In Spring of 2016, the SAT changed its format (again), returning to the familiar 1600 point scoring that the test used before 2005. The new format and new content pose unique challenges for students outside the US, particularly those who don’t come from a Western cultural background.
The sentence completion questions, which tested somewhat obscure but learnable vocabulary, are gone, but the difficulty of the reading passages has increased. While it has always been true that being familiar with Western and US culture is an advantage (the test is written in American English, and tests the conventions of Standard American Written English), changes to the Reading Section in particular may put international students at more of a disadvantage than did previous versions of the test.
The good news is that the Writing Section still tests a relatively small number of grammar rules over and over, and with instruction and the practice of good test-taking habits, this section can be improved dramatically. The Reading Section is harder to improve; changes to test-taking habits and strategies, as well as instruction about the kind of language SAT uses in correct and incorrect answers, can improve performance, but the content area is vast, and becoming more familiar with that content is a challenge.
The Reading Section content is so vast because it essentially consists of all of the vocabulary, sentence patterns, idioms, and expressions used not only in contemporary American academic writing, but also in American and English Literature, and American socio-political discourse from the 18th to the 21st Centuries! To Americans, that content is challenging; to people in Hong Kong, where I live and teach, it can feel daunting and intimidating. Below I will share some strategies I give my students to help them improve on the Reading and Writing Sections of the SAT (and many other tests, such as the ACT and TOEFL).
These activities, in addition to learning and practicing good test-taking habits, will help students be more familiar with the language used in the most difficult SAT passages, and also help prepare them for the ultimate goal, the reason they are taking the SAT in the first place: success at a top US university. Bonus tip, it will also help prepare you for the TOEFL.
- Read often, and read American. A good first step is to install the New York Times or Washington Post app on your smartphone or tablet. Then uninstall all time wasting games and apps. During downtime, when you would otherwise play with your phone, browse the news and read articles you’re interested in. When you read, read actively: thinking about the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, and why). This will help you focus on the meaning of the text. Read the opinion or editorial pages. Ask yourself what the author is trying to persuade you to believe, and how they constructed that argument. Take note of unfamiliar sentence structures.
- Keep a journal. When you’re reading, summarize what you’ve read. This journal can be a notebook that you carry with you, or you can use Google Docs or a word processing app. Write new phrases or unfamiliar sentence structures. Make a list of any words you don’t know, look them up, and make flashcards. Quizlet is a great app for making your own smartphone flashcards.
- Listen to NPR (National Public Radio). The NPR One app is a great way to listen to US public radio anywhere in the world. While it would appear that the SAT only tests two of the four language skills (reading and writing, not listening and speaking), it also implicitly tests the fifth language skill–culture. Many of my students in Hong Kong learn about US culture primarily from commercial TV and Hollywood movies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the culture that is valued at universities, and therefore implicitly tested on the SAT, includes different values and shared knowledge. Listening to NPR can allow you to get access to those values, and identify gaps in your historical or cultural understanding. If you get the issues from the Civil Rights Movement confused with the issues from the Civil War (as many of my Hong Kong students do), at least one of the reading passages on every SAT is likely to assume background knowledge that you don’t have. SAT calls these the “Great Conversation” passages, and they are often about the evolving attitudes toward women and minorities in US history. When the people on NPR are talking about something that you don’t understand, look it up. This will help you understand the context of SAT reading passages, as well as participate in meaningful discussions at university.
- Increase the level of difficulty. The level of difficulty on SAT reading passages is considerably higher than that of newspapers. So once you’re comfortable reading the New York times, step up to more difficult reading. Read The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Economist to help you with literary or social science passages. Read the journals Nature and Science to help you deal with the dense scientific English found in the natural science passages. If these are still too difficult for you, you can take a step back and read magazines like Psychology Today, Time, and Scientific American. Also, read literature. Put away the Harry Potter and read Moby Dick, or The Grapes of Wrath. Practice reading for increasingly longer periods of time; novels are great for this (keep in mind that the SAT Reading section will require you to focus on difficult texts and answer questions about them for 65 minutes, and then you’ll have to do a multiple choice grammar section). It has been said that teenagers today have short attention spans because of the technology they use; if you think this applies to you, the SAT might challenge your attention span. Here is a list of 15 American novels that will improve your vocabulary, expose you to diverse sentence patterns, improve your cultural knowledge, and your ability to focus on dense text for extended periods. In your journal, keep writing down new ideas you come across, as well as sentences that you notice are particularly beautiful or effective.
- Talk to people about all this stuff. If you have friends who are also preparing for university in the US, share this post with them. Then start reading the same newspapers, magazines, journals, and literature. Share articles. Set up a time, once or twice a week, to discuss what you’ve learned; bring your journals and flashcards. Quiz each other on useful vocabulary that you learned. Talk to your parents and teachers about it. Question the texts. Criticize. Teach others (your parents, your friends, your siblings) about interesting ideas you learned about, and discuss whether you think they are right or wrong, and why.
All this might sound intimidating, but so is going to university in a foreign country. That’s why it’s important to start early. Beyond a certain level, no amount of test preparation can allow you to get a stellar score on the SAT English section if you don’t have high level reading skills, if the grammatical constructions, vocabulary, and cultural background aren’t familiar to you. This is the knowledge that the SAT English section is testing, and that’s because it’s the knowledge that will allow you to thrive in a US university.