Cracking the SAT: Basic Principles - Orientation - Cracking the New SAT with 4 Practice Tests, 2016 Edition

Cracking the New SAT with 4 Practice Tests, 2016 Edition (2015)

Part I. Orientation

Chapter 2. Cracking the SAT: Basic Principles

The first step to cracking the SAT is to know how best to approach the test. The SAT is not like the tests you’ve taken in school, so you need to learn to look at it in a different way. This chapter will show test-taking strategies that immediately improve your score. Make sure you fully understand these concepts before moving on to Part II. Good luck!


What ETS Is Good At

The folks at ETS have been writing standardized tests for more than 80 years, and they write tests for all sorts of programs. They have administered the test so many times that they know exactly how you will approach it. They know how you’ll attack certain questions, what sort of mistakes you’ll probably make, and even what answer you’ll be most likely to pick. Freaky, isn’t it?

However, ETS’s strength is also a weakness. Because the test is standardized, the SAT has to ask the same type of questions over and over again. Sure, the numbers or the words might change, but the basics don’t. With enough practice, you can learn to think like the test writers. But try to use your powers for good, okay?

The SAT Isn’t School

Our job isn’t to teach you math or English—leave that to your supersmart school teachers. Instead, we’re going to teach you what the SAT is and how to crack the SAT. You’ll soon see that the SAT involves a very different skill set.

Be warned that some of the approaches we’re going to show you may seem counterintuitive or unnatural. Some of these strategies may be very different from the way you learned to approach similar questions in school, but trust us! Try tackling the problems using our techniques, and keep practicing until they become easier. You’ll see a real improvement in your score.

Let’s take a look at the questions.

No More Wrong-Answer Penalty!

Unlike the old SAT, you will NOT be penalized on the new SAT for any wrong answers. This means you should always guess, even if this means choosing an answer at random.

Cracking Multiple-Choice Questions

What’s the capital of Azerbaijan?

Give up?

Unless you spend your spare time studying an atlas, you may not even know that Azerbaijan is a real country, much less what its capital is. If this question came up on a test, you’d have to skip it, wouldn’t you? Well, maybe not. Let’s turn this question into a multiple-choice question—just like all the questions on the SAT Reading Test and Writing and Language Test, and the majority of questions you’ll find on the SAT Math Test—and see if you can figure out the answer anyway.

1.The capital of Azerbaijan is

A)Washington, D.C.




The question doesn’t seem that hard anymore, does it? Of course, we made our example extremely easy. (By the way, there won’t actually be any questions about geography on the SAT.) But you’d be surprised by how many people give up on SAT questions that aren’t much more difficult than this one just because they don’t know the correct answer right off the top of their heads. “Capital of Azerbaijan? Oh, no! I’ve never heard of Azerbaijan!”

These students don’t stop to think that they might be able to find the correct answer simply by eliminating all of the answer choices they know are wrong.

You Already Know Almost All of the Answers

All but a handful of the questions on the SAT are multiple-choice questions, and every multiple-choice question has four answer choices. One of those choices, and only one, will be the correct answer to the question. You don’t have to come up with the answer from scratch. You just have to identify it.

How will you do that?

Look for the Wrong Answers Instead of the Right Ones

Why? Because wrong answers are usually easier to find than the right ones. After all, there are more of them! Remember the question about Azerbaijan? Even though you didn’t know the answer off the top of your head, you easily figured it out by eliminating the three obviously incorrect choices. You looked for wrong answers first.

In other words, you used the Process of Elimination, which we’ll call POE for short. This is an extremely important concept, one we’ll come back to again and again. It’s one of the keys to improving your SAT score. When you finish reading this book, you will be able to use POE to answer many questions that you may not understand.

It’s Not About Circling the Right Answer

Physically marking in your test booklet what you think of certain answers can help you narrow down choices, take the best possible guess, and save time! Try using the following notations:

Put a check mark next to an answer you like.

Put a squiggle next to an answer you kinda like.


Put a question mark next to an answer you don’t understand.

Cross out the letter of any answer choice you KNOW is wrong.

You can always come up with your own system. Just make sure you are consistent.

The great artist Michelangelo once said that when he looked at a block of marble, he could see a statue inside. All he had to do to make a sculpture was to chip away everything that wasn’t part of it. You should approach difficult SAT multiple-choice questions in the same way, by chipping away everything that’s not correct. By first eliminating the most obviously incorrect choices on difficult questions, you will be able to focus your attention on the few choices that remain.


There won’t be many questions on the SAT in which incorrect choices will be as easy to eliminate as they were on the Azerbaijan question. But if you read this book carefully, you’ll learn how to eliminate at least one choice on almost any SAT multiple-choice question, if not two or even three choices.

For more test-taking
information and strategies,
including POE, check out
our online videos!

What good is it to eliminate just one or two choices on a four-choice SAT question?

Plenty. In fact, for most students, it’s an important key to earning higher scores. Here’s another example:

2.The capital of Qatar is





On this question you’ll almost certainly be able to eliminate two of the four choices by using POE. That means you’re still not sure of the answer. You know that the capital of Qatar has to be either Doha or Dukhan, but you don’t know which.

Should you skip the question and go on? Or should you guess?

Close Your Eyes and Point

There is no guessing penalty on the SAT, so you should bubble something for every question. If you get down to two answers, just pick one of them. There’s no harm in doing so.

You’re going to hear a lot of mixed opinions about what you should bubble or whether you should bubble at all. Let’s clear up a few misconceptions about guessing.

FALSE: Don’t answer a question unless you’re absolutely sure of the answer.

You will almost certainly have teachers and guidance counselors who tell you this. Don’t listen to them! The pre-2016 SAT penalized students for wrong answers, but the new SAT does not. Put something down for every question: You might get a freebie.

FALSE: If you have to guess, guess (C).

This is a weird misconception, and obviously it’s not true. As a general rule, if someone says something really weird-sounding about the SAT, it’s usually safest not to believe that person.

FALSE: Always pick the [fill in the blank].

Be careful with directives that tell you that this or that answer or type of answer is always right. It’s much safer to learn the rules and to have a solid guessing strategy in place.

As far as guessing is concerned, we do have a small piece of advice. First and foremost, make sure of one thing:

Answer every question on the SAT. There’s no penalty.


Sometimes you won’t be able to eliminate any answers, and other times there are questions that you won’t have time to look at. For those, we have a simple solution. Pick a “letter of the day,” or LOTD (from A to D) and use that letter for all the questions from which you weren’t able to eliminate any choices.

This is a quick and easy way to make sure that you’ve bubbled everything. It also has some potential statistical advantages. If all the answers show up about a fourth of the time and you guess the same answer every time you have to guess, you’re likely to get a couple of freebies.

LOTD should absolutely be an afterthought; it’s far more important and helpful to your score to eliminate answer choices. But for those questions you don’t know at all, LOTD is better than full-on random guessing or no strategy at all.

Are You Ready?

Check out Are You Ready
for the SAT and ACT?
brush up on essential
skills for these exams and


LOTD should remind us about something very important: There’s a very good chance that you won’t answer every question on the test.

Think about it this way. There are 5 passages and 52 questions on the Reading Test. You’ve got 65 minutes to complete those questions. Now, everyone knows that the Reading Test is super long and boring, and 52 questions in 65 minutes probably sounds like a ton. The great news is that you don’t have to work all 52 of these questions. After all, do you think you read most effectively when you’re in a huge rush? You might do better if you worked only four of the passages and LOTD’d the rest. There’s nothing in the test booklet that says that you can’t work at your own pace.

Pace, Don’t Race

For more about pacing on
the SAT, watch our online
videos in the
Premium Portal.

Let’s say you do all 52 Reading questions and get half of them right. What raw score do you get from that? That’s right: 26.

Now, let’s say you do only three of the 10-question Reading passages and get all of them right. It’s conceivable that you could because you’ve now got all this extra time. What kind of score would you get from this method? You bet: 30—and maybe even a little higher because you’ll get a few freebies from your Letter of the Day.

In this case, and on the SAT as a whole, slowing down can get you more points. Unless you’re currently scoring in the 650+ range on the two sections, you shouldn’t be working all the questions. We’ll go into this in more detail in the later chapters, but for now remember this:

Slow down, score more. You’re not scored on how many questions you do. You’re scored on how many questions you answer correctly. Doing fewer questions can mean more correct answers overall!


Embrace your what now? POOD! It stands for “Personal Order of Difficulty.” One of the things that SAT has dispensed with altogether is a strict Order of Difficulty—in other words, an arrangement of problems that puts easy ones earlier in the test than hard ones. In the absence of this Order of Difficulty (OOD), you need to be particularly vigilant about applying your Personal Order of Difficulty (POOD).

Think about it this way. There’s someone writing the words that you’re reading right now. So what happens if you are asked, Who is the author of Cracking the New SAT? Do you know the answer to that question? Maybe not. Do we know the answer to that question? Absolutely.

So you can’t exactly say that that question is “difficult,” but you can say that certain people would have an easier time answering it.

As we’ve begun to suggest with our Pacing, POE, and Letter of the Day strategies, The Princeton Review’s strategies are all about making the test your own, to whatever extent that is possible. We call this idea POOD because we believe it is essential that you identify the questions that you find easy or hard and that you work the test in a way most suitable to your goals and strengths.

As you familiarize yourself with the rest of our strategies, keep all of this in mind. You may be surprised to find out how you perform on particular question types and sections. This test may be standardized, but the biggest improvements are usually reserved for those who can treat the test in a personalized, un-standardized way.


○When you don’t know the right answer to a multiple-choice question, look for wrong answers instead. They’re usually easier to find.

○When you find a wrong answer choice, eliminate it. In other words, use POE, the Process of Elimination.

○There’s no more guessing penalty on the SAT, so there’s no reason NOT to guess.

○There’s bound to be at least a few questions you simply don’t get to or where you’re finding it difficult to eliminate even one answer choice. When this happens, use the LOTD (letter of the day) strategy.

○Pace yourself. Remember: You’re not scored on how many questions you answer, but on how many questions you answer correctly. Take it slow and steady.

○Make the test your own. When you can work the test to suit your strengths (and use our strategies to overcome any weaknesses), you’ll be on your way to a higher score.