Best Practice Materials

Using the right practice materials is important, so I’m glad you’re here. Many test prep companies market their own practice tests, but the vast majority of them aren’t good. The best thing you can do is practice on real practice tests.

To someone who isn’t very familiar with the tests, this may be counterintuitive. The reading test is just a reading test, right? Wrong. Once you get to know exactly how the tests work, it is easy to see that there are no practice materials that have mimicked the SAT or the ACT perfectly. For example, I can easily tell if I’m taking a Kaplan or a Princeton review test, which, to my mind, is a clear indicator that those tests have not mimicked the SAT properly. 

The SAT in particular has a unique brand of logic, and the games it plays—and the subtleties with which it plays them—are extremely difficult to replicate.  

If you want to get good at anything, you must spend a lot of time doing that thing. You don’t become excellent at tennis by playing pingpong; similarly, you don’t get good at the SAT by getting good at Kaplan. It just doesn’t translate.

Here is exactly what I would buy:

SAT

  1. Official SAT Study Guide by the College Board (these are real SATs) OR print the tests at home.
  2. If you need help with the Writing and Language section, I would buy Erica Meltzer’s Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar.
  3. If you need help with the Reading section, I would buy Erica Meltzer’s Complete Guide to SAT Reading. It has very useful information about how to do each question type.

ACT

  1. Official ACT Prep Guide (these are real ACTs) OR print the tests at home.
  2. If you want help with the ACT English section, I would buy Erica Meltzer’s Ultimate Guide to ACT English.

How to use Process of Elimination

Process of Elimination (POE) is the most important technique for SAT Reading, yet many students don’t know how to do it.

WHY POE is important: The SAT is written in a way that makes it really hard to recognize right answers. The test writers don’t phrase right answers in a way that is obvious, and that is one of the things that makes the Reading section challenging. Because of this confusing and weird wording, we can’t count on our brains to recognize right answers when we read them. Trust me, even perfect scorers have this problem.

The good news is that you don’t have to KNOW an answer is correct to pick it and get the question right. POE is a brilliant technique because it allows us to be somewhat confused and still get everything right.

HOW to use POE: POE is the careful process of finding the errors in three out of the four answer choices. Because there are always four answer options and only one of them is totally correct, the other three have something wrong with them. This is always true. Instead of trying to figure out which answer is right, POE has us just finding the three answer options that are wrong. Once we find errors in three options, we can be sure that the right answer is the one that is left.

The reason POE is the best way to tackle reading questions is because it gets your brain to think like the test writers think. They DO NOT believe that they have written the right answer in a way that is easy to recognize. The only criteria for an answer to be right is that it’s simply not wrong.

This is totally counter to what you do in school. Your teachers probably don’t phrase right answers in such a way that, even if you know the content, you won’t recognize the answer as correct. But- oh joy! -the SAT does just that.

So, in order to deal with the way the test works, we have to “play by its rules.” If right answers aren’t meant to be easy to spot, let’s stop trying to find them. Instead, we should reveal which answer we have to pick by finding the three answer options that are wrong. Let’s do an example.

Official SAT practice test 1, question 1: Here, I will go through each of the answer choices and think carefully about anything I can find that’s wrong with the answer options.

Which choice best describes what happens in the
passage?
A) One character argues with another character
who intrudes on her home. (There is no argument, so I know this cannot be the answer. Eliminate "A".)
B) One character receives a surprising request from
another character. (There is nothing I see that is definitely wrong with this one, so I'll keep it in.)
C) One character reminisces about choices she has
made over the years. (Neither one of the female characters is reminiscing, so this cannot be right. Eliminate "C".)
D) One character criticizes another character for
pursuing an unexpected course of action. (Nowhere in the passage does anyone criticize Akira, so this one cannot be right. Eliminate "D.")

Okay, so I’d pick “B” here. I didn’t pick it because I thought it was right or because it was what I was expecting; I picked it because there is nothing wrong with it and the other three have errors.

To summarize: right answers cannot contain any errors, and wrong answers must contain errors. POE is the act of hunting for errors and picking the answer choice that is left. I call this the “negatives focused hunt.” It is very important that you pay attention to each and every word when you’re using POE. As with the example above, the three wrong answers weren’t totally wrong. The difference between the right answer and the wrong ones came down to the details. To use POE effectively, you must be very thorough in your negatives hunt.

Yes/No, Kept/Deleted: Command of Evidence

I regularly see elite scorers get Command of Evidence questions wrong until they commit to using the technique I’ve outlined below. The purpose of this technique is to give your brain the best possible chance of finding the right answer. If you do not follow all the steps, the technique will not work. 

  1. Read the “Sentence Sandwich.” The sentence sandwich includes (1) the sentence before the one they’re asking about, (2) the sentence they’re asking about, and (3) the sentence after that one. 
  2. Abandon trying to figure out “yes/no” or “kept/deleted.” This is a waste of time and you may be wrong.
  3. Read each of the answers from “…because it.” Eliminate all of the statements that are false.
  4. If eliminating the false answer options leaves you with 2 choices, pick the option that is consistent with the SAT’s values.*

SAT “values” on W&L: The SAT test writers have certain things they think make writing good and other things they think make writing bad. It is important to know what the test writers are looking for so that you can pick answers that are consistent with their “value system.” 

SAT loves conciseness (shorter is better), semiformal/ formal tone (appropriate adult wording), and preciseness (clearly stating the ideas).

SAT dislikes wordiness (overly flowery language that doesn’t add content), redundancy (repeating things that have already been established), excessively casual tone (the way you may talk to your friends), and vagueness (being imprecise or unclear).

Down to Two, What to Do

Every student has experienced that moment on a Reading section when they’re down to two ridiculously similar answers and they can’t seem to pick which one is better. Figuring out how to handle this “down to two” problem is at the heart of getting a better score. 

Before we jump into exactly what to do in the “down to two” situation, I want to review a few things about right answers. *This is very important, so please read it carefully and completely!*

Because every question on the SAT/ ACT needs to have an objectively right answer, the test writers are very limited in the ways that they can create right answers. Since right answers have to be objectively, incontrovertibly right, they can only be one of two things: a restatement of what the passage says (just using different words) or an identification of something the passage clearly illustrates. I think of these as Type 1 (restatement) and Type 2 (identification).

A Type 1 right answer uses synonyms to repeat what the passage has said. These types of right answers are easier to recognize than Type 2 because if you can understand what the passage says, you can recognize when the ideas are put a different way.

Simplified Example: The passage says that the beekeeper harvests honey on the 5th and 9th months of the year. The question asks, “When does the beekeeper harvest honey?” The right answer says, “In May and September.” Here, the content in the passage says the same thing as the answer- they just use different words to do it.

Real Test Example (see practice test 1, reading section, question 9): 

9. Why does Akira say his meeting with Chie is “a matter of urgency” (line 32)?
A) He fears that his own parents will disapprove of Naomi.
B) He worries that Naomi will reject him and marry someone else.
C) He has been offered an attractive job in another country.
D) He knows that Chie is unaware of his feelings for Naomi.

Here, we use the lines given in question #10 to help us. We find that quote B) gives us the answer. Lines 39-42 read, “Normally I would approach you more properly but I’ve received word of a position. I’ve an opportunity to go to America, as a dentist for Seattle’s Japanese community.” Answer C) in question #9 is a restate of this quote, making it a classic Type 1 right answer.

A Type 2 right answer typically names/ identifies something that the passage shows or illustrates. Type 2 is a much harder right answer to recognize because your brain has to grasp the content on two levels: what the passage says and what that means/is.

Simplified Example: The passage is a fiction story and it describes a child skipping home from school after an amazing first day in which she made a lot of new friends and feels awesome about herself. The question asks, “How is Sarah feeling when she comes home from school?” The right answer says, “Joyful.” Here, the passage clearly paints a picture of what joy is like.

Real Test Example  (see practice test 1, reading section, question 36): 

36. Woolf indicates that the procession she describes in the passage
A) has come to have a more practical influence in recent years.
B) has become a celebrated figure in English public life.
C) includes all of the richest and most powerful men in England.
D) has become less exclusionary in its membership in recent years.

This question goes with question #37, so we can use the provided lines to focus our search. For the purposes of this lesson, I am only going to examine the quote that contains the answer, which is quote C). Quote C) reads, “For there, trapesing along at the tail end of the procession, we go ourselves.” The right answer to question 36 is clearly not a Type 1 restatement. But if we ask ourselves, “What is quote C) demonstrating?”, we realize that it is demonstrating that the procession now includes women. If a march that used to not allow women now DOES allow women, that is what answer 36 D) identifies: the march has become less exclusionary (allowing more people than were previously allowed).

The reason I think it is SO important to understand the two kinds of right answers is because they help tremendously when you’re down to two and trying to pick.

Here are my suggestions for what to try (not in order of importance):

1.For the two options you’re debating between, ask yourself, “Is this a Type 1 or a Type 2 right answer?” If option “A” is a T2 and option “C” seems like it’s relying more on inference, pick option “A.” 

2. Ask yourself, “Which one can I get directly from the text?”

3. Ask yourself, “Am I making a logical jump here or do I really have proof of this?” Right answers require discernment rather than speculation. 

4. Go Narrow! Think about the exact meaning of every word in each answer choice. One of the two options has at least one word that makes that answer wrong. Example: Imagine a random question with two answer options. A. analyze a culture  B. describe a tradition

When I “Go Narrow” on this question, I ask myself, “What does analyze mean and is it really analyzing? What is a culture and is this a culture or is that too broad?” Then I ask myself, “What does describe mean and is this really a description? What does tradition mean and is what they’re talking about actually a tradition?” 

Going narrow is about finding the tricky places the SAT has hidden an error in one of the options. Since the test is VERY nit picky and detail oriented, training your brain to “Go Narrow” and hunt for small errors is important.

5. Re-read the question and put it in your own words if you’re confused. What are they really asking you? 

6. Rephrase the question to make it seem less subjective. If they write, “….most clearly means,” I always translate that in my head as “what does X mean?” The text must contain the answer to that question, so which answer choice the text directly support?

7. If one answer has something that seems like it may be wrong and the other answer is just super vague but not exactly wrong, pick the vague one.

Add all of these tips to your mental toolbox. Obviously you don’t have time to use all 7 techniques every time you’re in the “down to two” situation, so you will need to practice to become skilled at knowing when to use what when.