Suggestions for SAT High Scorers

For students who are already in the 650-700 range on Critical Reading, attempts to boost their score into the exceptional (750+ range) can be an exercise in frustration. Since reading comprehension comes easily to them naturally, most have never taken the time to truly analyze their responses and instead rely on instinct, answers that "feel right," to get them through. In my experience however, there are a couple of factors that typically separate relatively high scorers from exceptionally high scorers, particularly on passage-based questions, and they have absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. The difference between a 700 and an 800 can be as little as five questions, and it's often the student's approach to those questions rather than their content that determines the ultimate score.

So if that describes you, here are couple of pieces of advice:

1) Forget that the SAT is a multiple-choice test and just answer the questions

If your reading skills are solid enough for you to be scoring at 650+, they're solid enough for you to answer the questions on your own without consulting the answers first. Will this work for every question? Of course not. There are some that are impossible to narrow down at all without consulting the answer choices, but the vast majority do not fall into that category.

Read the question, look back at the passage, and, as much as possible, sum up in your own words what you think the answer is. Write it down. This is important -- when you have to consider multiple ideas simultaneously, you're a lot less likely to overlook something important if you have everything in writing. Then look for the answer that comes closest to capturing the general idea you've described.

There's a big difference between weighing the pros and cons of each answer choice and actually looking for something. You're a lot less likely to get thrown off by tricky wording or false answers this way because you've already determined the general information that needs to be included in the correct answer.

Plus, if you can answer the question yourself, you won't get it wrong -- the chances of you coming up with a trick answer on your own are virtually zero.

Remember, however, that the SAT is asking you to think functionally rather than literally. So rather than say that a particular paragraph is describing an author's early life, for example, ask yourself what role or function it plays in the passage as whole: is it providing context for a work discussed later on in the passage? It is offering an explanation for a particular feature of the author's work?

2) Stop going on instinct and be absolutely systematic when working through questions

If you're scoring above a 750 in Math, there's a good chance you're actually solving problems step by step, and, when you've arrived at the solution, finally consulting the answer choices rather than simply plugging in numbers and guessing. You need to approach CR questions the same way.

While this goes for the entire test, the area where this is most necessary is on Passage 1/Passage 2 questions. When asked how the author of Passage 1 would respond to a particular idea in Passage 2, for example, you need to deal with each element separately.

First, reiterate for yourself the main point and tone of Passage 1. Write them down if you're not too pressed for time. You need to be certain of what the author of Passage 1 thinks about the topic before you can attempt to infer what (s)he would have to say about someone else's view of it.

Next, determine what function the given line in Passage 2 plays in the overall argument -- chances are it simply supports the main point. When you figure that out, write it down, too.

So now you ask yourself what the relationship is between the main points of the two passages, and once you determine it, surprise, write it down! Is one positive toward a topic while the other is negative? If so, you know that you can automatically eliminate any answer that is positive or that indicates agreement. Likewise, if both authors generally agree in their perception of the topic, you can automatically eliminate any answer that is negative or that indicates disagreement.

The bottom line is: at every step of the way, sum it up and write it down.

Can working like this be tedious? Absolutely. Does it require more upfront than simply looking at the answer choices? Of course. Is there a decent chance you'll get it right even if you just go on instinct? Sure, but there's also a pretty decent chance you'll get fooled. The more work you do upfront, the more you reduce your margin of error. If you've reasoned your way through every step, chances are you'll be able to go right to the answer without getting distracted by any traps. And that's what can get you from making one or two mistakes per section to making none.


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