Common Misconceptions about How to Prepare

Misconception One: All test prep books are created equal. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. You should be using test prep books that feature real (official) practice tests- that’s it. You can purchase a book of official tests, or you can get them online for free. The reason why you should only practice on real tests is because no one has managed to mimic the tests very well (I can easily recognize a “fake” SAT or ACT when I take one), and a critical part of preparing for the SAT or ACT is becoming familiar with the actual test. Also, please be wary of test prep companies that write their own practice tests- these tests are often very different from the real thing and do not provide you with helpful practice.

Misconception Two: The best way to prepare is to take a bunch of practice tests. Students often come to me because they’ve taken a lot of practice tests and seen no improvement in their scores. As an SAT and ACT tutor, it makes perfect sense why this happens: taking practice tests doesn’t teach you what you don’t know. Instead of churning through test after test, I would recommend using my four step approach: take a test, analyze your mistakes by pinpointing the causes of all of your errors, learn the concepts or skills you’ve discovered you’re missing, and then take another test. The path to a better score involves repeating that process until you’ve eliminated all of your mistakes and mastered the relevant content.

Misconception Three: I should measure my progress with my weekly scores. The reality is, scores wax and wane with fatigue, time of day, distraction, etc. Making meaning out of every score can be exhausting, stressful, and often misleading. A student who takes a practice test at night after a long week at school, for example, may get a score far worse than is normal for her. Instead of measuring progress with your score, I would recommend measuring it in terms of the skills you’ve been working on. Each week, set clear skill goals– what are you going to work on? Then, at the end of the week, if you’ve reached your skill goal, you have made progress. The path to a better score is 100% about skill development, so let the way you think about progress reflect that.

Transitional Words

Transition word (TW) questions test your ability to accurately connect two ideas. Getting these questions right relies on two main things: your knowledge of what the transitional words mean and your reading comprehension skills. With those two pieces in place, you can easily learn to get every transitional word question right.*

Like I said, TW questions test your ability to identify the relationship between ideas. Fortunately, there are only three potential kinds of relationships that occur in these questions. They are called the 3 Cs: Continue, Contrast, and Cause-and-Effect. 

The two sentences that are being connected by a transitional word can flow well together (aka continue- and, also, in addition, moreover, etc.), they can conflict (aka contrast-on the other hand, however, but, etc.), or they can be in a causal relationship (aka cause and effect- therefore, as a result, consequently, etc.). 

Now, for the steps:

  1. Read the first sentence and restate its meaning in your head.
  2. Read the second sentence and restate its meaning in your head.
  3. Decide which of the three Cs accurately reflects the sentences’ relationship.
  4. Use process of elimination to get rid of the words that aren’t from the right C category.

Side notes:

  1. If you get down to two words that are from the same category (if there are two continuers, for example), ask yourself which option most accurately goes with the content of the sentences.
  2. If one of the answers is a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS), take grammar into account. Sometimes there are questions that look like transition word questions, but they’ve got grammar mixed in.

Real Example (from Test 1, W&L, question 14):

Typically, the ice sheet begins to show evidence of thawing in late summer. This follows several weeks of higher temperatures. For example, in the summer of 2012, virtually the entire Greenland Ice Sheet underwent thawing at or near its surface by mid-July, the earliest date on record.

  • A) No change
  • B) However
  • C) As much
  • D) Moreover
  1. I am going to read the two sentences before the transitional word because I don’t feel like the one right before it has enough content. My summary: The ice sheets thaw in late summer.
  2. My summary: In 2012, this one ice sheet thawed earlier than usual. 
  3. Okay, so the two sentences are talking about conflicting information. The first is about what normally happens, and the second is about what has happened in this unusual situation. This is not continue or cause-and-effect; it is contrast.
  4. A) is a continuer, so it’s out. B) is a contraster, so I’ll keep it. C) is a continuer, so it’s out. D) is a continuer, so it’s also out.
  5. B) is the only one left, and I’ll pick that one.

*If you aren’t solid on the meanings of the transitional word answer options, you can easily remedy this by memorizing them. Beyond the dictionary definitions of the words, please make sure to learn how to use them in conversation.

Small Detail Questions (ACT Reading)

One of the most common question types on ACT Reading is Small Detail (aka Literal Comprehension). These questions ask what the passage says about some particular detail. The questions often start with “The passage indicates” or “According to the passage.” This is your clue that the test writers want you to go into the passage to find a detail they are asking about. 

Because Literal Comprehension (LC) questions are so common, it is imperative that you learn to do them efficiently. I often see students read multiple paragraphs in search of a small detail answer, but you cannot afford to do that. Literal Comprehension questions are generally easier than other question types, so having a streamlined process helps free up time for the more challenging questions. 

Here’s what I want you to do.

STEP ONE: As someone who reads the passages before going to the answers, my first step is to read the passage well before I even get to the question. A perfect performance on this test begins from the moment you open the test papers, which obviously includes reading the passages in an intentional, focused manner. Personally, I mark keywords in the body paragraphs to help me stay focused. I also don’t linger for very long on any one sentence that I find confusing. You need to balance reading the passage with saving enough time to get through the questions, and there is no exact formula for how to do this. In summation, STEP ONE is set yourself up for success by reading the passage intelligently

STEP TWO: Read the question, and pinpoint the keywords in it that are central to what is being asked. Many students pick keywords that are not specific enough. 

For example, imagine the question is, “The passage indicates that Jorge’s son went to which store on Monday afternoon in 1992?”

Too vague would be picking the keywords “Jorge’s son” and “1992.” If you just pinpoint those two words, you will be rereading way too much of the passage. With this question, it would be hard to get too specific. For my keywords, I would pick, “The passage indicates that Jorge’s son went to which store on Monday afternoon in 1992?” 

Now, get this: You must be prepared to recognize the synonyms of the keywords in addition to the keywords themselves. This is just the way the test writers make finding the answer difficult. So, I am looking for Jorge’s son AND the son’s name; store AND shop, market, etc; Monday afternoon AND the mention of Monday morning (just in case they don’t explicitly state that it becomes afternoon). 

Yes, this is a lot. But with practice, juggling all of the keywords becomes easy.

STEP THREE: If you remember where the answer is located, go there and read the content. Even if you remember the answer, double check to make sure you’re right. Reducing your errors is about being humble and always knowing that you could be getting something wrong- best to just check. 

If you have no idea where the answer is, then use your keywords and go for a word search. You do not need to read the content: just let your eyes skim over the passage, looking for anywhere that you’re keywords pop up. If you see just one of your keywords, don’t stop. You want to see a significant number of your keywords before you slow down. Once you find a place where you see many of your words, this is where you’ll start looking for the answer.

DO NOT just read downwards from where the keywords appear. Instead, read in a four line radius. So, if the words appear in line 21, back up to line 19 and start reading from there. If the words are in line 21, read lines 19-23. I can’t tell you how frequently I see students waste time by just reading down from where the keywords are, thereby missing the answer that they are so close to finding.

If you think that what you’ve read is on topic and might contain the answer, then go back to the answer choices and compare them to what you’ve read. If nothing is matching up, don’t force it. 

Just pick up with the word search and carry on looking for the keywords to pop up further in the passage. It is normal for keywords to appear in a few places, and you might have to read two different four line radii to find the answer they’re looking for.  

As always, when you’re reading the answer options, make sure to understand the specifics of what each answer choice is saying. You need to be precise-there is no way around it. And, do your due diligence and read all four answer options. If your answer is right, the other three won’t be. Checking all of the answers is a great way to catch a mistake if you’ve made one. 

Literal Comprehension and Evidence Support

Together, Literal Comprehension (LC) and Evidence Support (ES) questions make up 40% of all of the questions on SAT Reading. Because of their sheer number, mastering the LC and ES technique is an important component of getting an excellent score. 

The technique I’m outlining is what I teach all of my students to use, and I would recommend integrating it into your arsenal of “best practices.” Like with everything, getting good at the technique requires experience, so please do lots of practice problems to help you integrate the steps. The steps may seem involved at first, but I assure you that it is possible to do the steps efficiently and accurately.

STEP ONE: Read (and understand!) the LC question. What are they asking you about? You can underline keywords in the question if that will help you.

STEP TWO- 3 parts: Don’t bother reading the answers to the LC question. Instead, go straight to the ES answers. 

  1. Read (and understand!) quote A). I would also put brackets around the quote to help you keep track of where it is. 
  2. Ask yourself, “Could this quote possibly contain the answer to the LC question?” If your answer is “no,” eliminate the quote. 
  3. If your answer is “yes,” go carefully through the answers to the LC question to see if the quote has a match. If one of the answers says what the quote says, I would draw a line connecting the two so you remember your match. 

STEPS THREE-FIVE: Repeat STEP TWO for each of the remaining three quotes. 

Typically, there is only one set that really matches. If there are two sets of matching quotes and answers, ask yourself which set directly answers the LC question. Only one of the sets will be answering the question, so there are your answers.

Let’s look at a real set. These questions are from Test 1, numbers 4 and 5. Please follow along in your book.

4. Which reaction does Akira most fear from Chie? 

  • A) She will consider his proposal inappropriate. 
  • B) She will mistake his earnestness for immaturity. 
  • C) She will consider his unscheduled visit an imposition. 
  • D) She will underestimate the sincerity of his emotions.

5. Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question? 

  • A) Line 33 (“His voice… refined”) 
  • B) Lines 49-51 (“You… mind”) 
  • C) Lines 63-64 (“Please… proposal”) 
  • D) Lines 71-72 (“Eager… face”)

STEP ONE: Okay, they are asking what Akira (the guy) is most afraid of in Chie’s (the mom’s) response.

STEPs TWO-FIVE:

  • A) This quote is not related to the LC question. It just says that Akira’s voice is soft. Try not to read into quotes like this. I know it can be tempting!
  • B) This quote is about what Chie thinks. The question is asking about what Akira fears, and this quote doesn’t say anything about that. 
  • C) This is Akira speaking to Chie, so I’m immediately interested. In this quote, Akira asks Chie to not judge how good of a potential partner he is by how improperly he has proposed. To me, this could contain the answer, so I am going to advance to the “yes” scenario. Now, I’ll read each of the answers to the LC question to see if there is a match.

4. Which reaction does Akira most fear from Chie? 

  • A) She will consider his proposal inappropriate. (This says that he is afraid that Chie will find his proposal inappropriate, which is exactly what the quote means, so we have a match).
  • B) She will mistake his earnestness for immaturity. (This says that Chie will think he is being immature because of the way he has asked. The quote doesn’t say this, so it’s out).
  • C) She will consider his unscheduled visit an imposition. (This says that she will think him coming to their house is an imposition. Again, not in the quote).
  • D) She will underestimate the sincerity of his emotions. (This says that Akira is afraid that Chie won’t take his genuineness seriously. Not mentioned in the quote, so this is out).

Resume STEPs TWO-FIVE:

  • D) Moving onto quote D in #5 now. You may be tempted to not check the final quote if you think you’ve found your match, but I would advise you to always consider each answer choice. This quote says that because Akira wanted to make his point clear, he made eye contact with Chie. This doesn’t mention anything Akira fears, so this quote is out.

We have now worked through both problems, and locked in the answers to both: #4 is A) and #5 is C)-a matching set!

Vocabulary in Context

Despite how it may seem, vocabulary questions on the SAT and ACT are not testing your vocabulary as much as they are testing your reading skills. For this reason, I would rarely recommend studying vocab words if you want to get better at vocab questions. Instead, I would recommend that you memorize the steps I’m about to give you and get good at using them.

Vocab in Context (VIC) is on the reading section, right? Well that makes sense once you realize that the test writers use VIC questions to test your reading skills. Since this is all about context (how the word is being used), the vocab technique is designed to get you to notice and comprehend what is going on around the word.

Step One: Cover the word/ phrase up with your finger, and get yourself to generate your own word that works in the sentence and communicates the correct meaning.

Step Two: Go to the answer choices. The right answer should be a synonym for whatever you’ve come up with. Pick that one.

Step Three (if Step One doesn’t work out because the context is too confusing): Read each of the answer choices plugged in the sentence. The answer must actually work in the context. Let your ears help you here—does it sound right or is something off? 

Step Four (if you’re feeling SOL and nothing is working): Figure out if the sentence has a positive, negative, or neutral tone. The answer has to be in the same tone, so eliminate the words that don’t match the tone in that part of the passage. 

Example Problem (SAT Test 1, question #45). Please get your book and follow along:

45. As used in line 19, “demands” most nearly means

  • A) claims.
  • B) offers.
  • C) inquiries.
  • D) desires.

Step One: So I read the sentences around the word and come up with “wishes.” What I’ve come up with makes sense in the context, sounds right, and could replace “demands” in the sentence.

Step Two: 

  • A) offers (offers means gives which is not synonymous with wishes).
  • B) claims (claims means states or asserts which is not synonymous with wishes).
  • C) inquiries (inquiries means looking into something which is not synonymous with wishes).
  • D) desires (desires means wants, which is very close to the meaning of wishes. Desires also sounds right and works in the context, so I’d pick this one).

Step Three (if Step Two didn’t bear fruit):

  • A) …firms may be meeting earthly offers for precious metals… (this sounds off to me because I’ve never heard anyone talk about “meeting an offer for something”)
  • B) …firms may be meeting earthly claims for precious metals… (this doesn’t make sense)
  • C) …firms may be meeting earthly inquiries for precious metals… (meeting an inquiry for something doesn’t sound right and it also doesn’t make sense)
  • D) …firms may be meeting earthly desires for precious metals… (this sounds fine to my ears because I’ve heard the expression “meet a desire for,” so I’ll pick this one)