Test Preparation Guide for the SAT

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Chapter One: DOMINATE the SAT's!

Overview and Structure of the Tests

The SAT was created to provide colleges and universities with "standardized" information about their applicants. It allows admissions officers to differentiate students with identical grade point averages (GPA's), and it supposedly balances "biased" GPA's from particularly easy or tough curriculum high schools. Basically, it gives overworked college admissions personnel an easy-to-evaluate factor to consider when deciding whether to admit a certain applicant.

Larger colleges and state universities tend to weigh the SAT heavily when making their decisions. An admissions officer can decide if a candidate is acceptable just by plugging in the scores - SAT (formerly the "SAT-I Reasoning Test"), SAT Subject Tests (formerly the "SAT-II" tests), and GPA. If the result is over the cut-off, you're in. If you're close, they may look at other factors, but if you're way short of the cut-off, you're out.

Smaller schools and private universities tend to evaluate the whole admissions package, including letters of recommendation, essays, and records of personal involvement, such participation in student government, clubs and teams you belonged to or worked for, and any community service you have done. Such schools place less emphasis on the numbers - they want students with personality, not just test scores.

In recent years, continuing debate has caused a re-evaluation of the usefulness of the SAT for admissions purposes, resulting in a series of "changes" that have largely consisted of eliminating entire categories of question types. Many schools now offer the choice of accepting ACT scores instead, and most require one to three Subject tests ("SAT-II's") as well. The ACT is just another standardized test which can be prepared for like the SAT tests, but many students find it beneficial to prepare for the SAT instead, because the subject matter overlaps with the often-required SAT Math Subject test. Most colleges will accept either the SAT or the ACT, but you should check the admissions requirements of the schools you are interested in, to be sure you know exactly what they want.

The SAT Subject tests are specifically related to your high school studies - in most cases. The History and Science Subject Tests are directly related to your high school coursework, and you should take these Subject tests in each relevant subject at the time of your final exams in those classes. The Math Subject Test Level I contains problems from Algebra, Algebra 2, Geometry, and some Trigonometry, and greatly resembles the SAT Math test. Math Level II is significantly tougher, including questions from Trig and Math Analysis or Pre-Calculus. The Literature Subject Test resembles the SAT Critical Reading passages and requires little outside knowledge beyond basic literary terms, like "allusion" and "alliteration". The Foreign Language Subject Tests are also like the SAT Critical Reading sections, only not in English. The grading curve on the Language tests tends to be skewed by native speakers of the tongue.

You can take many SAT Subject Tests, and choose the best scores to send the colleges with your applications. See online at or Chapter 12 for more details on when to take which Subject tests.

One more word about the Subject tests: some colleges call these test scores "optional". If that is the case, you should "opt" to take them. After all, even an average score looks better than no score.



Many people think that the SAT® is given by some government agency, and written by Nobel prize winners, scientists and teachers. Actually, it is produced and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a private corporation also responsible for the PSAT®, graduate school entrance exams like the GRE®, and various other tests ranging from CIA qualification exams to cosmetology licensing exams. Some questions for the SAT are submitted by college professors, but others are written by part-time employees, including college students and teenagers. It's pretty scary to think of one of your friends writing questions for the SAT!

Also, though the original name was "Scholastic Aptitude Test", this test does not reflect how well you are doing in high school - that's what your GPA is for! You are not taught the particular problem solving skills required for the SAT in any class in high school, though basic information from a few classes will help. In fact, there is no definite correlation between SAT scores and performance in college, either.

So what does the SAT measure?

The Math portion tests you on the basics, most of which you learned between fifth and tenth grades, and probably have forgotten by now. To score high, you need to know how to apply these basic concepts, and what types of traps are waiting for you. ETS is not satisfied just testing your knowledge; they also want to see how careful you are, so they deliberately write the questions to trick you, and then put every wrong answer you might get as the incorrect choices. Sound like a fair test?

The Critical Reading portion of the test supposedly measures your vocabulary and your reading ability. Score improvement is tied to three things: vocabulary improvement; squeezing the most points out of your existing vocabulary; and thinking like the test maker to avoid tricks and traps. Again, ETS is not satisfied testing your knowledge or ability; they want to fool you with misleading choices and close second-best answers.

The Writing section supposedly gauges your command of the English language, and your ability to express your thoughts clearly. The essay is graded "holistically" in under two minutes by semi-professional graders, so by following certain writing guidelines, you can easily maximize your score on this section, no matter how well you write. Failure to meet the expected format leads to unpredictable results.

This guide will tell you what you need to know, and give you a strategic approach to nearly every type of problem you might encounter on the test.

The SAT Reasoning Test is nearly four hours long and is divided into ten sections. When you take the test, there will be several different "forms" or test versions within each room, to discourage cheating. Everyone around you will be working on a different section than you are at that time, though some forms may actually contain identical sections in different orders. The different forms ensure that you cannot just copy answers from somebody sitting nearby.

One section will be an "equating" or "experimental" section, used to determine the relative difficulty of new problems to be used on future tests. The results of this section do not count towards your score, but there is no way to be sure which section it is! It looks just like a real section, and will be randomly placed in the test. There will be two sections with an identical number and arrangement of questions. One is experimental, but DO NOT TRY TO GUESS which one doesn't count! Take all sections seriously and do your best. If you guess incorrectly and "blow off" the real section, you are sure to lose hundreds of points.

ETS uses the experimental section to determine how tough a new question is. If most people trying the problem got it right, it becomes an "easy" question; if most people missed it, it's a "hard" question. Then they arrange a new section by putting the questions in a general order from easiest to hardest, by type of question. That is, if there are nine sentence completions in a section, the first three are relatively easy, the next three medium, and the last three are generally pretty hard. If there are 25 math multiple choice problems in a section, the first eight are easy, the next eight are medium, and the last nine are difficult (since 25 is not divisible by three, stick the extra problem into the hard section). If there are ten math "fill-in" problems, the first three are easy, the next three medium, and the last four are difficult. Only the critical reading problems are not arranged in order of difficulty: any one question may be harder, but the passages tend to get harder as you progress through any one section. Specifics for each type of question will be discussed in the following chapters.

You should always consider the difficulty of the problem before selecting an answer. Easy questions have easy-to-find answers, so don't over-analyze and second-guess yourself, or pick impossibly difficult words. Hard questions will often have incorrect trap answers, and partial or incomplete answers.

Consider for a moment the job of the test writer. On the multiple choice sections, which make up the majority of the test, the correct answer is right there - staring you in the face! The test writer has to try to disguise the right answer, perhaps with words you do not know, or fool you into picking a wrong answer. ETS calls trap answers "distracters", intended to get your attention away from the correct answer. Thus, you need to think like the test writer, and eliminate answers that are definitely wrong, instead of choosing the first answer that seems right!

Think of it this way: on most problems, there are five lettered answers. If you take a blindfolded chimpanzee, give it five buttons to choose from, one of which delivers a banana, it would have a one-in-five, or 20%, chance of guessing correctly. But on the very toughest SAT questions, only 7 to 12 percent of American students get the right answer. So what happened to the 20% with no clue, randomly guessing? Are we dumber than a blindfolded chimpanzee?

Guessers get distracted by trap answers.


Here is a tough Sentence Completion problem:

8. (out of 9 - supposed to be a difficult problem).

Though his father had worked very hard to establish the company's reputation, George viewed his position in the firm as a __________________, a job with much pay and no responsibilities.

(A) drudge
(B) sinecure
(C) career
(D) inspiration
(E) laborer



This is a difficult problem, right? And they are talking about his job. What answers remind you of a job? Most people would say (C) career, and many would also say (E) laborer. So take your pencil and cross those two answers out. If the problem was so easy that guessers would have a fifty percent chance, it would be in the easy section, not the hard section.

The actual answer is (B) sinecure, a job that has a salary but no responsibilities.

Notice the answer was a much tougher word, that relatively few people know.



Now try this math example. Don't worry too much about how to actually solve this problem, just try to see the trap answers:

21. (Out of 25 - pretty tough!)

A used car dealer raised the asking prices of all the cars by 20%, then lowered them by 10%. The final asking price was what percent greater than the original asking price?

(A) 8
(B) 10
(C) 12
(D) 22
(E) 30

Now this is supposed to be a pretty hard problem, but it seems obvious. If the price goes up by twenty, then drops by ten, shouldn't that leave ten?
After all, 20 - 10 = 10, answer (B).

So take your pencil and cross out (B). How could you get the answer to a hard problem in your head in ten seconds?

While you're at it, 20 + 10 = 30, so get rid of (E) too. Without doing any real math, you could eliminate two answers.
They are just too simple for this difficult problem.

The correct answer is (A) 8 percent.

Notice that (B) and (E) are TOTALLY WRONG!

How do you actually solve this problem? Well, this problem would be much a lot easier to solve if you knew how much the cars cost in the first place. This crucial information is missing, you need it, you can't solve for it, and you're not asked for it - a typical SAT math problem situation described in DOMINATOR Chapter Six, Algebra the Easy Way. In short, when something you need is missing and they don't care about it, pick your own numbers, or SUBSTITUTE. See Chapter Six for more details.

Don't worry about the specifics of how to actually solve these questions right now. Simple techniques to solve each type of question will be explained in detail in later chapters. For now, just notice the trap answers and how you can eliminate them.

How does the process of elimination help your score? Should you guess, even with only a one-out-of-four chance? What about the penalty for wrong answers?

ETS gives you 1 point for a correct answer, 0 for a blank, and deducts 1/4 point for wrong answers on multiple choice problems (there is no deduction for missing a "fill-in" math problem. See Chapter Two). If you randomly guess on a particular problem, you would have a one-in-five chance of guessing correctly. If you randomly guess on five problems like this, then the odds are you will get one right and four wrong.

Chances # Right # Wrong # Wrong times (-1/4) = Raw score
1 out of  5 1 4 -1 1+ (-1) = 0

Since they take away 1/4 of a point for each wrong answer, you end up with nothing - no change to your actual raw score, just a big waste of time guessing on problems where you had no clue. This is the "guessing penalty", designed to discourage you from just filling in bubbles on your answer sheet without looking at the problems.

But what if you can eliminate even one answer from the choices? Now you have a one-in-four chance of guessing correctly, and if you guess on four problems like this, the odds are that you will get one right and three wrong.

Chances # Right # Wrong # Wrong times (-1/4) = Raw score
1 out of  4 1 3 -3/4 1 + (-3/4) = 1/4

One right minus 3/4 for the wrong ones adds a whopping 1/4 of a point to your score! It may not seem like much for now, but keep reading.

If you can eliminate more than one answer, you gain even more:

Chances # Right # Wrong # Wrong times (-1/4) = Raw score
1 out of  3 1 2 -2/4 = -1/2 1 + (-1/2) = 1/2
1 out of  2 1 1 -1/4 1 + (-1/4) = 3/4

These fractional amounts may not seem like much, but they really add up, particularly in light of the fact that the average student guesses on about half the problems on the test!
Plus, when they go to score your test, they round the numbers of your "raw" score and use a conversion chart to determine your actual 200 to 800 SAT score on each section. That tiny 1/4 point, from guessing on four problems that you were otherwise clueless about, could turn out to be ten more points on your actual score!

For example, let's say that out of 78 verbal problems total, you answered 57, got 38 correct and missed 19. (19 x 1/4) = 4 3/4 taken away from 38, leaving you with a raw score of 33 1/4. This rounds to 33, which historically (see note below) converted on average to a scaled score of 500, the national average.

Now, say you guessed on four more problems, with a one-in-four chance on each. Now you've answered 61 questions, got 39 correct and missed 22. (22 x 1/4) = 5 1/2 taken away from the 39, leaving you with a raw score of 33 1/2 (See Table below).  Notice the tiny 1/4 point increase means your score will be rounded to 34, which in turn converts to a historically scaled score of 510. Randomly guessing on four problems, where all you could do was eliminate one choice, just gave you ten points more on your score!


Number Correct Number Wrong times (-1/4) Raw Score Rounded Score Scaled Score
38 19 -4.75 33.25 33 500
39 22 -5.5 33.5 34 510

Ten Points from four random guesses with SAT DOMINATOR !!!!

Note: these figures are based on the SAT-I grading scales released to the public between 1994 and 2004 by the College Board, before a series of changes were made to "improve" the test which resulted in a slightly different number and arrangement of questions, and different raw/scaled score conversion. While statistics from the most recent "changes" are still pending analysis, the underlying principles and overall strategy remains valid.


Where you fall in the grading curve affects how much any one problem will help your score. For example, towards the top end of the math scale, one or two problems could cost you forty points! But in the middle range, one problem more or less may not change your score at all! (More on this in a minute . . . .)

The point is, once you have eliminated something, random guessing can only help your score! You must guess, and do it aggressively!

If a casino in Las Vegas was open for only one hour a day, and somebody hit the jackpot of ten million dollars, the casino would go under. But factor in thousands and thousands of losers, pouring in cash twenty-four hours a day, and you see how the casinos stay in business - and give away free hotel rooms!

Guessing is similar - if you only do it once or twice, here and there, the odds are against you and you'll lose points. But guess at every opportunity and you'll see the points come flying in.

Say that your working on a 25 question math section, and after finishing and reviewing all of the easy and medium problems, then attempting some harder problems with DOMINATOR methods, you find yourself with two minutes left and some of the hardest problems on the test, statistically. Knowing there are trick and trap answers, assume you could eliminate one answer from four of these tough problems.

Let's see what three typical students might do. The "no-risk"student #1 avoids guessing when there's not much he or she knows, and leaves them all blank. The "prudent" student #2 guesses here and there, but leaves some blank. This is what most of us do, guessing when the answer "feels" right. The DOMINATOR student #3 aggressively guesses every time, avoiding the traps that ETS has planted.

Since each problem has a one-in-four chance, the odds are three-to-one AGAINST you on any one problem- you'll probably miss it! But guess on all four problems, and you should get one right. Look at the chart below - who comes out ahead?

Problem Number "No-Risk" Student #1 "Prudent" Student #2 DOMINATOR Student #3
21 (blank) (blank) "A" Wrong
22 (blank) "D"Wrong "D" Wrong
23 (blank) (blank) "C" Right! (Lucky Guess!)
24 (blank) "B"Wrong (Trap!) "D" Wrong (at least we didn't pick B!)
Results: 0 -1/2 +1/4

In general, if you can't eliminate anything, skip the problem, but if you can eliminate even one answer choice, you must guess, or you won't get the bonus. Unless you are really unlucky, this statistical benefit from eliminating and guessing can add up to many extra points on the SAT.

On Critical Reading problems, ALWAYS try to eliminate incorrect answers and select from the remaining choices rather than trying to find the right answer straight away. You will be able to correctly answer many problems where you formerly might have been tricked by the first "good-sounding" answer that came along, and you'll be able to effectively guess on problems where you formerly might have felt like you had no idea what to do! Specific techniques for eliminating bogus answers will be covered under each specific question type in later chapters.


You may be thinking that all this elimination takes too much time. With practice, you will be able to keep a consistent pace, and have plenty of time to finish the problems you need to get right for the score you are trying for.

Most people race through the test, making careless mistakes and falling into traps on easy problems, just to spend most of their time on the hardest problems that they'll probably get wrong anyway! Less than 10% of the country are getting some of the hardest problems right, which means if you aren't getting a score in the high 700's, those problems are not for you. Those hard problems are there to separate the 770 student from the 790 student. Due to the curve of the test, you are better off spending more time on each problem and increasing your accuracy, even if this means skipping some problems.

But don't despair! Examine the chart below comparing historical percent correct on the SAT (and corresponding test scores) with common high school grading percentiles:

SAT Grading VS. Typical Grading Percentiles

Percent Correct Typical Class Grade Average
Score Verbal/Math
90% A 740/700
80% B 660/640
70% C 610/600
60% D 570/550
50%   520/510
40%   480/470
30%   430/430
20%   390/380

50% right gets you 500, the national average

(Based on 1994 - 2004 recentered SAT-I scoring tables released by the College Board)

This doesn't mean you want to fail the test, just that you want to focus your efforts towards getting a certain percent right! Just do 2/3 of the problems, get them mostly right, and get a 500; or just do 3/4 of the problems, get them mostly right, and get a 600.

Even if you are looking for a score in the high 700's, don't sacrifice accuracy for speed. Skipping one or two problems is no big deal - see for yourself by checking the score conversion charts at the end of the tests in the College Board's official publications. You don't need to get every problem right unless you are realistically shooting for an 800. Plan on skipping some problems to help your score and give you plenty of time for the ones you want to be sure you get right. Doing too many, too fast, means sloppy mistakes on problems you should not have missed, and time wasted on problems that were really hard and almost everybody missed! Net result: more points subtracted from your score! SLOW DOWN and SCORE MORE!

Precise details about which problems to skip will be covered in later chapters, under each specific question type.

By the way, these scores represent current "recentered" SAT (SAT-I Reasoning Test) scores. When the SAT was instituted, the national averages were established at 500 Math, 500 Verbal. Over the years, the average SAT score had fallen to 470 Math, 430 Verbal, which made many educators nervous about the quality of American education and the suitability of the SAT for admissions purposes. In 1994, ETS just raised the national average SAT scores back again to 500 Math/500 Verbal. Performance on the test did not improve; the scores were just inflated to create the new average!

This change in no way effects your college entrance because every student in the nation now gets "recentered" scores, and the colleges know how to relate them to the "old" scores. However, you can't directly compare your SAT scores to the those of your older relatives, and in a few more years nobody will remember that the average was arbitrarily raised. The only real effect of this change is that ETS will not have to face the threat of more "Falling SAT Scores" headlines!

The "new" SAT Tests of recent years attempt once again to address the often-documented shortcomings of standardized testing. Every time a major institution considers removing the SAT as an admissions requirement, ETS and the College Board race to "fix" the test so it does not get abandoned. In brief, the major changes have been the elimination of entire categories of Verbal and Math questions, and inclusion of what was formerly the Writing Subject Test as part of the SAT itself (but retaining a separate score). The name of the test itself has also been changed a few times. Only time will tell if these changes will have any real statistical effect, or if they will suffice to preserve the SAT's validity as an admissions tool.

GET the rest of DOMINATOR NOW ! ! !

Here's what lies ahead in SAT DOMINATOR

Chapter Two: Maximizing Your Math Score
Chapter Three: How to Maximize Your Verbal Score
Chapter Four: Math Basics - The Right Way to Read the Problem
Chapter Five: Sentence Completions - Fill in the Blank
Chapter Six: Algebra the Easy Way
Chapter Seven: Critical Reading - Everybody's Favorite!
Chapter Eight: Geometry - When Not to Believe Your Eyes
Chapter Nine: Ace the Essay
Chapter Ten: Miscellaneous Math Mania
Chapter Eleven: The Day of the Test
Chapter Twelve: Strategic Test-taking Calendar
Chapter Thirteen: How's Your Grammar?
Chapter Fourteen: Finding the Errors

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