Think Like the SAT

Photograph by Ocean/Corbis

This tip for improving your SAT score was provided by David Greenslade at Veritas Prep.

One of the biggest mistakes a person can make in approaching the SAT is to assume that the people who make the test are geniuses whose sole goal in life is to confuse and demoralize students. This just isn’t the case. The people who make these tests are normal human beings who are trying to see if the test takers have the skills to pick out what is important and use this to answer questions. Attempting to understand how these test makers think and what they might ask about is a great skill to use to answer tricky questions. Let’s look at an example.

“The much maligned cultural obsession with social media has certainly been the topic of much vitriolic commentary recently (much of which appears on the same platforms the critics deride) but though the current trend toward connecting with people digitally may seem a departure from the more personal phone calls or Sunday strolls, it has also set the stage for a more inclusive and more diverse form of communion than has ever before been possible. Those who wish to share their views on one topic or another on Facebook or Twitter have the ability to reach across seas, continents, and in some cases into the depths of space, and those they reach may contribute to the conversation and send their ideas flying back.”

When attempting to get into the mind of the SAT writers, the first two questions to ask are:

1. What was main idea of the passage or main skill required to answer the question?
2. Why is the test maker asking the question?

In this case, the main idea is summed up pretty well by the statement, “[social media] has also set the stage for a more inclusive and more diverse form of communion than has ever before been possible.” With this knowledge, one can expect a question about the main idea or the main purpose of the passage essentially to ask for a restatement of this idea. It can also be noted by a particularly savvy test taker that the whole passage is an argument for this thesis. Therefore, even if the test taker puts the question in more general terms, something test makers like to do, the knowledge that the author is making an argument can help answer the question.

2. Why is the test maker asking this question?

The obvious answer to this second question is that test makers ask questions because it is a test (students find this answer funnier than I do), but test makers like to ask about specific things, and knowing this fact can help us. As an example, the test might ask:

The author most likely includes the section, “(much of which appears on the same platforms the critics deride),” to:

Test takers love to look at unusual or specific pieces of language and ask why it is there. The real task of this question is to ask what does this piece of language do that makes it special. Most obviously, it points out the hypocrisy of criticizing a form of media on that same media platform. To the test maker, that would be the idea that would be most important to see if the reader was able to grasp, and it should be included in the answer.

This technique can also be used with math and writing questions. There are times when the test makers will include extraneous pieces of information to confuse test takers, but more often there are clues hidden in the way answer choices are listed, in the information provided in the question, even in the choice to not draw a picture to scale. Always ask why the test maker has included or excluded something and why he or she put answer choices in a certain form. Let’s look at an example.

“Of all the condos in a high-rise, 40 percent have one bathroom, and 30 percent of the one-bathroom condos have patios. If 28 one-bathroom condos don’t have patios, how many condos are in this high-rise?”

1. What was main idea of the passage or main skill required to answer the question?

This is a percentage problem, so the goal is finding percents of other numbers. This problem can best be solved by setting up some equations that reflect these percentage relationships.

2. Why is the test maker asking this question?

This can also be stated, “What is tricky about this problem?” It is set up so it can be worked “backwards,” meaning the total quantity is the unknown that is asked for, so the first equation will be the last that can be solved. The only concrete number, 28, is also related to a kind of property that isn’t included in any equation so far but can be found using an equation that has been given. The total number of condos will be defined as x and the equations will be:

(0.4)(x) = # of one-bedroom condos, which can be defined as y
(0.3)(y) = number of one-bedroom condos with patios

The 28 one-bedroom condos without patios must then be all the condos that remain besides the condos with patios, which would be (1- 0.3)(y) or 0.7 y.

(0.7)(y) = 28

y = 28/.07 = 40

Finally, plug this number into the first equation.

(0.4)(x) = 40
x = 40/.40 = 100

This is a skill that can be honed only by practice. It takes a lot of exposure to problems to identify what the test makers are attempting to do and the traps that they might use. By attempting to think like a test maker, it is possible to stay ahead of the test rather than letting the test get ahead of you.

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