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‘The Underground Guide to the SAT’

“Up Your Score,” offers an SAT test preparation book written for students by students. Read an excerpt here.

It’s the test teenagers love to hate: the SAT college entrance exam. A good score can bring scholarships and acceptance letters. a bad score can wreck dreams. But a perfect score? Is that possible? And do students need to get so worried about it? Not according to the editors of “Up Your Score, The Underground Guide to the SAT.” This test preparation book is written by students for students, and the editors (all of whom scored over 1500 on the SAT, including three perfect 1600s) take the anxieties surrounding the SAT and laugh at them. On NBC’s “Today” show Smitha Prabhuswamy, one of the guest editors, discusses the book. Read an excerpt below.

THE VERBAL SECTION FOUR KEY RULES AND A TIP The verbal section of the SAT supposedly tests how skilled you are with words. It tests your vocabulary, your ability to understand the relationships between words, and your ability to read and comprehend. Basically, though, it’s just a glorified vocabulary test. If you read the following strategies for answering analogy, sentence completion, and critical reading questions and have fun with our vocabulary section, you’ll be able to bury the serpent and maybe someday be a star contestant on Weakest Link.

On every SAT there are 19 analogies, 19 sentence completions, and 40 critical reading questions, for a total of 78 questions. In this chapter we will go over each type of question individually in order to familiarize you with the different question types, and then we’ll show you some slick tricks. But first, here are some general rules for doing the verbal section.

Rule 1: Know Your Speed

You are given only 75 minutes for the three verbal subsections. So you figure, “Great, I have a minute per question.” Wrong. You have to subtract about 20 minutes for the amount of time you need to spend reading the reading passages. Then subtract another minute from the total test time for the time you spend watching the kid in front of you pick his nose and maybe another half second for the time you spend picking your own nose. Now you have only about 40 seconds per problem. That’s just about the amount of time most people need if they work efficiently. If you find yourself finishing 10 minutes early, then you’re probably working too fast and being careless, or you didn’t spend enough time picking your nose. If you aren’t finishing all the questions before the time runs out, you might have to be a little less careful (or skip the last reading passage of each section, as described in Strategy 5 of the reading passage section of this chapter, page 50). In any case, it’s essential that you have practiced enough to know exactly how fast you should be moving. Good control of your speed and timing must be second nature to you when you take the real test.

Rule 2: Do the Subsections in the Best Order

All questions are worth the same number of points. Therefore, you want to have done as many problems as possible before you run out of time. Sentence completions take the least amount of time, so do them first. Then do analogies. The critical reading passages take the longest; do them last. (This is usually the order of the subsections on the test.) The only exception to this rule would be if you consistently find that you score better on practice tests when you do things in a different order.

Rule 3: Realize That Questions Get Harder

The Serpent gets more and more cruel as each subsection (a set of 10 sentence completions, a set of 10 analogies, etc.) progresses, except in the questions following each critical reading passage. The first question in a subsection is usually easy. The last question in a subsection is usually hard. This is important to remember, because if you know that you’re going to have to skip some questions, you might as well skip the hard ones.

This is also important because it can be used to outsmart the Serpent. You can use this principle to find correct answers to questions that you otherwise wouldn’t be sure about. How? Since the first few questions in a subsection are always easy, the obvious or most tempting guess is probably correct. The middle questions in the subsection are a little harder; on these questions the obvious or most tempting guess is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. On the last few questions in a subsection, the obvious, most tempting guess is probably wrong. This is a crucial concept. As we will explain in more depth later, a question is put at the beginning of a subsection if, in the Serpent’s experience, most students get it right. It is put at the end if most students get it wrong. The trick is to learn to pick the answer that “most students” would pick on the questions at the beginning of the section and at the end of the section avoid the answer that “most students” would pick. What we have explained here is just the basics of how to apply this concept. In Chapter 4 we provide a more advanced explanation, with additional useful strategies and tricks.

Remember, the questions get harder within subsections, not from section to section. So if you’ve finished with the analogies and are moving on to sentence completion, you’ll be starting with relatively easy sentence completions.

If you want an in-depth explanation of this rule and its uses, read the 500-page book “Cracking the SAT and PSAT” by Adam Robinson and John Katzman. They call it the “Joe Bloggs” principle.

Rule 4: Know the Directions

The directions are the same every year. You should not waste any time reading them during the test. Memorize them from your copy of “Taking the SAT,” available from your high school guidance office.

Quick Tip: If you skip a question because you don’t know the answer, put a mark next to it. We suggest an X for the questions you don’t think you’ll be able to figure out and a ? for the ones you think you’d get with more time, if you have it later on.

THE MATH SECTION Theory of Study

Why was six afraid of seven?

Because seven ate nine.

With this lame joke as an introduction, we welcome you to the wonderful world of SAT math.

As most people know, the most appropriate place for doing math is in the bathroom. First of all, there are many geometric shapes in the bathroom: square tiles, round drains, cylindrical toilet paper rolls. Second, there is generally ample time for even the most freakish discoveries-an ancient Greek calculated p to 70 digits while relaxing on a pay toilet in fourth-century Ithaca. Einstein himself concluded that space is bent while trying to catch a slippery bar of soap during an excursion in the tub. And everyone knows that Doc Brown from Back to the Future came up with the flux capacitor when he fell off the can.

What we mean to say is that when you go to the bathroom, you’re not doing anything else useful, so you might as well study math.

This was Larry’s idea, by the way.

On every SAT, there are 60 math questions — 35 standard multiple-choice questions, 15 quantitative comparisons, and 10 grid-in questions, all of which will be explained later.

This chapter covers eight main issues — calculator use, fractions/units, word problems, equations, geometry problems, quantitative comparisons, funny symbol problems, and grid-in problems. We do not intend to teach you the fundamentals of mathematics — instead we’re showing you test-wise problem-solving techniques. If you have trouble with very basic things, then you ought to talk to your math teacher: Direct contact with a good teacher is far more useful than anything we could tell you, but be sure to use a condom.

Sometimes in this chapter, we discuss some relatively advanced subjects. If you are shooting for a math score of above 550, we recommend that you learn the material in these sections. Even if you are not a math guru, you should still read the advanced sections. If you can follow what’s going on in the advanced part, great. Otherwise, if you’re not shooting for a great math score, don’t worry about it.

Quick and accurate are the operational words for the math section. If you run out of time, you lose points. Either way, you grandmother won’t be able to brag about you scores (and you wouldn’t want that, would you?).

Something to bear in mind as you do the math section is that the Serpent’s roar is often worse than his bite. His specialty is what we like to call “shock factor questions”: problems that look really hard — big equations with fancy variables and exponents — but are actually relatively easy. Faced with an equation that looks like this, 2 (n 5)2 = 6, for example, many students panic, thinking they have to solve it, when in fact all they have to do is simplify the equation. (The correct answer choice is 2n2 20n 50 = 6.) So when you see a problem that’s loaded with letters, numbers, and symbols, don’t panic. Realize that it’s probably noisy and harmless and look at the answer choices before solving it.

A test-taking tip: As on the verbal section, if you skip a question we suggest that you make a mark in the margin. Put an X next to the questions you don’t think you’ll be able to figure out. Put a ? next to the ones you think you could figure out with more time.

Excerpted from, “Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT, 2003-2004 Edition.” Copyright 2003 by Workman Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.