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Chapter One: SAT Mastery
- Learn how to use the structure of the SAT to your advantage
- Formulate a plan for attacking the questions
To perform well on the SAT, you need to draw on a set of skills that the College Board does not mention in any of their materials. You need to be a good SAT test taker.
Acquiring this ability, and the confidence it produces, is what this book is about.
There are three simple things you need to master the SAT:
- You need to have a basic understanding of SAT content.
- You need to hone the thinking and testing skills that underlie the SAT.
- You need to know the nature of the SAT.
Content and skills are obviously important. You can't do well without them. But understanding the nature of the SAT, its setup, its structure, and the traps it often sets for you will allow you to gain points on the test that you might not otherwise have earned.
Using The Structure of The SAT To Your Advantage
The SAT is different from the tests that you're used to taking. On a school test, you probably go through the problems in order. You spend more time on the hard questions than on easy ones, since this is where you get more points. And you often show your work since the teacher tells you that how you approach a problem is as important as getting the answer right.
None of this works on the SAT. You can benefit from moving around within a section, the hard questions are worth the same as the easy ones, and it doesn't matter how you answer the question -- only what your answer is.
To succeed in this peculiar context, you need to know some fundamentals about the overall structure of the SAT.
The SAT Is Highly Predictable
Because the format and directions of the SAT remain unchanged from test to test, you can learn the setup in advance. On the day of the test, Analogies, QCs, Grid-ins -- or the setup of any other question type or section -- shouldn't be new to you.
One of the easiest things you can do to help your performance on the SAT is to understand the directions before taking the test. Since the instructions are always exactly the same, there's no reason to waste your time on the day of the test reading them. Learn them beforehand, as you go through this book, and skip them during the test.
Most SAT Questions Are Arranged by Order of Difficulty
You've probably noticed that not all the questions on the SAT are equally difficult. Except for the Critical Reading problems, the questions are designed to get tougher as you work through a set.
Here's how to use this pattern to your advantage. As you work, you should always be aware of where you are in the set. When working on the easy problems, you can generally trust your first impulse -- the obvious answer is likely to be right.
As you get to the end of the set, you need to become more suspicious. Now the answers probably won't come easy. If they do, look at the problem again, because the obvious answer is likely to be wrong. Watch out for the answer that just "looks right." It may be a distractor -- a wrong answer choice meant to entice you.
There's No Mandatory Order to the Questions
You're allowed to skip around within each section of the SAT. High scorers know this. They move through the test efficiently. They don't dwell on any one question, even a hard one, until they've tried every question at least once. When you run into questions that look tough, circle them in your test booklet and skip them for the time being. Go back and try again after you have answered the easier ones if you have time. On a second look, troublesome questions can turn out to be amazingly simple.
If you've started answering a question and get confused, quit and go on to the next question. Persistence may pay off in school, but it usually hurts your SAT score. Don't spend so much time answering one tough question that you use up three or four questions' worth of time. That costs you points, especially if you don't get the hard question right.
There's a Guessing Penalty That Can Work in Your Favor
The test makers like to talk about the guessing penalty on the SAT. This is a misnomer. It's really a wrong answer penalty. If you guess wrong you get penalized. If you guess right, you're in great shape.
The fact is, if you can eliminate one or more answers as definitely wrong, you'll turn the odds in your favor and actually come out ahead by guessing.
Here's how the penalty works:
- If you get an answer wrong on a Quantitative Comparison, which has four answer choices, you lose 1/3 point.
- If you get an answer wrong on other multiple-choice questions, which have five answer choices, you lose 1/4 point.
- If you get an answer wrong on a Grid-in math question, for which you write in your own answers, you lose nothing. The fractional points you lose are meant to offset the points you might get "accidentally" by guessing the correct answer. With practice, however, you'll learn that it's often easy to eliminate several answer choices on some of the problems that you see. By learning the techniques for eliminating wrong answer choices, you can actually turn the guessing "penalty" to your advantage.
The Answer Grid Has No Heart
It sounds simple but it's extremely important: Don't make mistakes filling out your answer grid. When time is short, it's easy to get confused going back and forth between your test book and your grid. If you know the answer, but misgrid, you won't get the points. To avoid mistakes on the answer grid:
Always Circle the Questions You Skip
Put a big circle in your test book around any question numbers you skip. When you go back, these questions will be easy to locate. Also, if you accidentally skip a box on the grid, you can check your grid against your book to see where you went wrong.
Always Circle the Answers You Choose
Circling your answers in the test book makes it easier to check your grid against your book.
Grid Five or More Answers at Once
Don't transfer your answers to the grid after every question. Transfer your answers after every five questions, or at the end of each reading passage. That way, you won't keep breaking your concentration to mark the grid. You'll save time and you'll gain accuracy.
These fundamentals apply to every section of the test. But each question type also has its own structural peculiarities that make them easy to prep for. Some examples: On Grid-ins, the grid cannot accommodate five-digit answers, negatives, or variables. If you get such an answer, you know you've made a mistake and need to redo the problem.
Analogy answer choices are always ordered with the same parts of speech; this helps you determine if you're building an appropriate bridge. Critical Reading questions with line references, "Little Picture" questions, can often be done quickly and don't require you to read the entire passage. You can do these first in a later reading passage if you're running out of time. We'll show you lots of these structural elements, and the strategies you can use to take advantage of them, throughout this book.
Approaching SAT Questions
Apart from knowing the setup of the SAT, you've got to have a system for attacking the questions. You wouldn't travel around a foreign city without a map and you shouldn't approach the SAT without a plan. Now that you know some basics about how the test is set up, you can approach each section a little more strategically. What follows is the best method for approaching SAT questions systematically.
Think about the Question Before You Look at the Answer
The people who make the test love to put distractors among the answer choices. Distractors are answer choices that look like the right answer, but aren't. If you jump right into the answer choices without thinking first about what you're looking for, you're much more likely to fall for one of these traps.
Use Backdoor Strategies If the Answer Doesn't Come to You
There are usually a number of ways to get to the right answer on an SAT question. Most of the questions on the SAT are multiple-choice. That means the answer is right in front of you -- you just have to find it. This makes SAT questions open to a lot of ways of finding the answer. If you can't figure out the answer in a straightforward way, try other techniques. We'll talk about specific Kaplan methods such as backsolving, picking numbers, and eliminating weak Analogy bridges in later chapters.
Guess Only When You Can Eliminate One Answer Choice
You already know that the wrong answer "penalty" can work in your favor. Don't simply skip questions that you can't answer. Spend some time with them to see if you can eliminate any of the answer choices. If you can, it pays for you to guess.
The SAT gives you a lot of questions in a short period of time. To get through a whole section, you can't spend too much time on any one question. Keep moving through the test at a good speed; if you run into a hard question, circle it in your test booklet, skip it, and come back to it later if you have time. In the sidebar to the right are recommended average times per question. This doesn't mean that you should spend exactly 40 seconds on every Analogy. It's a guide. Remember, the questions get harder as you move through a problem set. Ideally, you can work through the easy problems at a brisk, steady clip, and use a little more of your time for the harder ones that come at the end of the set.
One caution: Don't completely rush through the easy problems just to save time for the harder ones. These early problems are points in your pocket, and you're better off not getting to the last couple of problems than losing these easy points.
Locate Quick Points If You're Running Out of Time
Some questions can be done quickly; for instance, some reading questions will ask you to identify the meaning of a particular word in the passage. These can be done at the last minute, even if you haven't read the passage. On most Quantitative Comparisons, even the hardest ones, you can quickly eliminate at least one answer, improving your chances of guessing correctly. When you start to run out of time, locate and answer any of the quick points that remain. When you take the SAT, you have one clear objective in mind -- to score as many points as you can. It's that simple. The rest of this book will help you do it.
Copyright © 2003 by Kaplan Inc.