Test-Taking Strategies
The Writing and Critical Reading Sections
One key point to remember is how intertwined the skills these section tests are. Each piece of the Writing and Critical Reading sections looks at language from a different angle, but essentially what’s being tested is your proficiency in good writing and the English language as a whole. Studying for one section will help you prepare for the others.
Multiple-Choice Writing
Bombing Runs are especially important on the Writing section. Always do Identifying Sentence Errors first, then Improving Sentences, and finally Improving Paragraphs. Within each item type, fly Bombing Runs to distribute your knowledge as efficiently as possible. Remember, unlike Sentence Completions on the Critical Reading section, the multiple-choice items on the Writing section are not listed by order of difficulty.
The Essay
The biggest mistake you can make on the essay is to start writing without planning what you’re going to write. You have a very short amount of time (25 minutes) to construct a well-organized, well-written argument. Even though the essay is meant to be a first draft, your essay needs to show your ability to think critically and write accurately and forcefully.
Everything you do for the essay should flow from the scoring rubric—the grading criteria used by essay readers. The scoring rubric doesn’t emphasize the content of your essay (for example, quoting Dante rather than relating an anecdote from your life) but rather the structure of your argument and the clarity of your writing.
Despite what you might think or may have been told, writing—even timed SAT essay writing—is as learnable a skill as any other—it’s not magic. To succeed on the essay, make sure you read the prompt carefully and plan a structure for your essay before you actually start writing. This process will take only a few minutes and will go a long way toward improving your score.
Reading Passages
The key is not to read long passages word for word. It’s a waste of time—time you’ll need for the items themselves. You need to know what to read and what to skim in the long passages. Then you need to fly Bombing Runs among the items in the set.
Skimming is pretty simple. Instead of reading the entire passage word for word, you want to get a general idea of what the passage discusses. Here’s how you do it:
  • Read only the first and last sentences in paragraphs.
  • Circle or underline signpost words or key terms. Terms deemed as key will vary from reader to reader, but the idea is to identify some important terms, as well as those important signpost words.
  • Use your pencil to help you break the habit of reading every word. Move the tip of your pencil across the lines of text quickly enough to make it impossible for you to read every word. This forces you to skip over some words and phrases, which means you are actually skimming.
Bombing runs at the section level are more complex, as we alluded to earlier. We discuss Sentence Completions in the next section, but assuming those are done, you need to decide which of the Reading Passages, if there is more than one, you should attack first.
In general, hit the short passages first. They are a lower investment and yield the same number of points for each item. Decide which to hit first based on subject matter and/or length. If the choice is between two long passages, again, subject matter and length should determine which set you’ll hit first. Treat paired passages as separate long passages: read/skim passage 1 and do those items first, then read/skim passage 2 and do those items, and finally work on the hardest items—the compare-and-contrast items based on both passages.
Sentence Completions
The key to Sentence Completions is to have some idea of the answer before you look at the answer choices. Fortunately, because Sentence Completions test your reading skills at the sentence level, the structure of the sentence stem often helps you generate a likely answer. Sentence Completions test vocabulary in context. If you understand the sentence in the stem, you’ll be able to come up with your own answers for the blanks.
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