessons and quizzes probably won’t do you too much good, but I guess they can’t hurt either apart from the time they take up.
You simply can’t prepare for the SAT effectively if you don’t use the sample tests and other resources provided by the College Board—the College Board is the only source of real SAT questions on the entire planet, and real SAT questions are essential to the preparation process.
But that doesn’t mean you should take everything the College Board says at face value! Much of their advice reflects what they wish the SAT were like, not what it actually is.