Measuring Your Mind: What the SAT I Tests

Statistically, the SAT I tests whether or not you'll be successful in your first year of college. Admissions officers keep track of their students' SAT scores and have a pretty good idea which scores signal trouble and which scores indicate clear sailing. Many college guides list the average SAT scores of entering freshmen.

That said, the picture gets complicated whenever the wide-angle lens narrows to focus on an individual, such as you, and admissions offices are well aware of this fact. How rigorous your high school is, whether you deal well with multiple-choice questions, and how you feel physically and mentally on SAT-day (Fight with Mom? Bad romance? Week-old sushi?) all influence your score. Bottom line: Stop obsessing about the SAT's unfairness (and it is unfair) and prepare.

The college admission essay is a great place to put your scores in perspective. If you face some special circumstances, such as a learning disability, a school that doesn't value academics, a family tragedy, and so on, you may want to explain your situation in an essay. No essay wipes out the bad impression created by an extremely low SAT score, but a good essay gives the college a way to interpret your achievement and to see you, the applicant, in more detail.

The SAT doesn't test facts you studied in school; you don't need to know when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic or how to calculate the molecular weight of magnesium in order to answer an SAT Reasoning question. Instead, the SAT takes aim at your ability to follow a logical sequence, to comprehend what you've read, and to write clearly in standard English. The math portion checks whether you were paying attention or snoring when little details like algebra were taught. Check out the next sections for a bird's eye view of the three SAT topics.

Critical Reading

This topic pops up three times per SAT, in terms of what counts toward your score. (All SATs include an extra section either in reading or math that the SAT-makers use for research only.) You face two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section of Critical Reading, a fancy term for reading comprehension. Each section may contain Sentence Completions and/or Reading Comprehension passages that are either short (about 100 words) or long (700 to 800 words). You also see a set of paired passages — a double take on one topic from two different points of view.

Sentence Completions

The Sentence Completions are just fill-ins. You may encounter one or two sets of nine or ten questions. Sentence Completions test vocabulary and your ability to decode the sentence structure, as in the following:

The SAT Sentence Completion section is guaranteed to give you a headache, so the test-makers thoughtfully provide __________ with each exam.

(A) aspirin

(B) dictionaries

(C) answer keys

(D) tutoring

(E) scalp massage

Answer: (A). Given that the sentence specifies "headache," your best choice is "aspirin," at least in SAT world. In real life you may prefer a day at the spa, but the test-makers haven't included that option. (E) is a possibility too, but the SAT goes with the best answer, not the only answer.

Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension questions are a mixture of literal (just-the-facts-ma'am) and interpretive/analytical. You may be asked to choose the meaning of a word in context or to assess the author's tone or point of view. Passages may be drawn from the natural and social sciences, humanities, or fiction, as in the following:
Thanhowser was frantic to learn that the first GC-MP8 handheld was already in circulation. And here he was wasting his time in college! The degree that he had pursued so doggedly for the past three years now seemed nothing more than a gigantic waste of time. The business world, that's where he belonged, marketing someone else's technology with just enough of a twist to allow him to patent "his" idea.

In line 5 the word his is in quotation marks

(A) because it's a pronoun

(B) because the reader is supposed to hiss at Thanhowser, whom everyone hates

(C) to show that the idea really came from someone else

(D) to demonstrate that the idea really came from a female masquerading as a male

(E) because the typesetter had some extra quotation marks

Answer: (C). These quotation marks refer to Thanhowser's claim to "someone else's technology." Although he isn't quoted directly, the quotation marks around "his" imply that Thanhowser says that a particular invention is his, when in fact it isn't.

Writing

To the chagrin (disappointment or embarrassment) of English teachers everywhere, the SAT Writing test contains only a sliver of actual writing: one 25-minute essay on a topic that you've never seen before, plus 25 minutes' worth of short answers. Why so little writing? As those who sit with four-foot high piles of essays on our laps know, it takes a long time to read student prose. The SAT test-makers must pay people to read and score essays — a much more expensive and time-consuming proposition than running a bubble sheet through a scanner. The multiple-choice questions check your ability to recognize errors in grammar, punctuation, and word use and to make sentence revisions. You also see a couple of pseudo (fake) first drafts of student essays and answer some questions about the writer's intentions. In these longer passages, you again have to select the best revisions.

Error Recognition

Error Recognition questions are long sentences (they have to be long to allow enough room for four possible errors) with underlined portions. You choose the portion with a mistake or select (E) for "no error."

Flabbergill denounced his lover for her work with the Revolutionary Band, he had a new bass guitarist lined up whose musical talents were, he said, "awesome." No error.

Answer: (C). Each half of the sentence can stand alone, so a comma may not join them. You need a semicolon or a word such as and or so to glue the two parts together.

Sentence Revision

In these questions the test-gurus underline one portion of a sentence and then provide four alternatives. (A) always repeats the original wording.

Having been turned down by fifteen major league baseball teams, Gilberdub changed to basketball, and he succeeded in his goal where he was aiming to be a professional athlete.

(A) in his goal where he was aiming to be a professional athlete.

(B in that he reached his goal of aiming to be a professional athlete.

(C) where he became a professional athlete.

(D) in his goal of becoming a professional athlete.

(E) because he wanted million-dollar sneaker ads.

Answer: (D). Just kidding about (E), though an endorsement contract actually was Gilberdub's motivation.

Paragraph Revision

These questions throw you into the mind of a fairly competent student writer who has had only enough time to complete a first draft of an essay on a general topic. Some of the questions ask you to combine sentences effectively; others resemble the Sentence Revision section — an underlined portion with possible improvements or alternate versions of entire sentences.

Essay

This section is the only spot in the Writing section that you actually get to write something. For those of you who have keyboards permanently implanted under your fingernails, this section may be a handwriting challenge. And, thanks to ever-evolving technology, an image of your essay — inkblots, saliva drools, and all — will be available on the Web to the college admission offices that are reviewing your applications. Start practicing your penmanship.

In terms of what you write, the essay is a standard, short discussion of a general topic that the SAT-makers provide. You have to take a stand and defend it with evidence (literature, history, and your own experience or observation). The main challenge is time: You have only 25 minutes to think, write, and revise.

Mathematics

In the new SAT, gone are the dreaded quantitative comparisons, which asked you to figure out which of two items was larger. Added are questions that rely on Algebra II and some advanced topics in geometry, statistics, and probability. Your SAT contains two 25-minute math sections that count (and perhaps one equating section that the SAT uses for its own statistical analysis only). Almost all the questions are multiple choice, in which you choose the answer from among five possibilities. Ten are grid-ins in which you supply an answer and bubble in the actual number, not a multiple-choice letter. Look at the following sample math problem:

If xy – 12 = z, and the value of x is 2, which of the following must be true?

(A) z = the number of days since you've had no homework

(B) y = 12 + z

(C) z = 2y – 12

(D) 2y – z = 100

(E) y > the number of hours you have to spend studying SAT math

Answer: (A). Just kidding. It's actually (E). Oops, kidding again. The correct choice is (C).

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