Everyone agrees that preparation is the key to mastering the SAT. That’s news to exactly no one. But what is considerably less agreed-upon is how that preparation should be done—some schools preach drilling so relentless they spook local wildlife; others recommend doing enough practice problems you could drown a bull in the ink used to print all the problems; others yet advocate a lighter, more surgical approach where you do fewer problems, but more carefully. The reason there are so many schools of thought, of course, is because all of them have worked at different times, for different people. The important thing, I’ve found, is not which approach you take—it’s the intent behind it.
I’ve been an SAT tutor for nearly a decade, and I have discovered that whether a student is in a class, getting 1 on 1 tutoring, or studying by themselves, they perform best when they prepare with one single goal in mind: always know how to start a question.
Let’s break down what this means: when I do SAT coaching, I want to make sure that on Test Day, when my students open the test they do not see a single question they do not immediately know how to start. I can’t guarantee they know the answer, or the vocabulary word, or how to do the math, but I can ensure—and so can you—that they can recognize the question’s type, what task it is requiring you to do, and what strategies to implement to solve it.
For example, if one of my students sees a Sentence Completion question, thanks to our work together, and his own work by himself, the student immediately knows what protocol to follow:
1) Cover the answers! Literally slap your hand down on the page.
2) Read the sentence for keywords, and use those keywords to determine sentence type
3) Use that type (definition/contrast/cause & effect) to make a prediction.
4) Match his prediction to an answer choice.
5) Next question!
But what if it’s a less obvious question type? All 19 Sentence Completions, after all, get answered the same way. So what about a mystifying reading comprehension question? What then?
Well, if he’s done his homework, he knows there are only five types of reading comp questions, and they’re pretty easy to remember and identify. And once he knows which type of question it is—let’s say, a Function question, because it includes the word “funk”—he immediately knows what the question is asking him to do: in this case, it’s asking about the reason why the passage’s author made a structural or stylistic choice. Instead of allowing himself to be bewildered by a confusingly-worded problem, he can figure out at a glance what that question’s really asking, just by seeing the words “in order to” or “serves primarily to”—two very common markers of a Function question.
The purpose of this approach is to simplify the test, to remove unnecessary brain-searching and endless rereading of questions as you proceed into hour three of the test. After all, the SAT is a long, long test, and anything that removed guesswork, and promotes a clear routine, leads directly to higher scores. Furthermore, when you organize your studying around this one goal of always knowing how to start, it makes your preparation infinitely more straightforward and uncluttered. And the very best part? This approach actually works for all standardized test prep, for any test, from the MCAT to the ACT to the GRE. A good ACT or GRE tutor can’t ensure that you always know how to answer a question. But if we’re doing our jobs—and you’re doing yours—we can make sure you know how to start.