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Advice on taking SAT

SAT season: Local test expert offers 4 tips for success

SAT multiple-choice style can lead to answers

Although the SAT, the entrance exam used by most colleges and universities to measure a high school student’s readiness for college, is given seven times every year, you could call October the official start of SAT season.

Most students apply under most colleges’ regular decision timeline with applications due January 1. By taking the SAT in October, students have enough time to receive test scores back – and if they are unsatisfied with their score, study hard and re-take it in November or December in hopes of a better school before pushing “send” on their application. Students shooting for early admittance decisions generally take the test at the end of their junior year or the summer before their senior year, in March, May, June, or August.

The SAT is only one piece of information college admissions officers review when making entrance decisions. They also consider a student’s high school GPA, the level of classes taken, work, sports, volunteering, or other extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation from teachers or mentors, personal messages from students, and, sometimes, admissions interviews.

How important SAT scores are to any particular school varies widely. However, it’s a good idea for a student prepare for and take the test if they hope to attend a 4-year institution.

Toward that end, Seattle’s Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors, offers these test-taking nuggets:

4 SAT Secrets to Success

by Brian Galvin

1: Play Offense, Not Defense

There is one huge difference between the SAT reading and high school reading. In school, reward comes from valuing and engaging with different perspectives. On a standardized test like the SAT, there’s one correct answer and three wrong answers for every question. Your job isn’t to find the good in every answer but to proactively look for and eliminate flaws. So your goal should be to play offense — assertively look for faults. You don’t want to play defense — trying to find something to like in each answer. 

I like to demonstrate this point with a question about Cinderella, a story everyone knows. Because of that, no one has to read an SAT reading comprehension passage, and they can instead focus on the answer choice strategy. I ask a quick question with two answer choices:

Which of the following best describes the plot of the animated movie Cinderella?

  1. With the help of her fairy godmother and some local birds and mice, a poor girl gets ready to stay out all night at a royal ball, where she meets and falls in love with a prince and lives happily ever after.
  2. Seemingly doomed to live out her life doing chores for her wicked stepmother and stepsisters, a girl is given a chance at the evening of a lifetime at a royal ball and is able to turn her fortunes around permanently.

And generally, people are split between them. Then I highlight the phrase “stay out all night” in A – one of the main things we all know about Cinderella is that she has to leave at midnight, which is not “stay out all night.”  

That’s a key takeaway about SAT Reading: almost every wrong answer gives you a reason to like it. The strategy: seek the fatal flaw. For example, be wary of the common mistake of “universal” adjectives (only, all, none, never) that go too far. If you can prove “most” but not “all” based on the passage, go for “most”.

2: Answers Are Assets

Most tests and assignments in high school are open-response, not multiple-choice. Teachers want you to show your work and often give partial credit for it. However, on the SAT most questions are multiple-choice, and there’s no partial credit. The advantage is this: if you don’t have to show your work, you can use any shortcut you want to get to your answer. And the answer choices are a huge shortcut.

Here’s a quick example that isn’t directly SAT content but proves the point.

What is the capital of the German state of Saarland?

Most people I ask this question don’t know the answer. Then, I highlight the style of SAT questions: the vast majority are multiple choice. And those choices are assets to help you answer questions. Here are the answer choices:

  1. Wiesbaden
  2. Tampa
  3. Saarbrücken
  4. Guanajuato

Most people pretty quickly feel 90+% confident that Saarbrücken is the right answer — and they are correct if they choose it. The takeaway is this: multiple choice allows test takers to use the process of elimination. Most people eliminate Tampa and Guanajuato quickly — they don’t sound German. Then, a student may notice that “Saar” is part of the question and also part of one answer choice. There are several ways to tackle the multiple-choice question style and use the style itself to arrive at the right answer.

  1. Use the process of elimination to bring you to the correct answer. 
  2. Look for the clues in the question on where to start. Certain values tend to only show up in some instances (square root of 2 in a 45-45-90 triangle, square root of 3 in a 30-60-90 triangle), which can clue you into something in the prompt you didn’t initially notice. 
  3. Look at answers for what they may tell you on how to proceed — if you’re given a prompt with multiple fractions and the answer choices are all single fractions, you know your job is to find common denominators to combine those fractions. If the answer choices all keep the variable X, you don’t need to solve for V.
  4. When you are down to two answers, scan choices for apparent differences before they punt. It’s common for students to get a reading or writing question down to two options and then go with which one “feels better.” But when you’re down to two, scanning the answer choices for noticeable differences and using those as criteria can help you make a quality decision.

The takeaway: The multiple-choice format of most of the SAT offers many clues to its answers. With this in mind, spend time with SAT practice tests using the strategies above.

3: It’s Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile

A quick story with a big takeaway: My cousin, who has a Master’s degree and fully-funded college funds for his kids (meaning he heavily values education), texted me this spring as his twin 11th graders prepared for the SAT.

“Can you settle a dinner table argument,” he asked me. “Does the SAT have a guessing penalty?” 

In times past, test scorers deducted a quarter of a point for each wrong answer, and answers left blank were not counted to deter students from guessing. The SAT gave up its guessing penalty about 20 years ago. But parents, neighbors, and teachers of today’s college applicants took a very different test, one with that penalty coloring their experience. Their tests came with a guessing penalty and arcane vocabulary tested in analogies. Even the name has changed: parents may have taken the Scholastic Aptitude Test given until the early 90s or the Scholastic Assessment Test given for a few years in the later 90s. But today it’s just the SAT with no acronym, like KFC.

The takeaway: There’s a decent element of the blind leading the blind regarding SAT prep. Well-intentioned adults may be giving lousy study or strategy advice because the test has changed a few times since they took it. Seek advice for test preparation from tutors or mentors familiar with the current test.

4. It tests a narrower scope than you think

Another story: I had a student show up with a Geometry textbook full of Post-it notes. He had moved states, been placed in different math classes, and never taken Geometry, so he was terrified. So he bought a used textbook and came to class with notes on every concept he didn’t understand, which was quite a lot.

However, the SAT tests a relatively narrow scope of geometry and heavily emphasizes an even narrower set. So we went through his book and identified the Post-it notes that A) SAT doesn’t test (we removed those) 

and B) the SAT provides the formula for in your test booklet (we marked those).

At the end of the exercise, I handed him a big pile of Post-it notes that he didn’t need to worry about. And he had markers on the rules he should look at but didn’t need to memorize. His workload and stress levels came down considerably.

The takeaway: As test prep experts, many of us like to geek out on strategies and shortcuts. But, often, the most significant benefit of prepping for the SAT or other college entrance exams is simply knowing what’s on the test so it’s top of mind and what’s not on the test so you don’t spend time worrying about it. 

Study what you need to know, not what you don’t

For many students taking advanced math, the challenge is getting back muscle memory on things you learned two or three grades ago. And if you have yet to see a subject or it was one you struggled with, you can narrow the scope of what you need to work on to get SAT questions right, even if you struggled on a final exam in class. 

There’s a great Simpson’s episode when Bart Simpson is asked whether he’s familiar with a topic.

“As long as there are absolutely no follow-up questions, yes. Yes, I am,” Bart says. 

On the SAT, there are no follow-up questions to check for deeper understanding. Suppose you can answer a trigonometry question using the acronym SOHCAHTOA but have no other knowledge of trigonometry. No matter how you got there, you get the same number of SAT points on that question as the valedictorian taking the test next to you.

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