Posts filed under: Reading

The College Board has released, at long last, its first full practice test since announcing sweeping changes to the PSAT and SAT last year. You may now finally, if you’re one of a small group of merry misfits that actually enjoy this kind of thing, sit down for 3 hours and take a prototype test from start to finish. Then you can correct it. You cannot, however, score it yet. Unsurprisingly, College Board still hasn’t fully figured out how it’s going to scale these things.

You can download the test here, and the answer key and explanations here.

Believe it or not, the answer document is longer than the test document.

Anyway, I just spent 3 hours of my beautiful Sunday afternoon with this thing, so I figured I’d jot down a few of my initial reactions in bullet form.


  • At an hour long, the reading section is a real slog. And it’s the first thing students will do.
  • As advertised, there’s less emphasis on tough vocabulary.
  • The passages, for the most part, feel familiar. Many of the questions would be just as at home on the current SAT.
  • The stuff that’s new is…fine, I guess. The questions that ask students to select the best justification from the passage for their previous answer are annoyingly formatted. Because the sections from the passage aren’t recreated in the choices—it’s the familiar old SAT-format, e.g. Lines 7–9 (“Thanks . . . life”)—there’s a LOT of necessary flipping back and forth.
  • The graphs that appear seem tossed in after the fact, without much thought put into integrating them into the passage.
  • I guess the “Great Global Conversation” piece in this test is the excerpt from Carnegie’s “Wealth”? Two thoughts: 1) Blech. 2) Students with some contextual knowledge of Carnegie’s life will be at an advantage answering those questions.
  • Strong readers will probably welcome the changes—they’ll need to worry much less that, despite their comprehension skills, they might encounter vocabulary words they don’t know on test day. Weak readers will be at a disadvantage, but, well, it’s a reading test.

Writing and Language

  • The writing is, basically, ACT writing. I know I’m not making an original observation here, but there’s just no other way to describe it.
  • In this one test, the difference between their, they’re, and there, AND the difference between its and it’s are both tested.
  • There’s punctuation, too. Students will love that. </sarcasm>
  • Something I unsarcastically do love is an emphasis on clear, concise prose over both colloquialisms and awkward usage of fancy words. In one question, a student must choose between “prosaic directives,” “simple directions,”  “bare-bones how-tos,” and “facile protocols.” I am fully on board with discouraging people from using phrases like “prosaic directives” and “facile protocols” whenever possible.


  • Right off the bat, it’s obvious this test is different—more information is supplied on the first page than there used to be. Formulas for the volume of a sphere, the volume of a right cone, and the volume of a right pyramid are now provided. Also, the note that used to say that all numbers on the test are real numbers now says: “All variables and expressions used represent real numbers unless otherwise indicated.” This sample PSAT contains no spheres, cones, pyramids, or imaginary numbers, but they’re fair game now.
  • It’s probably too early to say this, but the answer choices seem less intentionally devious. On one question, I rescued myself from forgetting a negative sign because the answer I arrived at wasn’t a choice. Phew! The old SAT might not have been so kind.
  • The “Heart of Algebra” questions that come early in the section are kinda fun, if you know what you’re doing.
  • With the exception of one basic trigonometry question, a question about graphing inequalities, and the last two question about shooting an arrow in the air (more on that later), pretty much everything in this test felt like it could have been fair game on the last test. This surprised me a bit, but it probably shouldn’t have. I didn’t start working in test prep until a year after the last big change in 2005, but I’m told that the same thing happened—early promises of a revolution were greatly exaggerated. Then again, it’s early yet.
  • My friend Akil worries that the calculator allowed/no calculator allowed sections will result in unfairness, or at the very least confusion; I agree with him to an extent. However, I liked that I was forced to solve some questions by hand that I normally would have turned to my calculator for. It’s good to work out unused muscles.
  • There are still only 8 grid-in questions, but now they’re split among the two math sections—4 in the no calculator section, and 4 in the calculator allowed section.
  • It’s possible that there isn’t a stronger emphasis on the advanced topics showcased in previous question releases because this is a PSAT and they’re actually going to start saving the tough stuff for the SAT. We’ll have to wait and see on that one.
  • The last two grid-ins come as a pair—two questions about the same mathematical scenario. In earlier released questions, we were shown questions about a traveler dealing with exchange rates and bank fees—pretty tough stuff. Here, we’re dealing with an arrow being shot from the ground, which is tough stuff if you haven’t taken physics yet, but pretty standard if you have. What was interesting to me about the questions, though, was the amount of information provided that you don’t need at all. You are given 3 equations, and you need only one of them—the same one—to answer both questions. The old SAT wouldn’t have done that. We’ll have to keep an eye on how often the new one will.

Holy cow, I rambled on for a good long while. If you’ve got the stomach to sit down with the test, I’m very curious to hear what you think. Please, make liberal use of the comments section on this post. 🙂

I recently heard from a student who programmed a neat little application to help himself study vocabulary, and then decided to share it with everybody else for free. My kinda guy.

I signed up to try it out, and after receiving a few words a day in my email over the last few mornings, I figured this might be something y’all might like to check out, too. So I’m giving him a little signal boost.

SAT Hot Words has a nice, clean presentation—no frills. It’s just words, parts of speech, and definitions. You get 5 in your email every morning. That’s it.

Note that I don’t think this is all you should do to learn vocabulary, especially if your test is coming up soon. I just think it’s a nice daily reminder to pay attention to the words around you, and to make at least a little progress every day. Enjoy!

Read a bit more, and sign up, at

There are many ways to learn words, which is good, because there are many different learning styles. Some people like vocab books like the fantastic Direct Hits series. Some people just make it a habit to write down and learn every word they encounter that they don’t know. Still others, like myself, try to grow their personal lexicons in the long term by using a thesaurus to avoid the repetition of words in their written work.

But one of the most common methods of vocabulary augmentation is the flashcard. It’s tried and true, just like mom and dad used to use when they walked to school uphill both ways in the snow chased by sabre-toothed tigers.

I see a lot of people struggle with flashcards. They know that flashcards are supposed to be great, but although they recognize the words they’re supposed to know when they see them, they just can’t seem to make their definitions stick. If this sounds like you, read on.

The three-pile flashcard system

For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming you’ve already either created your own cards, or purchased a set.

  1. Go through the entire pile of cards. Any word you know (and I mean know—like you can recite the dictionary definition quickly and accurately) put in a different pile. That’s your KNOW pile. Any words that don’t go into the KNOW pile go into the DON’T KNOW pile. Easy so far, right?
  2. Set a daily goal for yourself based on the size of your DON’T KNOW pile and the amount of time you have to learn it. You should give yourself plenty of wiggle-room in this goal. So if you have 8 weeks until your test, and 250 words you don’t know, set a goal to learn 40 words per week. That way, you’ll finish early (or won’t fall too far behind if you miss a day). And if you add words to your list as you go, you won’t have to stray from your plan to absorb them.
  3. Here’s the part most people don’t do: On Monday through Saturday, try to learn your 40 words for that week. Once you’ve convinced yourself you know a word, put it in a third pile: the PENDING pile.
  4. On Sunday, test yourself on the words in your PENDING pile. If you can recite the definition of a word without hesitation, you can put it in your KNOW pile. If you can’t, you leave it in your PENDING pile or, if you really don’t know it, put it back in your DON’T KNOW pile.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’ve moved all your cards into the KNOW pile.
  6. Test yourself on every word in your KNOW pile. If you can’t recite a word’s definition in 5 seconds, put its card back in the DON’T KNOW pile, and begin again.


This system is only going to work for you if you’re honest with yourself. If you don’t know a word, admit you don’t know it. Otherwise, when it appears on test day and you don’t know it as well as you should because you let it languish in your KNOW pile when it didn’t belong there, you’re going to be sorry.If, however, you stick to the plan assiduously and concede when you don’t know words, you’ll be in good shape come test day. Good luck!

© Copyright Iain Lees and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Sorting Through the Trash and Finding the Gems…

To be honest, this article has a lot of overlap with this one. But this post comes at it from another angle, so hopefully you can learn how to read critically a bit better. Okay, here’s a test. I use this same test with my one-on-one students. After they read a paragraph, I’ll ask them, “So what was that paragraph about?”

Usually, I am met with vague answers. If the paragraph mentioned flying frogs, then one student might tell me “frogs.” I’ll ask, “Okay, so what about them?” She might then go into more detail and say, “Frogs are dying in the rainforests because of high levels of pollution.” I’ll say, “Great, but is that the main point of the paragraph, or was that just one detail?” She’ll admit it was a small detail.

When I ask what a paragraph is about, I’m not asking you to tell me in your own words what each sentence said. I’m asking you to synthesize all the ideas in the paragraph, then determine the overall message or point. Don’t mention the small details to me. I’ll get bored to tears. Seriously, I’ve already read that passage a hundred times.

You have to be able to discern the difference between restating the passage (sentence-by-sentence) and understanding the main idea. If I ask you what the paragraph was about and you begin giving me a play-by-play breakdown, that tells me you don’t know which parts are minor details and which parts are main points.

This distinction is important because boiling a passage down to its essential element, the main point, is what many of the SAT questions focus on. If you’re so caught up in the details that you can’t figure out the main idea, then you won’t be able to answer any “so what?” type questions. So what was the effect of frogs dying in the rainforest? So what if rainforests are facing heavy pollution? Why do we care? Oh, because dying frogs are just one example of a faltering ecosystem whose collapse would mean the fall of many more ecosystems and the ultimate downfall of Planet Earth??! Hell yeah, that’s probably pretty significant!

But if all you distilled from the passage is that there are frogs and pollution, then you’re going to have a bad time answering those tricky SAT questions.

Trickier yet is the fact that occasionally, the main idea isn’t even ever directly stated in the passage. You won’t find a specific line that neatly summarizes the point of the passage. You have to piece together the main idea for yourself.

Take this passage for example:

For many, Marilyn Monroe is an unmarred legend of success. She was the girl every other girl wanted to be. She was the girl every guy wanted to be with. Certainly the quintessential Hollywood star’s existence was legendary. Today, some fifty years after her death, signs of her glamour are evident. A life-sized statue of her exists at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland. Countless pieces of artwork have been created in her image, even making their way to home décor wall hangings at mega retailers like Target and Walmart. Recently, a biopic about Marilyn was released in select theaters. Today, Marilyn is immortalized as the tantalizing and seductive singer, actress, and model. She represents the pinnacle of stardom – a celebrity not only famous in her day but even decades later. It is hard to imagine Jessica Alba, Kristen Stewart, or other stars of today being remembered even ten years later. 

Those who knew Marilyn intimately, however, understand a darker story. Self-professed Marilyn fan and outspoken Hollywood historian James Reeves has been quoted saying, “She was diagnosed with bipolar disease and had trouble conceiving a child. If [people] only knew of Marilyn the Divorcee or Marilyn the Depressed. People focus so much on the success of Marilyn the Icon that they forget behind it all, behind the fame and glory, is a woman…a real woman, insecure, scared, beaten, yet hopeful just like the rest of them. And there is beauty in that too, flaws and everything.”

It can be inferred that, for James Reeves, fully appreciating Marilyn would require:

(A)realizing the scope of Marilyn’s lasting success in comparison to the stars of today
(B)recognizing that Marilyn’s professional success was a result of her personal turmoil
(C)reconciling Marilyn’s faults with her undeserved larger-than-life iconic status today
(D)understanding the tribulations of Marilyn the person and the triumphs of Marilyn the icon
(E)empathizing with Marilyn’s inability to overcome her personal demons

For many students, the obvious answer (remember, you should try to answer in your own words before looking at answer choices) might be “understanding Marilyn as a real woman, one with insecurities like everyone else.” That’s pretty much directly stated in the passage. And here’s the thing: it IS the right choice…if it existed as a choice.

But none of the answers were quite what we were expecting, so you have to infer the PURPOSE of the Reeves quote. Ask yourself WHY the author included that quote, what FUNCTION does the inclusion of the quote serve?

The correct answer is (D). The quote points out the fact that Marilyn had a troubled personal life and that “there is beauty in that too.” But the ROLE of the quote is to show that Reeves, a self-professed fan who knew Marilyn intimately as a historian, appreciated her both for her success and for her flaws. After all, he even says, “flaws and everything.” This is in stark contrast to the rest of the passage which talks about how people love Marilyn only for her success (no mention of flaws until the Reeves quote).

Take a minute to figure out why the remaining choices are wrong too. Remember, it’s better to identify the wrong answers than try to justify a “correct” answer.


  • Restating a Passage: giving a sentence-by-sentence recap in your own words (bad)
  • Summarizing a Passage: distilling a passage down to its main points (good)
  • Main points may not be directly stated; they may be inferred
  • Ask yourself what the ROLE/PURPOSE/FUNCTION of the passage is to figure out main idea


Peter Peng is a SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at

I’ve touched upon inference questions in an earlier post (remember: ask yourself WHY something was written, not just WHAT is written). But logic-based inference questions get their own special article because they are a more specialized and advanced subcategory of inference questions. These questions truly test if you know WHY something was written. They don’t just ask what can be inferred or what a particular sentence suggests; those are reserved for the normal, easier inference questions.

These logic questions ask for things such as which of the following is most analogous or best represents the issue/event/phenomenon described in the passage. They require you to fully understand both the meaning and purpose of the passage, then apply that understanding to hypothetical situations. The SAT is checking whether you can accurately judge situations not discussed in the passage based upon logic directly derived from the passage.

Let’s take a look at a question from the OSSG (Official SAT Study Guide) 2nd Edition.

EXAMPLE — Logic-Based Inference Question
OSSG 2nd Edition
pg. 592 #20

The example passage is about bats. First off, notice what the question is asking: which of the following LEAST detracts. The ETS has been kind enough to capitalize that keyword for you, yet so many simply overlook it. Be very careful around LEAST, EXCEPT, and NOT questions. The right answer is the one that answers the question correctly, not necessarily the one that matches what the passage says.

So the first thing you need to do is to straighten out the question itself, figure out what it’s truly asking for. In other words, ask yourself what would something that detracts very little from the author’s argument look like? Probably something that firmly supports the author. If none of the choices directly support the author, then look for the second best thing: the choice that doesn’t oppose the author, basically a choice that bears no relationship to the author’s argument. And if all choices oppose the author, then look for the third best thing: the choice that opposes the author to the least extent or degree.

Of course to answer the question, you first have to understand what the author’s argument is. Let’s go to the passage for that, pg. 591. Read lines 25-42 carefully.

Again, there are two levels of understanding:
1.WHAT something says (superficial first level)
2.WHY something was said (deeper second level)

WHAT is said:

  • Typically humans sleep at night.
  • Our “normal” time is daytime, when we are awake.
  • Anything that doesn’t follow our “normal” schedule is up to no good…scary…make us feel vulnerable & defenseless.
  • Bats operate outside our “normal” schedule because they are awake at night.
  • This makes bats frightening to humans.

WHY it is said:

  • To provide the logical framework we need to answer the question.
  • The logic of the author’s argument is simple:
    • “Normal” daytime hours = humans feel safe
    • Abnormal nighttime hours = humans feel threatened

So look at the answer choices and see if any support the logic above. Anything? Sadly no.

A)WRONG. If many people work at night, then by the author’s logic, these people would scare most other people. But we all know some night owl folks and probably aren’t scared of them. You may even be a night owl yourself, studying for the SAT late into the night. Are you scary? Probably not. So this definitely opposes the author’s logic that night dwellers are scary.

B)WRONG. The author says night animals are scary. Yet, the choice says owls (nocturnal animals) don’t cause fear. This is the opposite of the author’s claim/logic, so B is wrong.

C)WRONG. The author says daytime animals are nice and safe. Predators are pretty scary stuff, yet they are awake during the day? Da hell? Opposes author’s logic, so C is wrong.

D)WRONG. Bats have positive qualities?! Not according to the author’s logic that bats = nighttime = negative/threatening. So this is wrong too.

E)RIGHT. Okay, who cares if our dreams come from our personal lives? That doesn’t have anything to do with the author’s claim that day = nice/safe and night = bad/scary. Sure, this choice doesn’t support the author’s claim, but it also doesn’t detract. Since all of the other choices heavily detract, E is the best choice as the only answer that doesn’t detract.

EXAMPLE — Logic-Based Inference Question
OSSG 2nd Edition
pg. 579 #17

This example is about the decreasing involvement of women in business. The question asks which of the following would most directly support the author’s viewpoint (that women are becoming less and less involved in business).

Try it out yourself first, then check out the explanations below.

A)WRONG. Both raising status and assuming greater responsibilities have nothing to do with women becoming less involved in business. Note: “greater responsibilities” by itself doesn’t specify greater responsibilities in business. Since this choice is unrelated, it does not support the author.

B)WRONG. Writing novels has nothing to do with running businesses, so this choice doesn’t support the author’s claim.

C)WRONG. Working in factories shows MORE involvement in business, not less. Definitely does not support author; in fact, this choice directly opposes the author’s view.

D)RIGHT. If married couples aren’t running business together (jointly) anymore, then either the men or the women are becoming less involved in business. While the choice doesn’t specify if women are the ones becoming less involved, this is the only choice that presents the possibility of women retreating from business.

E)WRONG. Academic institutions have nothing to do with running businesses. This is unrelated, hence unsupportive. Not detracting, but not supportive either.


Peter Peng is a SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at

There are two levels to understanding a sentence:

  1. What it actually says (superficial first level)
  2. What purpose/role/function it serves (deeper second level)

Remember back in elementary school when we played the most annoying game on earth…the Why Game? I do. I vividly remember how I used it to torture my friends, family, and teachers. Basically, I would ask them a question and then ask “why?” to every response they gave.

Me: Dad, where do babies come from?
Dad: Well, when a man and a woman love each other very much…they get together and have a baby.
Me: Why?
Dad: Because they love each other very much.
Me: Why?
Dad: Because, son, they enjoy spending time together.
Me: Why?
Dad: Well, because they care deeply about one another and would sacrifice everything.
Me: Why?
Dad: Because that’s what true love is.
Me: Why?
Dad: Because you’re annoying! Grrr!
Me: Why?
Dad: I don’t know. You tell me!
Me: Why?
Dad: ARGHHHHH! (A wild Hatred-mon has appeared! Quick, throw a Pokeball to capture this rare Pokemon.)

Well, it’s time to bring back the Why Game! Except this time, it’s going to annoy the correct answers right out of those revolting SAT Reading Comprehension questions. Just keep asking why, why, why, and why of them all!

As your SAT field instructor, I would be remiss not to tell you that the number one issue that snares charming young agents like yourselves is not understanding the POINT/PURPOSE/REASON the author wrote a particular sentence. In other words, you might understand what was written but not why it was written.

Good writers pick their words carefully. Words are their weapon of choice. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword…or so claimed English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 in his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. Okay, that total nerd moment was uncalled for, but enlightening you with such useless facts brings me great joy, so hah.

Anyways, for writers, words are everything. We eat, breathe, and s**t words. We turn ideas into words, emotions into words, events into words, words into even better words. That’s what we do. Every little word has meaning, a reason to exist in our article. And the key to unlocking what we mean is understanding WHY we wrote it. You need to understand the purpose of each sentence in order to decode our message. Reading between the lines is all about realizing that implied purpose.

People say you can’t read too deeply into an email or text because you can’t read emotion on a screen; you have to see or at least hear their voice. That’s the biggest load of beetle dung I’ve ever heard. Good writers can absolutely convey precise emotion, attitude, and intonation through words on a page alone. It’s the bad writers who fail at that task, or the weak readers who fail at catching the emotions.

The first level of understanding is LITERALLY spelled out for you, word for word. To pass the first level of understanding, simply restate in your own words exactly what the sentence said. It’s absolutely essential you know what it’s literally saying, but unfortunately, harder questions on the SAT not only ask you to understand what’s being said but also WHY.

So ask yourself this: what is the FUNCTION of that sentence or paragraph? Does it emphasize a certain point brought up earlier? Does it oppose that point? Does it provide a specific example of that point or claim? Is it simply making a claim? Is it serving as a transition between ideas? You need to be able to connect one idea to another idea.

Succeeding at understanding WHY will help you tremendously with “inference” questions. These usually begin with something like, “It can be inferred that…”

By definition, “inference” means that something is not directly stated in the passage. That would be too easy. This isn’t an open book test where you’re simply look for an answer choice that matches the facts you read. This is SAT Critical Reading, which, I know…surprise…is asking you to think critically (in other words, to infer) why something that was written.

If you think for a moment about your own writing, I bet even you use one of the most basic forms of inference. Your organization of ideas is inferred. You don’t come right out and tell us, “First, I’m going to make a claim. Next, I’ll give you an example of that claim. Here it is now.” No, you expect us to reasonably infer that you’re giving this example because it supports your previous claim. You don’t have to explicitly tell us that’s your reason.

Check out this type of inferred organization in action:

e.g. The one who selflessly helps others will achieve more in his personal life than the narcissist who looks only after himself. Even if the selfish man achieves more in the immediate time being, the selfless man will surely surpass him by generating more goodwill. Like many others, my grandfather, a poor baker during World War I, had little money for his family. But as a baker, he had access to one of the few things more important than money — food. He could have selflessly hoarded the bread for himself, which his family desperately needed, but instead, he shared it freely with his neighbors. This hurt his family in the short run, but after the war, many of the neighborhood families remembered my grandfather’s act of kindness and repaid him in ways much more valuable than a few loaves of bread.

Why did I start mentioning my grandfather? What purpose does my grandfather’s story serve? You won’t find the answer directly in the passage anywhere. That’s because it’s inferred that my grandfather is serving as an example of my claim. The claim, of course, is that the “selfless man will surely surpass [the selfish man] by generating more goodwill.”

Here are some common beneath-the-surface reasons for writing something:

  • show how the author feels about an issue
  • reiterate/emphasize something
  • contradict or criticize something
  • agree with or advocate something
  • highlight or draw attention to something
  • make a claim
  • expound on or clarify a claim
  • provide an example of a claim
  • add additional details to progress the story
  • help transition between thoughts
  • provide details about a particular event or phenomenon
  • create suspense in the story/article/passage/essay
  • ask a rhetorical question
  • inject humor
  • better create a visual image of the scene for readers
  • provide a call to action (inspire readers to take action and do something)

Sometimes, even thinking about why a sentence is worded the way it is becomes revealing. The particular wording of a single phrase or adjective might betray the latent or underlying intentions behind the author’s sentence.

Always ask yourself why!

Peter Peng is a SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at
I found this image all over the web but couldn’t find an original creator. 🙁

People are always asking me for the best way to increase vocabulary. Because I’m most often asked this question about a week before the test, what they usually mean by “best” is “most expeditious.” Let’s be clear: What I’m going to be talking about in this post isn’t the fastest way to grow vocabulary. But it’s a great way to build a robust vocabulary over time, and become a better writer at the same time. I can sum it up in three words: Use a thesaurus.

In more than three words, here’s what I mean. When you’re writing a paper for school (or a letter to your grandma, or an acceptance speech for a major award) make it your mission to repeat as few words as possible. If, for example, you would use the word “angry three times, go back and replace two of them with “chafed” and “irate.” If you have occasion to use “big” more than once, use “voluminous,” or “hulking,” or “colossal.” See if you’re able to create a document that doesn’t repeat any words that aren’t conjunctions, articles, prepositions, or pronouns.

It’s a challenge to do this well. Not every word a thesaurus will provide is exactly interchangeable in every scenario; you’ll need to make sure the word you’re trying to use actually fits. For example, it’s cool to say a house is “big,” or “capacious,” but you probably wouldn’t call a house “burly.” It’s advisable, then, to use the thesaurus and dictionary concomitantly. Use the thesaurus for word ideas, and the dictionary to confirm that your choice actually works in context.

One last note: This practice will not only enhance to your vocabulary, but also elevate your writing. The most important writing you do isn’t really the SAT essay, but let’s have a quick look at how you’re actually being evaluated on the SAT essay. What’s this? An essay that receives a top score of 6 “exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary”? Hmm…

Reading comprehension, compared to math and grammar, is much more resistant to strategy attacks. Reading comp questions are like the cockroaches of the SAT world—nearly immune to pesticide (our tactics and strategies). The only way to truly and effectively conquer these pesky questions is the old fashion way: stomping them dead. By that I mean actually understanding what you’re reading—the fundamentals!

There is one glimmer of hope though, one saving grace, one strategy that I find pretty effective. It’s called “reading in chunks” rather than reading the passage all at once. I’ll talk more about that in a later post. However, that strategy alone without strong reading fundamentals will not help you much. Sad.

Anyways, never justify your answer (AKA try to convince yourself a particular answer is right). Instead, identify the wrong answers and…here’s the important part…WHY they are wrong. There are generally only a few reasons why something is wrong. Get rid of the notion right now that the SAT reading test is subjective. I’ve heard too often that the test is unfair because there can be two or three right answers depending on how you interpret or analyze the passage.

Here’s the thing. This ain’t English AP. This ain’t Ms. Holden’s British Literature class. This is the goddamn SAT, which isn’t about analysis or interpretation. It’s about understanding exactly what was said (in other words, reading comprehension). You aren’t going to be doing interpretation or analysis. (Okay, there might be ONE or TWO questions where you sorta, but not really, have to interpret, but that’s it.) Treat the reading test as one giant open book test where the answers are right in front of you, hidden in plain sight.

Don’t overthink things (AKA confuse yourself with impressive analysis). Don’t try to overreach with your analytical connections and impose your own thoughts, even if they are logical thoughts.

There can only be ONE right answer, otherwise the SAT would be sued up the wazoo, and the trick to getting the right answer is recognizing the wrong answers. Counterintuitive, no? Follow me here.

You must be able to explain WHY the four other choices are wrong. Explaining why the remaining choice is right is cool and oftentimes helpful but never as helpful as explaining why the other guys are wrong. The reason trying to find the right answer is the wrong method for the reading part of the SAT is that if you’re down to, say, two choices, they’re both still in the running because something looks right about each of them. Otherwise they wouldn’t still be up for debate. You could easily convince yourself one way or the other why one is right. But once you find something that is wrong, it’s game over for that choice.

The most common reasons things are wrong:

  1. Not stated in the passage. Duh. The trap here is that some answer choices actually feel really logical and make sense to any smart-thinking student like yourself. But if it doesn’t say it directly in the passage, it’s wrong no matter how much that choice makes sense.
  2. Opposite of what’s stated in the passage. Duh again. But they will try to trick you by mentioning something you remember reading about, and then contradicting what the passage said. Even small discrepancies can mess up the whole game and meaning of an answer choice.
  3. Too extreme. Good writing is about grey areas, nuances, and subtleties. So the SAT probably isn’t going to make the right answer so black and white. Things like “extremely” or “absolutely” or “undoubtedly” or stuff along those lines are probably wrong. “Always” or “never” are usually bad too. The SAT is also part of the PC (politically correct) police, so controversial stuff probably isn’t right either.
  4. Too broad. Good writing is about being specific. So if one of the choices feels too general or vague, it’s probably wrong (unless the question is asking for the main idea). This answer choice might feel true in a general sense, but it’s just too broad.
  5. Too narrow. This choice might actually be true and stated in the passage. But it’s not the full reason, so it doesn’t completely answer the question.
  6. True, but unrelated. This choice might actually be true again and stated in the passage. Unfortunately, it’s unrelated to the question, so again, it’s wrong. This one is a killer because if you read the entire passage at once, you’ll have all these thoughts about various parts of the passage in your head jumbled up. The SAT loves to ask something about paragraph 3 but have an answer choice reminding you of something you read about in paragraph 5. This is why you reading the passage all at once can be detrimental. 
  7. Only half true (or partially true). Remember, even if the rest of the choice is perfect, if there’s even ONE word that’s wrong, then the entire choice is wrong.

The answer choices themselves are not the only things to pay special attention to though. The question itself is quite deserving of your attention. Be wary of key words such as “primarily.” A choice might say “because Bobby was a smart guy.” There might actually be a specific incident in the passage where Bobby did something incredibly stupid like microwaving a metal fork. Many test takers would then say the choice is wrong because Bobby did that one stupid thing. But if the rest of the passage shows how smart Bobby was, then Bobby was “primarily” or “mostly” smart. You can’t cross this choice off as wrong anymore. 

Again, don’t justify why something’s right…identify what’s wrong. It sucks that the SAT isn’t testing what you’ve been trained to do at school in English class (which is to analyze and interpret), so when you try to do what you’ve been trained to do, you actually get stuff wrong. But that’s why it’s important that we UNTRAIN you…and then retrain you for the SAT.

What I suggest (and this will take a lot longer in the beginning…by like tenfold) is to create a Word document with the following:


Have A, B, C, D, and E for each and every reading passage question. You’re going to need a lot of paper. When you answer a question, write down the reason why the four answers are wrong. Print out the list of wrong answer reasons and refer to it every question. Just leave the right answer’s slot blank.
It’ll end up looking something like this:

1.A)too extreme
D)not stated
E)half true

Getting the right answer is good, but it’s not enough. To become a master, you have to know why ALL the other choices are wrong. It’s not hard to get the right answer by looking for it in the easy questions, but my method is going to train you for those tough questions.

Parting thoughts on the right answer: the correct answer should feel right easily and effortlessly. You shouldn’t have to force it to feel right. You shouldn’t have to say, “Well, if I think about it from this angle, I can see how it’d work.” No. If you have to look at it crookedly for it to make sense, it’s probably wrong. 

The right answer MUST BE SUPPORTED by the passage itself. That means you must be able to point to a specific word, phrase, or sentence(s) that led you to your answer. Don’t let yourself off the hook with “Oh, I got the overall sense that she was feeling scornful.” Instead, be able to point to a sentence that says, “Those theories are all hogwash. The pioneers of those schools of thoughts knew nothing.”

No matter how attractive or logical an answer choice sounds, if you can’t support it with the contents of the passage, then you can’t pick it.

Good luck,

Peter Peng is an SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at

Note: I’m cross-posting this great question I got at because it’s easier to archive it here and I thought this was worth being able to refer back to. I hope you don’t mind.

Original Question: Would it be helpful to know Latin for the SATs?

Answer: This is a fantastic question! A lot of people (especially Latin teachers) will tell you that it’s incredibly helpful to know Latin for the SATs. I know the Latin teacher in my old high school used to make a presentation every year to the incoming freshmen that said exactly that (and back in my day, vocabulary was even more important on the SAT because you had analogies and antonym questions, which were the effing worst).

The idea is that since many English words have Latin roots, you might be able to figure out words you don’t know based on roots. You might, for example, find it helpful to know that “circum-” means “around.” But does that help you figure out “circumspect” on the fly?Well…maybe. I use the root as mnemonic to remember that one who is circumspect (which means prudent and considering all consequences before acting) looks at issues from every angle—from all AROUND. But every time I’ve tried to help a kid figure out the word by saying “well, you know the root ‘circum-‘ means ‘around’…” it hasn’t led them to the right answer. So, many words in English do have Latin roots. But that wont always help you figure out what the English words mean.

On the other hand, I took Spanish in high school (which is more closely related to Latin than English is) and I’ve found that my Spanish vocabulary has bailed me out of trouble more than once. For example, a few years back when I was starting out as an SAT instructor, I came across “picayune,” which I didn’t know. But I did know that in Spanish, “pequeño” means “small.” I know Erica Meltzer over at is a big French buff, so I bet she’d tell you the same about French. I think the bottom line is that knowledge of any other language might end up being helpful for you on the SAT—or it might not. The most important language to be deeply familiar with is English. Read challenging books, and look up every word you don’t know, always. That simple practice will help you more than Latin, Spanish, French, and German combined.

Note: all of this was going to be a comment on this post at The Fat Envelope Blog but after I typed it all up I got server error after server error trying to submit it. Because I was so sufficiently fired up, I decided to post it here instead. My apologies if you didn’t come here for politics. We’ll be back to regularly scheduled math shortly.

The backstory, if you don’t want to click over, is that a columnist I’d not heard of before today, Linda Chavez, wrote a truly scummy piece in which she used the unending debate about the SAT as a bludgeon to further her political agenda. 

I’m not a proponent of abolishing the test (far from it!) but Ms. Chavez’s piece is…awful. Just awful. And biased as the day is long. She approaches the entire debate from a political standpoint, not an educational one. If the elephants on the page weren’t enough to clue you in, she reveals her agenda quite clearly here (my emphasis):

The movement away from requiring the SAT has picked up steam in the last few years, ostensibly driven by the desire to increase racial and ethnic diversity at colleges. If it’s true, this would be troubling enough, since the desire to achieve a predetermined ethnic or racial mix should play no role in determining who gets into college. But, in any event, the real motive behind the SAT-optional movement is more complicated and self-serving.

She then proceeds to follow a very familiar blueprint: claim that your opponent has “very little” evidence, and offer even less of your own.  A note to Ms. Chavez: the amount of time and money ETS has spent recalibrating the test is no more evidence of the SAT’s fairness than are racial discrepancies evidence of its unfairness. Would that it were true that throwing money at a problem would always fix it!

The only evidence she offers of the SAT’s predictive ability is a “carefully done meta-analysis” that I just spent 30 minutes looking for and could not find. That’s a shame. I bet it’s a great read. I’ll keep looking, I guess.

One last note: the assertion at the end of the piece about the “high irony” of the whole situation reeks of ignorance (if I’m being charitable).

This is a sloppy, loathsome piece all the way through, and shame on any real newspaper that syndicated it (though again, thankfully, I’m not seeing many in my quick Google search).

Much hay is made about what the SAT is actually testing. Does it function as some strangely-defined “college readiness” measurement? Is it a pure reasoning test? Is the SAT a test of innate intelligence, like an IQ test? Is it a completely meaningless hoop that you just have to jump through like a circus dog because everyone else does? The College Board claims only that the SAT tests “the skills you’re learning in school: reading, writing and math.” Is that true?

The indefatigable Debbie Stier asked me for my take on this the other day, and I realized that I had never written about it on this site. My answer to all of the above is a qualified “no.” There’s a bit of truth to each claim, and you won’t have to look too hard to find people who’ll argue for any of them. You might even have a friend with a crazy theory of his own (Duuude, the SAT is an awesome predictor of alien abduction!). I’ve been working with the SAT for a while now, and I’ve come to my own conclusions.

The short answer: there is no short answer. Each subject tests different things, and although there are overarching themes, you’re not giving the test fair treatment if you try to encompass the whole thing in just a word or two. What follows is a bit of a brain dump. Chime in in the comments if you think I’m missing something.

Critical Reading
  • Deep Reading: Are you able to interact with a passage in such a way that you understand the author’s tone? Can you draw inferences about how the author might respond to counterarguments or criticism of her point of view? Do you understand why she might have bothered to sit down and write the passage in the first place?
  • Precision: Do you comprehend sophisticated writing (both in the passage and in the answer choices!) well enough to pick the one correct response from a list when the incorrect choices are often incorrect for subtle reasons? Often incorrect choices can be eliminated because of a single word in the choice! Do you know exactly what words mean? On hard sentence completions, it’s not good enough to have a vague sense that a particular word is “positive” or “negative.” You have to know precise definitions, and recognize appropriate use (not for every single word, mind you, but for enough to successfully eliminate incorrect choices).
    • Vocabulary: This is a corollary to the above, but obviously you need to possess a decent vocabulary to score well on the CR section.
  • Umm…math: How are your fundamental math skills? Are you comfortable working with right triangles, exponents, and percents? Can you reliably translate word problems into mathematical equations? There’s no way around this; there are many techniques that can help boost your score, but if your fundies are weak your score will be also.
  • Nimbleness: Do you see multiple ways to solve many of the problems? Are you willing to take shortcuts if they’re available (like on questions like these), or are you dogmatic in your methodology? Are you able to transition easily between techniques if the first one you try doesn’t bear fruit? Are you willing to try crazy things if you’re stumped?
  • Stick-to-itiveness: Do you persevere when your first approach comes up empty? I’ve been teaching this stuff for years and I don’t get questions wrong when I take the test, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t end up at a dead-end once in a while on my first go-through of a problem. The highest scorers cock their eyebrows, learn from their missteps, and reroute when they run into trouble.
  • Grammar: Can you spot common usage errors? The SAT doesn’t cover every grammatical rule, and it stays pretty far away from most grammar controversy. (Oxford comma? Not tested.) If you know the most common SAT rules, you’ll be in pretty good shape. If you’re looking for an exhaustive list of rules, Erica Meltzer’s got you covered.
  • Flow: Can you identify (in the multiple choice) and execute (in the essay) a logically structured, well formed sentence or paragraph? Are you able to recognize when contrast or transition words are appropriate, or when an edit might drastically improve clarity and readability?
The Bottom Line
It’s quite difficult to say, concisely, what the SAT is testing, and attempts to do so are often uselessly reductive (it’s what you learn in school!) or dismissive and curmudgeonly (the SAT tests you on how well you take the SAT). Students who work assiduously in school (not students whose grades are exemplary because of cramming skills) tend to do well because there is a fair amount of overlap between SAT skills and the skills ostensibly taught in high school, but it’s also very possible to raise SAT scores a great deal with focused prep because the SAT is fairly predictable, despite its breadth.
Regardless of what the SAT tests, your score is not a number that defines your worth. It is not tattooed on your forehead, and once your senior year is over it will very quickly be relegated to a dusty, rarely-traveled corner of your mind. As crazy as this may seem to you now, you might get to a time in your life when you can’t even remember what your SAT score was. But it is a number that may help you gain admission to the schools you pine after, so if that’s important to you, then you should take the steps to ensure that you’ll be happy with your score.

I remember taking a short, but very hard calculus test in high school, and watching my friend hand in his test 10 minutes before time was called. I shot him the requisite stink-eye glare, and got back to work, struggling to integrate a function that was giving me absolutely no love. I don’t remember the function all these years later, nor do I even remember if I ended up integrating it successfully or not. What I remember is walking out of the room in my typical post-exam delirium being approached by my speedy friend.

“I failed,” he said, hands in pockets and staring at his feet. “I saw that last problem and it just froze me in my tracks.”


You had ten whole minutes to ruminate on that problem, and instead you turned your test in and put your head down on your desk? And now you’re lamenting your performance?

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but sympathy for people who struggle with difficult questions (that’s why I made this site — to try to be helpful), but I can’t muster any sympathy for you if you can’t muster the strength to persevere until time is called.

In fairness to my friend, some functions are impossible to integrate if you don’t know a particular rule, and unless you’re an evil genius you’re probably not going to be able to derive the rule on the fly in 10 minutes. But he still should have kept trying. Something might have come to him. The only thing that’s certain is that nothing was going to come to him with the test off his desk and his head on it instead.

Over my years doing test prep, I’ve watched countless of kids zip through an SAT section during a proctored test and then put their heads on their desks to wait for the next section to begin, especially in reading and writing sections. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those kids get through a section with 100% of the questions answered correctly. Much to my chagrin, many of them even leave difficult questions blank!

There’s no shame in getting a difficult question wrong. There is shame in giving up on yourself when there’s still time left in the section. There is shame in not catching silly mistakes that you could have caught if you had been checking your work instead of trying to catch a 5 minute nap. There is no glory in finishing early. There is only the potential for shame.

If you finish a reading section early

Pretend that you’re going to have to defend each of your answers to a room full of people, and find the relevant sections of text that support the answers you chose. If you can’t find support for the answer you chose in the passage, it’s probably not be the right answer.

If you finish a math section early

Check. Your. Work. Do problems a different way than you did the first time. If you did algebra, see if you arrive at the same answer when plugging-in. If you solved a tough question with geometry and the figure was drawn to scale, make sure your answer stands up to scrutiny by guesstimating. Perhaps most importantly, make sure you didn’t make any silly errors by misreading questions. Those mistakes sting the most.

If you finish a writing section early

Go back through and make sure you aren’t seeing errors where there’s really just complex construction. Just because you might choose to say something differently doesn’t mean the way it’s written is wrong. Do a scan to make sure you caught all the dangling modifiers and run-on sentences. Make sure you caught all the comparisons by looking for instances of possessives (Mike’s blog; Sam’s salary; the plight of the Mets fan). Look for lists that you might have missed the first time. Do all your verbs match their subjects? Do all your pronouns match their antecedents?

It ain’t over until it’s over

If you’re trying to maximize your score, there’s really no excuse for quitting on a section early. I don’t care how certain you are about your answers. I don’t care how rarely you make algebra mistakes. I don’t care how boring the passages were. You’re either working on improving your score, or you’re sitting there in the test room doing nothing. Get back to work. You’ll thank yourself when the test is finally, actually over.

Credit: the very talented Mike R. Baker

I’ve already covered the importance of a good vocabulary, and I hope that you’ve been clicking the red vocabulary links on this site as you meander through. They’re meant to teach you a few good words, and to show you that strong vocabulary doesn’t have to be shoehorned into writing; it can and should flow naturally. I basically taught myself javascript to make those links, which took an obscenely long time, but I did so because I think it’s useful. So, yeah: You should actively try to improve your vocabulary as you prepare for the SAT. Period.

I want to take a (slightly controversial) step back from that, though, and caution you that a single-minded obsession with vocabulary will, in all likelihood, backfire on you. Not only is there much more to the Critical Reading section than just vocabulary, vocabulary isn’t even #1 on the list of necessary skills!

Some folks incorrectly claim that the 19 Sentence Completion questions on the SAT test only vocabulary, but even if that were true those account for less than a third of the 67 questions in the section. Want to include the passage-based questions that ask you to define a word in context as pure vocabulary questions? That’s even more of a stretch, but including them still doesn’t get you to a third of the questions.

But I don’t want to argue about question distribution. The truth is, even the Sentence Completion questions test you on your comprehension skills as much as they test your vocabulary; not only do the difficult questions contain difficult words, they contain much more subtle context clues than do the easy ones. Let’s look at an example of a tough one:

  1. Because of his devotion to economy of expression, the computer programmer’s code was ——- despite its incredible ——-.
    (A) elegant . . complexity
    (B) spare . . utility
    (C) labyrinthine . . usefulness
    (D) prosaic . . beauty
    (E) mawkish . . magnanimity

This is an example of a question that goes to great lengths to make it difficult to predict the contents of the blanks. A good vocabulary might help you eliminate one answer, but without good comprehension skills it’s very difficult to nail this one down. There are two clues in the sentence:

  1. The easier clue is the “despite” between the blanks, indicating that there should be some amount of surprise that both blanks are true about the same code.  If you know both words, you know that mawkishness and magnanimity have very little to do with each other, so you can kill (E). But even if you know all the other choices, that’s as far as you can go using the easy clue. All the rest of the choices kinda work: if something were prosaic it’d be slightly surprising to also call it beautiful; if something were labyrinthine it’d be a little strange to also call it useful; things that are spare do not always have great utility; elegance and complexity are often at odds.
  2. The really difficult clue is the phrase “economy of expression.” Neither “economy” nor “expression” is a difficult word on its own, but think for a minute about what they could mean together. Sure, you read a lot about “the economy” in the paper, but what does “economy” mean here? When a car advertisement touts a vehicle’s “fuel economy,” what does that mean? It means the car goes a long way on one tank of gas. “Economy” means getting a lot out of a little. It means getting the maximum return on a limited resource (which, if I may just break the flow for one minute, is not what you’re doing when you study endless word lists). So “economy of expression” means, in the programming context, accomplishing a lot without using many lines of code.

And that, friends, is why the answer to this question is (B). Note one more devious aspect of this question: the relatively rare definition of “spare.” I doubt that word shows up on any SAT vocabulary lists, but it absolutely can mean “elegantly simple.” Just so we’re clear, I’ve changed some things about the question, but I based this on a real question from a real SAT that contained both “economy of expression” and “spare” used in the same ways they are used above. This kind of question exists.

So, what lessons have we learned?
  1. The SAT will throw words at you that aren’t on most vocab lists. “Mawkishness” was on the May test, and most people who I’ve spoken to had no idea what it meant until they looked it up afterwards. THIS IS NOT A REASON TO STUDY LONGER LISTS! The other words in the question were much more common and would have been familiar to you if you spent a few hours with any well designed list of a few hundred words. You could have answered the question correctly anyway.
  2. The SAT will often use common words in less common ways (like the obscure definition of “spare”). You won’t get those definitions from flash cards or word lists, you’ll get them from being a voracious, insatiable reader and coming across them in the wild.
  3. Difficult Sentence Completion questions are difficult not only because of hard words, but because of complex sentence structure and esoteric usage. You will need to be a very good reader to get them right.
The bottom line

I’ve spoken with too many kids lately who seem hell-bent on memorizing all the words in Barron’s 3500 Word Black Hole From Which No Light Escapes, and it breaks my heart. If you do that, you will memorize literally thousands of words you won’t need for the SAT, and you’ll use valuable time doing so that would be better spent practicing your reading comprehension, writing practice essays, drilling circle questions, or trying to count the number of hairs on your head.

Remember a few paragraphs back, when we were talking about economy? Those were good times, right? Trying to memorize 3500 words is not good economy. To put it another way—and to finally incorporate the awesome illustration at the top of this post—if you pursue vocabulary obsessively, like Ahab did Moby Dick, your scores might remain in Davey Jones’ locker.

You, intrepid student, need to find a balance between the reasonable and the obscene. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing is. Godspeed.

Finally, here’s a thread where Xiggi, the much-ballyhooed College Confidential SAT guru, basically argues the same thing (and gets a lot of pushback, naturally).

Jesse Lacey of Brand New.
Found this here.

It’s important, on the SAT reading section, to be able to nail down the main idea of a passage, even if you’re not sure what every single word means. There’s no quick remedy for this if you’re struggling; you’re just going to have to practice. A lot. If the only reading you do is on practice tests, you’re dooming yourself to failure. You’re going to have to start reading everything you can get your hands on, and reading it actively; asking questions as you go and making sure you’re understanding the author’s argument and point of view.

Have a look at the following passage*, and see if you can answer the questions below it.

The following passage is about “emo,” a genre of popular music.

  1. Based on the passage as a whole, which of the following scenarios from the sports world is most analogous to emo music?
    (A) A recreational soccer league requires teams to have equal numbers of male and female players.
    (B) Body checking is not allowed in women’s ice hockey, but such forceful physical contact is an essential part of men’s ice hockey.
    (C) Television ratings for the men’s college basketball tournament exceed those for the corresponding women’s tournament.
    (D) Professional football has many female fans, despite the fact that it is played only by men and its marketing is aimed almost exclusively at men.
    (E) Most golf courses contain separate “ladies’ tees” so that female golfers don’t have to drive the ball as far as male golfers.


  2. The author of the passage would most likely agree with which of the following statements?
    (A) Emo bands have male and female fans.
    (B) Singers in emo bands are immature.
    (C) Music critics should not take emo seriously.
    (D) Many emo bands would be better if they had more female members.
    (E) Most people who like emo music are lonely.


  3. Lines 8-11 (“However … men”) serve primarily to
    (A) explain a population’s distaste for emo music
    (B) highlight a surprising fact
    (C) condemn a style of songwriting
    (D) dispute a previous argument
    (E) suggest a solution to a problem


  4. According to the passage, with which of the following characteristics of emo music do female fans identify most strongly?
    (A) Its “androcentrism” (line 1)
    (B) The “women in emo bands” (line 2)
    (C) The “‘lonely boy’s aesthetic'” (lines 4-5)
    (D) Its “litany of one-sided songs” (line 6)
    (E) Its “expression of emotional devastation” (line 13)


Answers and explanations below the cut…

What’s the big idea?

Before we get into the answers, what’s the main idea of this passage? If I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s that emo music has broad appeal, despite an apparent gender bias. If you’re not getting that out of it, then you need to read it more carefully. Answering these questions (which fall pretty squarely into the “main idea questions” category) is going to be much more difficult if you don’t have that understanding of the passage.

Also — and this is important — leave any preconceived notions you have about emo music at the door. The SAT will often choose topics you’re familiar with, in an attempt to play off opinions you might have that the passage either contradicts or completely fails to address. If you can’t support your answer from the passage and the passage only, you’re going to be wrong.

Lastly, remember that on the SAT, a short passage like this would only have 2 questions. I wrote 4 because it’s really hard to come up with good passages, and so I wanted to squeeze more out of it than only 2 questions. So sue me, sue me, shoot bullets through me**.

OK, here’s how it’s going to go: I’ll give you all the right answers and the reasons why they’re right, and then I’ll break down why the wrong answers are wrong. Remember: on the SAT, correct answers are never random, and incorrect answers are always incorrect for a good reason. On some questions, you’ll find it easier to find the correct answer directly, and on others you’ll find it easier to eliminate wrong answers. Both are completely valid ways to answer a question, and you should practice both so that you can alternate between them with ease.

  1. (D). The passage discusses the fact that, despite a clear gender bias (“androcentrism”), the emo genre of music has many female fans. Likewise, football is a game played exclusively by men, and marketed almost exclusively towards men, and yet attracts plenty of female fans.
  2. (A). This is an easier one. Which of these things does the author say? He says emo has male and female fans in lines 9-10. A few of the wrong choices here are meant to appeal to possible preconceived notions you may have.
  3. (B). What’s the surprising fact? That despite a bunch of misogynist lyrical content, many women still really love emo music.
  4. (E). The explanation the author gives for women enjoying emo music in the last sentence of the passage is that they can identify with emotional devastation, regardless of the specific subject matter of a song.


But what’s wrong with ___?
  1. Based on the passage as a whole, which of the following scenarios from the sports world is most analogous to emo music?
    (A) A recreational soccer league requires teams to have equal numbers of male and female players. (This sounds pretty fair to me. No androcentrism here.)
    (B) Body checking is not allowed in women’s ice hockey, but such forceful physical contact is an essential part of men’s ice hockey. (We can have a debate someday as to whether this is fair, but it’s not the same dynamic that exists in emo music: there’s not a “men’s emo” and a “women’s emo” with different rules.) 
    (C) Television ratings for the men’s college basketball tournament exceed those for the corresponding women’s tournament. (Again, this passage isn’t concerned with “men’s emo” and “women’s emo” having different properties, it’s about perceived gender bias in the content and whether that affects its popularity among the genders.)
    (D) Professional football has many female fans, despite the fact that it is played only by men and its marketing is aimed almost exclusively at men.
    (E) Most golf courses contain separate “ladies’ tees” so that female golfers don’t have to drive the ball as far as male golfers. (This answer is a lot like (B) and is wrong for the same reasons.)


  2. The author of the passage would most likely agree with which of the following statements?
    (A) Emo bands have male and female fans.
    (B) Singers in emo bands are immature. (Where does the passage say that? Leave your personal opinions at the door.)
    (C) Music critics should not take emo seriously. (I saw no mention of music critics.)
    (D) Many emo bands would be better if they had more female members. (The author does mention the lack of women in emo bands, but makes no statement as to whether the music would be improved if more women were in the bands.)
    (E) Most people who like emo music are lonely. (No.)


  3. Lines 8-12 (“However … men”) serve primarily to
    (A) explain a population’s distaste for emo music (This sentence is about how females LIKE emo.)
    (B) highlight a surprising fact
    (C) condemn a style of songwriting (Nope. No value judgments here.)
    (D) dispute a previous argument (What previous argument???)
    (E) suggest a solution to a problem (What solution???)


  4. According to the passage, with which of the following characteristics of emo music do female fans identify most strongly?
    (A) Its “androcentrism” (line 1) (No, that’s a reason females might dislike emo.)
    (B) The “women in emo bands” (line 2) (Maybe they’d like them if they existed, but the passage says they basically don’t.)
    (C) The “‘lonely boys’ aesthetic'” (lines 4-5) (Tempting. They might like the “lonely boy’s aesthetic,” but that’s not the same as identifying with it. Also, the passage suggests that this is a direct cause of the “litany” in choice (D), which the author suggests is a reason females might be repulsed by emo.)
    (D) Its “litany of one-sided songs” (line 6) (Again, this is a pretty good reason for females not to like emo.)
    (E) Its “expression of emotional devastation” (line 13)


*Passage adapted from Wikipedia according to Creative Commons License. Original article accessed 4/18/2010.

** Nope, not emo. Musical theater. Did I fool you?


I was looking over the visitor stats for this blog last night and I was pleasantly surprised to discover a small international audience! The SAT is administered all over the world, and at least a few people have visited this site from (in order of frequency) Singapore, Hungary, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. That’s great! I’m glad you’re considering taking this test, which means of course that you’re seriously considering attending university in the US.

As I’m sure you’re finding out, the SAT is a very difficult test—even more so for those for whom English is not a native tongue. While English grammar required for the writing section can be mastered (and I assume you’ve been studying English for some time if you’re seriously considering the SAT), the reading section presents a unique set of challenges because it requires students to engage with reading passages in a very deep way: comprehending not only the content of the article, but the author’s tone and intent, which can be very subtly disguised and are often difficult even for native English speakers to pin down. It also requires a substantially larger vocabulary than you’ve probably ever needed for conversational English, in school or elsewhere.

There are no easy answers here, but I’d like to give you a few pieces of advice if you’re preparing for the SAT and you haven’t been speaking English since infancy:

  1. Vocabulary is important. As you are practicing, write down every single word you don’t know, and look it up later. And then save that list, so that you can refer to it again and again, until you’re sure you know those words. There are many free online word lists (like SparkNotes 1000) and many other books (people seem to really like Direct Hits) or sets of flash cards you can buy as well, but I can’t overstate how important it is to take responsibility for your burgeoning vocabulary by doing this simple exercise.
  2. Vocabulary is not the only thing. I’ve worked with non-native English speakers in the past who over-fixate on vocabulary. There are 19 sentence completion questions per test, and 48 passage-based reading questions. Of course, some vocabulary will help you in the passages, but you’re still doing yourself a grave disservice if the only thing you do when practicing reading is study words.
  3. The SAT is not the only place you can practice your critical reading. The best performers on the SAT reading section (native speakers or not) are voracious readers. Read everything you can get your hands on, but especially English magazines and newspapers, which contain essay-formatted content similar to what you will find on the SAT, and thus will give you valuable practice identifying main ideas, arguments, and author tone. These days, almost everything is available for free online. Here are a few sources I like: The Economist, The Atlantic, Newsweek, New York Magazine. Don’t just use my suggestions though, explore!
  4. When you practice, spend as much time going over the test as you did taking it. It’s important to understand the mistakes you’ve made. It can be daunting to miss a great deal of questions, especially for students accustomed to performing well on exams. But it’s important that you begin to recognize the patterns in your mistakes; that’s how you’re going to fix them. If you can identify a pattern (for example, you are picking choices that contradict the passage in some way) then you can start to eliminate that pattern. There are only so many different ways the SAT can ask a question, so if you can begin to categorize and eliminate your mistakes, you are on your way to a large score improvement.
  5. At the end of the day, the SAT isn’t the only path to school in the US. If you’re struggling mightily with the SAT, consider the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is accepted by tons of schools here in the States. You can download practice questions directly from the test maker here to see what it’s all about.

I am always impressed with students who didn’t grow up speaking English, and are still willing to take on the challenge that the SAT presents. Many students I know who did grow up speaking English have an incredibly hard time with the SAT!

I hope this advice is helpful. Please feel free to comment on this page if you have additional questions.