Acing Reading and Writing on the New SAT

They say that ignorance is bliss, and in the case of the new SAT, that is somewhat true.

I don’t mean ignorance of the new test, but rather of the old one. If you are familiar with and have studied for the Critical Reading and Writing sections of the SAT as they were constructed for many, many years, you will be in for a series of rude shocks when you encounter the test’s latest incarnation.

Big Differences

For starters, the reading portion doesn't look the way it has in the past: questions are odd, with much subtler answers than before. Passages are uniformly tough, often taken from old novels or political tracts (or, combining the worst of both worlds, archaic speeches).

The writing section is equally difficult. The multiple choice section of the current SAT (which will be administered through January 2016), was drawn virtually wholesale from the now-defunct SAT Subject Test in Writing, which hasn’t existed for more than a decade. It quizzes strict rules of grammar and common idioms, plus a smattering of rhetorical devices. But the new test has chucked nearly all of this for something that looks like the ACT.

Even if you approach this as an ACT English test, you will be in for a bumpy road. The format resembles the ACT: multiple, short passages are printed in the left column in widely spaced lines so that the corresponding questions in the right column appear close to each reference point in the text. There are even some "yes yes no no" type questions (answer choices read: “Yes, because W”; “Yes, because X”; “No, because Y”; “No, because Z”), previously unique to the ACT. These ask students to go beyond yes or no and to provide a reason for a given choice. But the similarities between the new SAT and the ACT end there.

Specific Changes

In structure, each Test — Reading, Writing and Language — appears only once as a single section on the new SAT.

The Reading Test is 65 minutes and includes 52 questions. The Writing and Language Test lasts for 35 minutes and includes 44 questions. The tests are scored separately, but then combined to give the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Tests score, a number that will range from 200 to 800. The College Board has not yet published any information about how the two scores will be combined, nor has it addressed whether one component will be weighted more heavily than another, or how the curve of any particular testing administration date or group of students may affect these scores.

If the reading and the writing and language sections are counted equally, it will cause the grammar score to be embedded within the overall Reading Test score. In the old SAT (offered through January 2016), colleges could pick and choose which of the three section scores (math, critical reading, and writing) was most important to them. Moreover, they often downplayed the Writing Test score, as it was historically never an integral part of the SAT — in fact, it was only introduced in 2005.

On the new SAT, the essay will no longer be a part of any of the section scores. For the first time ever, it will be optional. Essay-phobes can check the College Board's list of schools that require or recommend that students complete this section. And note that the majority of the most competitive colleges will require it, just as they do the ACT essay.

The Reading Test

So, now that you've forgotten everything you thought you knew about SAT reading, how do you best approach the redesigned Reading Test?

The section is now very long and intense. With about five passages, you may average 13 minutes per passage, but some — and certain questions in particular — will take up a lot of time. If you are a slow reader, start by skimming the entire passage, but really examine the first inch or so of text, the first sentence of each paragraph after that, and then the final inch of the passage. These bits will give you a good indication of the flow, content, and author's argument.

Once you get into the questions, you’ll be able to use this knowledge of the basic layout to find the reference points and read more intensively for the information you need to answer the question. All readers should focus on the flow of the passage, with special attention to strong words, blunt declarations, transition words (e.g., “but,” “however,” “nevertheless”) and words and phrases of emphasis (e.g., “furthermore,” “for example,” “in conclusion”). Underline as you read to keep focus.

Rephrase every question that is not written as a question. To do this, start with a question word: who, what, when, where, why, or how. Restating the question before you look at the answer choices will force you to understand exactly what is being asked. It will also help you to prime your own response. Cover the answer choices and jot your answer or a quick memo before you look them over. Then cross off any choice that is totally inconsistent with your guess.

Vocabulary-in-context questions — an old SAT favorite that has taken on new prominence now that sentence completions are history — work well with the same technique. Start by covering the answer choices. Find the word in the passage, and cross it out. Read five lines above and five lines below for context. Write your own word or a memo, and then apply the process of elimination to get rid of those choices that are out-of-line with yours. Never look for the correct answer right away; always get rid of wrong ones first.

The greatest challenges in the Reading Test tend to be question pairs that ask you first to infer something implied in a text, and then to select which line from the passage gave you the evidence to answer the previous one. These tend to present difficulty because they present students with two opportunities to get things wrong. If you’re struggling with the first question on any of these pairs, use the second question’s answer choices to help you glean some knowledge about what exactly the test is asking. Then eliminate those responses that are way off-base. At that point, you’ll be in a better position to consider the two or three choices that remain.

It’s also worth noting another thing about the revised SAT: There will be science. Be prepared to see at least one science-based passage, and be aware that even non-scientific texts may include charts or graphs. When you encounter any of these visual aids, slow down and mentally switch gears. Most of all, make sure that your understanding of the figure is consistent with the content of the text.

The Writing Test

The Writing Test is more strongly focused on rhetorical issues (as opposed to the rules of grammar) than it was in the past — specifically, an essay’s paragraph structure and the appropriateness of its argument and content.

Still, it’s important that you recognize the classic errors in agreement, parallel structure, misplaced modifiers, faulty comparisons, pronoun case, and idioms. New to the SAT is a curious interest in punctuation: commas versus colons, commas versus no commas, and apostrophes. Learn these rules to pick up some of the easier points in this test. There will be gratuitous charts and graphs here, too. These will require understanding of a passage's message and attention to its details, rather than its grammar and syntax.

As in the Reading Test, your best bet is often to seek "throw-aways" — that is, words in the answer choices that make the entire answer wrong. When approaching "yes yes no no" questions, don't decide "yes" or "no" before looking at the reasons accompanying the yeses and nos. Often, the wrong answer will be compelling, but will not work because of a single incorrect adjective. Get rid of these choices and compare only what's left.

Some passages continue for several sentences after you have already answered all the questions. These are just a testament to how poorly this test has been constructed. Skip them and move on.

Friend Frankenstein’s Monster

This is a radically reconstructed exam, with its new (and mismatched) parts soldered to bits from the ACT. It demands that students chuck their old SAT habits. Read challenging materials, build your vocabulary, practice interpreting charts and graphs, and master the rules of grammar to ace the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test.

Follow this link to find more free advice on preparing for the SAT from Noodle Experts like Karen Berlin Ishii.