SAT Success

So, you've just entered senior year of high school and you've already got your hands full. You have to study for school, power through the pangs of adolescence, and savor your last few memories with friends before you depart for college. But there's one more hurdle waiting just around the bend: the SAT. As the all important test that can make or break a college application, the SAT gives thousands of seniors sleepless nights each year. That need not be your fate, however. With the right study and guidance, you'll find cracking the SAT as easy as a pie.  

When to Take the SAT

Most students take the SAT in their senior year. Some students prefer to take it twice - in the spring of their junior year, and once in the senior year. Remember: most colleges have their application deadlines in December, so you should be through with the SAT at least by fall of your senior year.  

A Guide to SAT Success

The SAT exam is the bane of high school seniors all across the country, but this reputation is largely undeserved. The exam tests your reasoning, analysis, and language abilities—three crucial skills that will help you do well in college. Other than your high school grades, the SAT plays a huge role in helping your application land in the 'accepted' rather than the 'rejected' pile.  

The SAT Format

The SAT exam is divided into three sections of 800 marks each: Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing. The Critical Reading and Mathematics section are both 70 minutes long, while the Writing section is 60 minutes long. The three sections have 67, 54, and 49 multiple choice questions each, respectively. The Writing section also has an essay component. Until 2005, the exam had just two sections - Reading and Mathematics. This is the reason why you might see some Universities reporting their median scores out of 1600 instead of 2400. Of course, this doesn't give you the license to goof off on the Writing section. Despite what some people will tell you, your Writing test score will have as big an impact on your admission chances as the other two sections.  

Acing SAT Critical Reading

The Critical Reading section is meant to test your reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills. The section has a total of 67 multiple choice questions. Broadly, the exam can be divided into two sections: a 50 minute section with 48 sentence completion MCQs on short reading passages, followed by a 20 minute section with 19 questions based on a long passage. Sentence completion questions test your language skills, comprehension and vocabulary. You will be required to fill blanks in incomplete sentences with the correct word. Reading comprehension questions will require you to read and answer questions based on a passage.
Let's take a look at a sample sentence completion question:
Some people assume that the use of slang is common only among the poorly educated. However, this notion is _________
1. Correct
2. Widespread
3. Erroneous
4. Fashionable
The correct answer, in this case, would be option (3).
Why? The presence of 'however' in the question essentially negates the first part of the sentence. Thus, we have to find a word that reinforces the 'however' in the sentence. Only option (3) would make that possible. The rest of the three choices only reinforce the first part of the sentence which has already been negated by 'however'.  

Breaking Sentences

The key to success in sentence completion questions is to understand the 'flow' of a sentence and break it into simpler structures if necessary. In the above example, we saw how the 'however' changes the flow of the sentence. Hence, we must find an answer that corroborates this flow. Similarly, stripping a sentence into a simpler form can often prove very effective.  

Powering Through Passages

There is no shortcut to improving reading speed. You'll have to burn the midnight oil and get up to speed on reading. Pick up a few books from the library - make sure that you choose a variety of topics - and within a few months, you can bring your reading speed up to scratch. It also helps to skim through a passage and highlight important words and sentences. Since you get just 70 minutes to do 67 questions, time is of essence in the Critical Reading section. Passage highlights can save valuable time and help you answer questions more easily.  

Getting a Grip on Vocabulary

Of course, a strong vocabulary always helps in the Critical Reading section. Get some flash cards, write some big words on them, and make it a point to learn 10 new words every day.  

Cracking SAT Mathematics

Phew! Nothing makes high school students shiver with fear more than the prospect of SAT Mathematics. The Mathematics section has 54 questions - 44 multiple choice and 10 grid in questions. Questions cover topics such as arithmetic, algebra I & II and basic geometry. Don't worry, you won't have to answer complex trigonometry and calculus questions here!  

Be Prepared

Make yourself familiar with the directions in the answer booklet before you appear for the exam. This can save you a few valuable minutes. It is also a good practice to memorize all formulas to save time, even though most formulas are provided in the booklet itself.  

Learn to be a Better Reader

More than a few students make the mistake of powering through the question heedlessly and miss important details. Make sure that you read each and every question in full, and jot down all relevant details. Making a mistake in noting down the number of watermelons in the farmer's cart, or their selling price in the market can give you an incorrect answer and wreck your chances of getting a top score.  

When in Doubt, Sketch!

Many geometry problems can be solved with a simple sketch. Instead of using complex formulas and theorems, learn to first sketch out a rough diagram of the problem. This will give you better insight into the problem, and even lead you straight to the answer.  

Eliminate and Conquer

Consider the following question:
A bullet travels at ten feet per second. How far will the bullet travel in an hour?
1. 30 feet
2. 3000 feet
3. 60000 feet
4. 360000 feet
Through simple logic, we can safely eliminate options (1) and (2). If a bullet travels 10 feet in just one second, surely it will travel much, much more in 3600 seconds (i.e. 1 hour). This way, we are left with just two choices: (3) and (4). Our answer, thus, becomes far easier to calculate (the correct options is 4).  

Smashing Through SAT Writing

The SAT Writing section tests your grip on grammar and your ability to express your ideas in a coherent manner. There are 49 grammar based multiple choice questions along with an essay component. You'll be given 25 minutes for the essay, 25 minutes for 35 questions on identifying sentence errors, and 10 minutes for 14 questions on improving sentences. Clearing SAT writing is a lot like clearing SAT Reading. In fact, if you do well in the Critical Reading section, the Writing section should be a cakewalk. The questions are somewhat similar in tone, scope and format. Good readers are often good writers, so all those Harry Potter and Hunger Games novels will hold you in good stead in this test.  

Brush up on Grammar

SAT Writing is primarily a test of your ability to identify grammatical errors. Knowing your tenses and verb forms will go a long way in helping you ace this section. Pick up a copy of "The Elements of Style" (and while you're at it, the often hilarious, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves") and make sure that you know your from you're.  

Write with a Purpose

The key ingredient of winning SAT essays is focus. The examiners aren't looking for the next Walt Whitman; they want functional English that can make and sustain an argument. While verbal flair will win you some brownie points, you're likely to score much higher if you write like an academic and not like a poet. Before you write a single word, create a rough outline and stick to it when you start your essay. Break the outline into an introduction, the main argument, and a conclusion. It sounds simplistic, but you'll be surprised how many students decide to 'wing it' in the panic of the exam and suffer poor scores.  

Choosing SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests, also called SAT II, are taken by students to show their expertise in a particular subject and strengthen their college application. There are 20 subject tests spread across five categories: mathematics, history, science, English and foreign languages. Each test is an hour long. SAT II tests must be taken after much consideration. You must first consult whether your prospective college requires the tests or not. Next, consider your own application: are you falling behind in a particular subject? Does your GPA not reflect your true potential? Is there a subject you haven't done well in in school but want to sow your expertise in? For instance, if you haven't done well in Physics in school but want to show that you can do better to the admissions committee, you can consider taking a SAT Physics test. You can also take a test to showcase your mastery of a particular subject. Lastly, ask yourself about your prospective major in college. It is a good idea to take SAT II tests for subjects you actually want to major in. A high score in SAT II history, while impressive, might not help your application if you want to study biochemistry. Only once you know these three things: a) college requirements, (b) your application strengths and weaknesses, and (c) your prospective major, should you decide what SAT Subject test to take. Hankering to start studying? Take an SAT practice test!