Comparing the SAT and ACT essays

By Kathryn Azevedo
Vice President, Director of English
Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

Both the SAT and ACT include an essay. The SAT essay is mandatory, but while the ACT essay is optional, most colleges and universities won’t consider ACT scores without the essay. So in other words, the ACT essay is somewhat mandatory too.

There are a few similarities between the SAT and ACT essays:

  • Both essays are timed
  • Both essays are scored from 0-12 (worst to best), and are scored by two essay-graders
  • Both essays are evaluated for: 1) organization 2) development of point of view 3) grammar 4) variety in sentence structure 5) vocabulary
  • Responses to both essays should be organized into 4-5 paragraphs
  • Neither essay is graded for factual accuracy

There are more differences between the SAT and ACT essays than there are similarities. To start, the SAT essay counts as one-third of the SAT Writing (grammar) score – but it also receives an independent score of 0-12. In contrast, the ACT essay is not a factor in a student’s ACT English (grammar) score. In other words, the ACT essay is scored independently of the multiple-choice parts of the test.

Students are allotted 25 minutes for the SAT prompt, and 30 minutes for the ACT prompt. These five additional minutes is a significant amount of extra time to organize one’s thoughts and develop a more complete essay, so many ACT students feel less pressured for time on the essay than do students writing the SAT essay. (The timing for the ACT multiple-choice sections, however, is more restricted than it is for the SAT.)

The SAT and ACT essay prompts differ immensely as well. For example: An SAT essay question might ask if the world is changing for the worse or for the better, or if there are potential drawbacks to technology. An ACT essay question might ask if high school libraries should subscribe to popular magazines, or if poor school grades should impede a student from attaining a driver’s license.

For the SAT, we advise students to use academic, literary and/or historic examples to reinforce their thesis – and the SAT prompts lend themselves agreeably to these kinds of supportive examples. Conversely, we discourage students from relying on personal experiences in their SAT responses.

However, students can rarely answer ACT prompts using the aforementioned types of examples, and instead will likely find it easier to use personal experiences and observations to answer the question. (It is acceptable to use the pronoun “I” on the ACT – but not on the SAT.) Additionally, whereas factual accuracy is irrelevant for both tests’ essays, students can fabricate content (quotes, studies, statistics, etc.) to substantiate their thesis, as long as that material is rational and pertinent.

Lastly, an essay’s length appears to be directly related to its score – for both tests. Longer essays tend to score higher than do shorter essays, so we advise students of both the SAT and ACT to aim to write a full two pages (four or five paragraphs).

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Does (SAT) practice make perfect?

By Kathryn Azevedo
Vice President, Director of English
Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

The cliché “practice makes perfect” is universal. And while some clichés may be obsolete, vague expressions, most clichés draw their endurance from truth. And when it comes to the SAT, practice does make (almost) perfect.

To become a better runner we practice running longer and faster. To become more fluent in a foreign language we practice reading, speaking and writing in that language as much as possible. The same goes for the SAT: one of the best ways for a student to become a stronger test-taker is to practice taking the SAT multiple times before the real test. This is where our assigned homework comes in.

Part of our Sullivan Method involves assigning students real, previous SAT exams – both in the center and at home. While we primarily work on skill-building, develop personalized testing strategies and go over homework in the center, we typically give students a full SAT practice test to complete at home before their next session. (A full SAT homework assignment consists of three critical reading sections, three math sections, two grammar sections, and the SAT essay.)

Consistent practice is so effective in part because of the repetitive format of the SAT. While questions of course vary from one SAT to another, the essential content is the same from test to test. The more a student practices taking the SAT, the more he or she will be able to recognize question-types, patterns and common trap answers. Additionally, whereas the SAT is a timed test, students will be able to perfect their pace on the homework so it’s where it needs to be for the real test. Furthermore, completing multiple practice SATs affords students multiple opportunities to pin-point and improve upon areas of weakness.

We know students are occupied with school homework, sports and other activities. The idea of completing another three to four hours a week of SAT homework might therefore seem insane or at best impossible. But we can’t emphasize enough just how vital these homework assignments are to a student’s progress – and thus we can’t underscore enough the importance of making time to do the homework.

There are just as many ways to find time to complete the homework as there are types of students. Therefore, students need to figure out what works best for them and their schedules.

Some students are “morning people” and are most alert before the school day begins. These students could wake up 25 minutes earlier than usual to complete a timed section of the homework before the launch of their official school day.

Other students are night owls. These students could spend at least 25 minutes a night on the SAT homework after completing their other assignments. Some students even find it helpful to “break up” their school homework time with a little SAT homework in the middle. Whereas SAT practice sections are so different from school assignments, it can almost (almost!) feel like a little break.

Other students are truly booked straight all week, but have some pockets of free time during the weekend. For these students, Sunday mornings or Saturday afternoons can be the time to crank out the homework in one sitting. (In fact, we definitely encourage students to complete at least one full homework assignment in one uninterrupted sitting, to get the feel of the longevity of the real SAT.)

Other students claim they have no time at all to do any SAT homework. We challenge you. If you add up the five minutes you spend on Facebook – each of the 20 times you check it in a day – that’s a lot of minutes you could be studying the SAT. Of course there are extenuating circumstances, but we view students who chronically do not complete the homework — saying they didn’t have time — as not wanting to do the homework. And that is a whole different topic.

Ultimately, the students who earnestly want to improve their SAT scores will find the time to complete the homework – whether in smaller increments throughout the week, or all at once. To use another cliché: where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Runners can practice putting one foot in front of the other all day, but will never improve without actual practice runs. Students can memorize all the Spanish verbs in the dictionary, but will never become fluent without practicing actual conversation. A student can learn the Pythagorean theorem, rules of punctuation and million-dollar vocabulary words, but will never improve his or her test scores without practicing the SAT.

While practice doesn’t always make perfect, it sure does lead to improvement. And that’s perfect.

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Common SAT gripe: The SAT critical reading passages are so boring!

By Kathryn Azevedo
Vice President, Director of English
Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

We know. We know the SAT critical reading passages are boring. We feel your pain, and we don’t want to read them either.

But as we have to do for so many things in life, we have to read them anyway. We can’t change the passages and we can’t change what they’re about. But we can change our strategy for reading them, as well as our attitude about reading them.

First things first: Where do these passages come from?! The long SAT passages are excerpts from real material that exists out there in the universe. Most of the long passages are snippets from pre-existing texts such as journals, articles, non-fiction books, novels, etc. that have been edited down by the CollegeBoard to fit the format (length) of the SAT. Students are likely to be familiar with the topics covered by these passages, but are unlikely to have previously encountered the actual text.

‘Boring’ is a very, well, boring word. There are better words to describe the SAT passages than ‘boring.’ Perhaps the passages seem ‘boring’ because many are written about topics over-covered in the classroom (i.e.: even reading about topics as important as the Civil War and women’s rights can seem ‘boring’ if one has read about them a zillion times). Or perhaps a particular passage about modern art seems ‘boring’ because a particular student-reader does not personally care for modern art. Or, perhaps passages might seem ‘boring’ because they are long, the language is often thick and formal, and one must read them under less-than-ideal conditions (Saturday morning; timed; while sitting on a cold, hard chair; etc.).

But here’s the thing: Every student taking the SAT must read the SAT passages – and all of them – from top to bottom. (Nope; just reading certain lines will not work well at all.) But even the most skilled, enthusiastic, SAT-loving student is susceptible to the occasional (or frequent) zone-out, otherwise known as the “I-just-read-the-entire-passage-but-literally-have-no-idea-what-I-just-read Syndrome.” So here is our solution: Don’t read the entire passage all at once. We suggest that students read one paragraph at a time, after which they proceed to answer questions that contain line-references from the paragraph they just read. The critical reading questions appear in chronological order, so students can simply read the first paragraph, answer a few questions, read the next paragraph, answer more questions, and so on. If a question contains a line reference (and most do), the answer to the question is in the paragraph that contains the line reference. Reading in increments like this helps students avoid the dreaded zone-out, as well as move quickly by focusing on only relevant text.

So back to the issue of how boring the passages are: We have no magic tricks for making the passages more interesting, so students should just pretend they are. I know – sounds lame. But if a student goes into the critical reading section with an attitude of “OMG these are the worst things in the world!” then yes – they probably will be pretty bad. But it doesn’t hurt to approach a passage with a sense of “I’ve got this” or “Bring it on” or even “Yes! I love reading about museum design!” As they say: Fake it till you make it.

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The ACT Science section explained

By Kathryn Azevedo
Vice President, Director of English
Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

The ACT has four multiple-choice sections: English (grammar), math, reading and science. There is also an optional writing (essay) component. Many students fear the science section, as it’s … well … science. But the reality is that there is no real science on the section at all.

What? No science on the science section? True. There are seven ‘passages’ on the ACT Science, each followed by a series of multiple choice questions. These passages are typically composed of text, charts, graphs, images, tables, etc. These passages are science-related, but do not test a student’s particular knowledge of scientific words or concepts. Rather, all the information a student needs to answer the questions is provided by the passage – the student just needs to find it. According to the ACT website, “The test emphasizes scientific reasoning skills over recall of scientific content, skill in mathematics, or reading ability.”

The ACT website also reports that to ace the science section, students must be able to:

  • recognize and understand the basic features of, and concepts related to, the provided information
  • examine critically the relationship between the information provided and the conclusions drawn or hypotheses developed
  • generalize from given information and draw conclusions, gain new information, or make predictions

The ACT assumes that students are somewhat familiar with Earth science, physical science, chemistry and biology. Therefore, most of the passages focus on topics from these areas. Students might read about genetic frog deformities, interpret charts chronicling snow-melt rates in Alaska, or evaluate an experiment that tests the relationship between an object’s weight and its rate of acceleration down a hill. Even if students are completely unfamiliar with the topic of a particular passage, they can answer every question correctly if they possess the appropriate reasoning skills.

ACT Science timing

One of the greatest challenges many students face on the ACT Science is dealing with the time constraint. Students are only given 35 minutes for 40 questions, which leaves many students barely finishing or not finishing at all. There are strategies for increasing pace – the first being frequent practice – but no matter a student’s pace, it is critical to answer every question on the ACT, as there is no penalty for wrong answers.

ACT Science strategies

  • Take multiple and frequent timed ACT practice tests.
  • Save the one heavy text-based passage for last, as it takes the longest. (One of the seven passages has few or no images.)
  • Work on the easy questions first, and don’t spend too long on the hard questions. The questions increase in difficulty within each passage.
  • Always carefully read the introduction to each passage.
  • Do not spend too long reading the main text or interpreting the charts and graphs; instead, read the passages briefly to get the main idea or objective, and then read certain parts more carefully as you answer the questions.
  • Answer every question.

Students who like science often score higher on the science section and are better paced than other students, for the same reason that a student who enjoys reading will likely read faster and more accurately than one who dreads reading. But again, there is no real science on the ACT, so science-phobic students are not necessarily at a disadvantage. All students (science-minded or otherwise) with adequate reasoning and interpretation skills, who practice consistently, can score well on the ACT Science.

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The SAT essay: A primer on what works and what doesn’t

By Kathryn Azevedo
Vice President, Director of English
Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

First things first: there is no magic trick for writing a “perfect” SAT essay (perfect meaning 12 out of a potential 12). But there are, of course, steps one can take to increase the chances of reaching a double-digit essay score.

Let’s start with what does not work.

Some test-prep programs encourage students to prewrite and memorize an essay as part of their SAT-preparation. The idea is that students will be able to use this memorized essay in response to whatever essay question is on the real test. Memorizing an essay before test day to use on test day does not work. I repeat: prewriting and memorizing an essay to be written again on test day does not work – for many reasons. First, student essays must answer the actual question in order to receive a score at all. If students write the essay before knowing what the question is, the essay will not answer the question. (Students with clairvoyant powers are the exception to this rule.) Second, SAT essay questions could be about absolutely anything. If a student memorizes an essay using To Kill a Mockingbird and George Washington as supportive examples, but the essay question asks about the benefits of technology, the student will be unable to use his or her memorized essay. Again, prewriting and memorizing an essay will not work and is a waste of valuable time that would be better spent memorizing common SAT vocabulary words, or even reading.

So what does work?

The CollegeBoard reports that it measures student SAT essays based on the following criteria:

  1. development of point of view
  2. organization and focus
  3. vocabulary
  4. grammar
  5. meaningful variety in sentence structure

Sensibly, a student should write with the above criteria in mind, giving priority to what the essay-graders are looking for.

Let’s begin with the first item: development of point of view. Students must begin with a distinct, one-sided thesis statement. (Generally speaking, students will be required to agree or disagree with an open-ended prompt.) Students earn a significant portion of their SAT essay points by substantiating their thesis with logical, detailed, and compelling examples – these examples should include books, famous people, wars, current events, cultural events, social issues, time periods, etc. Despite what the actual written essay instructions say about using “personal experiences and observations,” we strongly discourage students from using personal experiences, other than as a last resort.

As stated earlier, prewriting an essay is, at best, a silly idea. However, many of our students find it helpful to brainstorm certain topics ahead of time to be potentially used in an essay. For example, we recommend that students think about – and do a little research on – about five familiar books and five history/current event/school-related topics before test day in preparation for the essay question. Although factual accuracy is not a requirement for the SAT essay, students with a modest cache of various subjects about which to write will feel more confident on test day.

Second in the list: organization and focus. Most students should write four paragraphs, but students aiming for a 650+ should write five paragraphs. All essays should begin with a brief (three to four sentences) introduction paragraph, followed by two or three middles paragraphs (each with its own, separate supporting example), and finally a succinct conclusion. We also strongly encourage students to fill as much of the space provided (two pages) as possible, as longer essays almost always score higher than shorter ones.

The last three items on the list – vocabulary, grammar and meaningful variety in sentence structure – are simple enough for most students. We recommend that students think ahead and secure two or three vocabulary words that are higher-level synonyms for ordinary words; students can then use these words in nearly any essay. (For example: the word corroborate is stronger than support, and can be used in any SAT essay.) Additionally, we suggest that students use a rhetorical question and a properly used semicolon in their essay to help satisfy the last two criteria in the list. Essays laden with spelling and/or grammar errors will not score well, but a few mistakes will certainly not devastate a student’s score.

Double-digit essays must deliver on the above list items, but they must also be thoughtfully and intelligently written. Scores of 11 and 12 are usually conferred to students whose supportive examples have a degree of novelty. In other words, there is nothing criminal about using The Great Gatsby as an example; but, how about using a more obscure book or a critical social issue like gun laws or healthcare instead?

It is also imperative that students practice with real SAT essay prompts as part of their SAT preparation, allowing themselves 25 minutes to read, ponder and write the essay. (Students with accommodations receive more time.) Like many things in life, the SAT essay can be mastered with practice and industry.

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SSAT changes: The new SSAT creative essay prompt

By Kathryn Azevedo
Vice President, Director of English
Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

Previously, Upper Level (grades 8-11) and Lower Level (grades 5-7) SSAT test-takers have been required to write a 25-minute argumentative essay as part of the standard administered SSAT. For this essay, students were presented with one essay prompt: either a topic with which they had to agree or disagree, or a question they had to answer. The essay was not graded; however, it was sent to schools to which the students were applying, and was used as part of the high school admissions and class-placement processes.

Fairly recently, the SSAT essay component changed. (The level names have changed too, with the introduction of a new Lower Level test for grades 4 and 5.) Now, Middle Level (previously Lower Level) students are presented with a choice of two creative prompts, from which they must choose and answer one. Upper Level students are presented with a choice of two prompts – one essay and one creative. Students must choose and answer one. Furthermore, students in Upper and Middle levels are now provided two pages of paper on which to write their essays, instead of one. The 25-minute time limit remains the same.

A creative essay prompt consists of just a simple sentence provided by test-writers: using this sentence as an opening line, students must write a story. As long as students begin their essays with the indicated sentence, they can write about nearly anything, real or imaginary.

Creative essay prompts might look similar to the following:

  • He was sure there was an exit somewhere.
  • It all started on a Tuesday.
  • They knocked three times on her door.

To write a solid creative essay, students must adhere to the rules of proper English: sensible organization (topic sentences, transition sentences, paragraphs, etc.), logical progression of events (beginning, middle, end), correct grammar and punctuation, effective vocabulary, and variety in sentence structure.

To get started writing the creative essay, it is probably easiest for most students to go with the first thought that comes to mind after reading the prompt, no matter how arbitrary the idea seems. For example, after reading the first prompt above – He was sure there was an exit somewhere – a student might directly imagine being locked in a store after closing, or perhaps trying to find a way out of a movie theatre during a power outage. Students don’t have to map the entire story out in their heads before writing; in fact, students should begin writing once they have just a general idea.

Of course, some Upper Level students will forgo the creative prompt and will instead choose the standard essay prompt, which might look similar to the following:

  • Every cloud has a silver lining. Do you agree or disagree?
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Do you agree or disagree?
  • Is there a benefit to avoiding some forms of technology?

To adequately answer this kind of prompt, students must still follow all the rules of proper English, as outlined above. Additionally, students will want to be sure to articulate a lucid, one-sided thesis in the opening paragraph, after which should follow one or two supporting paragraphs that contain specific details to substantiate the thesis. All essays should end with a succinct conclusion paragraph.

All in all, the changes to the SSAT writing prompt are not that extensive. In fact, the changes could even make the writing portion a little less anxiety-producing for those students who find it difficult to conjure up logical arguments and facts “on the spot.” Non-creative writers (in the Upper Level) can still choose to answer the standard essay prompt if so desired, but now creative writers have the opportunity to showcase their verbal strengths as well.

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Common SAT myth: I’m not a good test-taker so I’ll bomb the SAT

By Kathryn Azevedo
Director of English, Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

“I’m not a good test-taker.”

We hear this a lot from our students. But rarely do we believe it. This declaration, or resignation, as we like to think of it, always gets us asking more. What does it mean to be a bad test-taker? (For the purposes of this blog, I’m referring only to the SAT when I say “test,” although many of the insights and observations here are applicable to other tests.) Usually, all it takes is a brief conversation with a student to nail down and articulate the real problem, which has long been masked as a generic test-taking ineptitude. Usually, we can encourage a student to reframe his or her test insecurities as one of the following three deeper issues:

1. I get anxious before and during tests
2. I don’t know the material on the test
3. I think I know the material but can’t access it during the test

1. Some students do experience acute test anxiety, and acute test anxiety can be a legitimate condition that inhibits a student from functioning at all during a test. Paralyzing test anxiety is an issue for another blog post; in this instance, I am referring to a moderate to slightly above moderate amount of test nerves that appears before and/or during the SAT.

Some nervous tension before the SAT is completely normal and can, to a degree, be helpful for regulating hormones related to concentration and mental stamina. But if a student experiences anxiety beyond typical test-day butterflies, there may be a more considerable issue at hand. Common reasons for elevated anxiety levels include: a simple lack of preparedness for the actual test, an exaggerated perception of the SAT’s importance, and unrealistic score expectations and the pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) that accompanies such expectations. Each of these reasons is a valid root cause of test anxiety, but these reasons should be addressed and resolved for what they are.

2. Some students perform poorly on the SAT because they are simply unprepared. Students who know the format of the test and what material is (and is not) covered on the SAT will likely score higher than unprepared and uninformed students. Students who take multiple practice SATs, know the content of the test and are equipped with individualized strategies will likely be successful on the SAT. An unprepared student with weak scores may concede that he or she is “a bad test-taker,” but in reality, he or she likely did not know the math concepts and skills, vocabulary, grammar rules, critical reading strategies and essay-writing skills necessary to perform well on the SAT.

3. Some students claim to know the SAT material, but say they have difficulty accessing what they know and applying it to the test questions. The truth is, most students (excluding those with certain learning disabilities) who feel this way likely do not know the material well enough. It is one thing to have a moderate sense of ‘what sounds wrong’ when it comes to the grammar questions, but it is an entirely different thing to know the eight common SAT grammar mistakes. It is one thing to ‘be a good reader,’ but it is an entirely different thing to know how to read the SAT critical reading passages and spot common trap answers. It is one thing to ‘like math,’ but it is another thing to have the unique set of math skills required to succeed on the SAT math sections. Knowing the SAT content inside and out is critical to succeeding on the SAT. If a student truly knows the material, he or she will be able to master most SAT questions, no matter how nuanced the format or wording.

Students who casually assume the label of bad test-taker may be missing an indispensable opportunity to gain personal insight into specific weaknesses that are impeding higher SAT scores. We challenge those students to dig deeper to find the root cause – perhaps it’s one of the three possibilities mentioned here – of their testing incompetence.

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I have no time to study for the SAT!

By Kathryn Azevedo
Director of English, Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

Junior year of high school is often the most overwhelming of all the high school years, as typical junior-year academics are compounded by standardized tests, college planning and campus visits. Throw athletics, other after-school activities and part-time jobs into the mix, and it is no wonder that some juniors balk at the idea of fitting SAT preparation into their schedules. Sometimes, it seems, there is literally no time to study for the SAT.

So what is a busy student to do?

First and foremost, determine the best time to take the test. Students should keep their seasonal activities in mind when figuring out which SAT(s) to sign up for. A student-athlete with a maxed-out spring schedule might consider taking the SAT in the winter of junior year (as opposed to the spring tests), then again in the fall of senior year. A student with a heavy winter schedule might take the SAT in March, May and/or June, and perhaps again in the fall of senior year.

Second, start studying early. An ideal SAT study plan begins several months before the actual test; some students even begin studying a full year before the test. As with studying for any major test, cramming the night before is not only unwise but is also unproductive. (And for the SAT, it is impossible.) A student taking any of the three spring tests (March, May and June) should ideally begin studying the common SAT vocabulary words and taking weekly practice SAT tests by January or earlier. Students taking the fall test should take advantage of the summer months to sincerely commit to a study program.

Third, study slowly and steadily. Busy students do not have hours each day to devote to SAT preparation. But even the busiest student can find 10-25 minutes a day to study at least something SAT-related. For example, a student could allot 10 minutes each night (or morning) to learning 10 new vocabulary words. Or find 25 minutes before dinner (or in a car ride) to do a single timed SAT section (most sections are 25 minutes long). But I don’t have 25 minutes! Yes you do. There are 20 minutes of commercials in a one-hour TV program. It takes about 20 minutes to boil water and cook spaghetti. There are 20-25 minute pockets everywhere in a day. Students just have to find them. (Note: Studying while watching TV is a terrible idea. I was just using that example to make a point.)

Fourth, schedule it in and make it non-negotiable. Athletes don’t dare miss a practice. Musicians don’t dare miss a rehearsal. (Good) students don’t dare skip a class or forgo a homework assignment. Most students follow these rules, as someone else (a coach, director or teacher) is holding them responsible if they don’t deliver. However, many students view studying for the SAT more lackadaisically because “no one knows if it’s not done” and it’s easy to consign it to the bottom of the to-do list. But juniors and seniors in high school should hold themselves accountable for what they do with their time. (Hello, college.) Sure, doing a 25-minute practice section won’t earn a student a check mark the same way that turning in a homework assignment would, but serious SAT test-takers should be making their SAT prep a non-negotiable part of their schedule. (School until 2. Practice until 5:30. Dinner at 6. SAT studying from 6:45-7:15. Homework from 7:15 until bed.) Of course, committing to a scheduled SAT prep course is another way for a student to be held accountable. In the end, studying for the SAT is like everything else in life: you get out of it what you put into it.

High school students are busy. They are expected to maintain high grades, excel in sports and the arts, volunteer, hold part-time jobs and prepare for college all at the same time. Even finding the time to eat three meals a day and get enough sleep can seem like a feat of the highest order. However, with some prudence and judicious planning, any student can find the time to study for the SAT.

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Should students skip questions on the SAT?

By Kathryn Marquis Azevedo
Director of English, Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

Students often ask whether they should skip harder questions on the SAT or take guesses. The short answer is yes and no.

The long answer is that students should take educated guesses, not random guesses. This means that if a student is able to eliminate one or more answer options, he or she should choose an answer. If a student is unable to eliminate any answer options, he or she should leave the question blank. The SAT scoring formula, combined with the law of probability, make this rule generally true. (Students gain a point for correct answers and lose a quarter of a point for incorrect answers; blank questions yield no points.) The only exception to this rule is on the 10 grid-in math questions, which students should always answer. No points are deducted for wrong answers on these 10 questions.

Students who take multiple practice-SAT tests are at an advantage when it comes to guessing, as they are usually able to develop a more intelligent guessing strategy based on their own personal strengths and weaknesses. For example, students with inadequate vocabulary skills should skip the last one or two sentence completion questions of each reading section, as the sentence completions increase in difficulty. Students with more limited math skills may want to skip the last several math questions of each section (with the exception of the grid-ins), as these also increase in difficulty. Students who struggle with reading comprehension may want to skip some of the harder comparison questions on the SAT comparison passages. (Reading comprehension questions and grammar questions generally do not increase in difficulty.) No student should ever skip the essay.

Students who take multiple practice-SAT tests are at an advantage in another way, too: over time, it is possible to develop a sense of what constitutes a typical wrong (trap!) answer, especially on the critical reading sections. In other words, a student may begin to recognize the tell-tale clues that often indicate a wrong answer, such as extreme words (always, never, all, etc.) and logical but irrelevant arguments. Once a student can spot and eliminate these answers, his or her guesses become far more intelligent.

Taking educated guesses and knowing which questions to skip based on a student’s unique testing profile can not only increase test scores, but can also save a student valuable testing time. When a student knows which questions to skip, he or she can move ahead quickly and confidently, affording more time to questions he or she is likely to answer correctly.

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Why frequent reading really does affect SAT scores

By Kathryn Marquis Azevedo
Director of English, Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.

Many students roll their eyes when they hear a common prescription for higher SAT scores: read more. But the truth is, regular readers really are likely to score higher on the SAT verbal than are non-readers (or Spark Note readers). The correlation between literacy and verbal scores may sound obvious to some, but to others, the connection may be a little more tenuous.

For starters, the more one reads – whether for pleasure or obligation – the more one is exposed to those infamous SAT words (which, by the way, are real words that exist in literature and media beyond the SAT). Repetitive exposure to such words is an almost effortless way to learn the vocabulary likely to appear on the SAT, as eventually one will learn the definitions through context, without using flashcards or other deliberate study aids.

Second, the more one reads, the faster one is likely to read. It is true. Much like knitting or running, reading is a skill that improves not only in precision but also in alacrity the more one practices. The SAT is a timed test, with slow readers usually running out of time and consequently forfeiting valuable points. Reading quickly without sacrificing comprehension is a skill that can only be refined by, yes, reading more. Furthermore, students are often asked about a passage’s main idea or primary purpose, which is only discernible if the student is able to understand the general concept as well as the minute details of the passage. This, again, is a skill most successfully honed through frequent reading.

Third, reading books or thoughtful, scholastic articles also exposes students to the nuances of grammar, punctuation, syntax and idioms that are so (sadly) infrequently taught in the classroom. Reading The Elements of Style from cover to cover is unlikely to yield the same results as frequent reading, much in the same way that reading about the Greek language does not a fluent Greek-speaker make. Again, it is through the repetitive exposure to the complexities and rules of the English language that one will almost effortlessly learn the grammar content tested on the SAT.

And finally, better readers are better writers, a truth that means book-lovers will probably score higher on the SAT essay. While the non-reader may have the intellect or creativity to generate rational arguments to support a thesis, only the good writer will be able to articulate those arguments in a cogent, cohesive and cerebral manner.

Students who read for pleasure are undoubtedly at an advantage when it comes to taking the SAT (and in other ways, too). But it is never too late for those who can barely survive obligatory summer reading lists and requisite classroom reading: these reluctant readers have just yet to find the world of pleasure reading. (Those with an appreciation for pleasure reading can usually find even Jane Eyre appealing when read outside the constraints of didactic classroom conversation.) Non-readers can break into the infinite book world by starting with a book on a subject of personal consequence, not one from a required-reading list. Interested in the Middle Ages? Read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. Prefer non-fiction? Check out Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Science-fiction fan? Michael Crichton is a solid author. Current events and politics? Read Newsweek or TIME.

Enjoying even one book just might inspire a non-reader to seek out other books by the same author, or similar books by another author. Ideally, this appreciation for pleasure reading leads to more reading, and more reading leads, yes, to higher SAT verbal scores.

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