Some things are best left to the expert advice of an SAT professional, but even if you’re not planning to deal directly with the SAT over the summer, there’s plenty you can do on your own to make you a better SAT test-taker.
The SAT is designed to test skills and knowledges that are accrued over a long time, things like vocabulary and math fluency, and these can be developed and honed beyond the hours spent in class. Not only do you not have to wait until a full-scale test prep program to start building these skills, you probably shouldn’t. Here’s a list of 5 ways you can utilize the precious summer months to build your skill and knowledge, laying the foundation for a strong performance on your next (or first) SAT in the fall.
1. Read old-fashioned books
Arguably the steepest learning curve on the SAT is the Reading section’s use of historical passages, which are pulled from various literary and political texts stretching as far back as the late 18th century. In the good old days, sentences went on for a mile without stopping, and paragraph breaks were a matter of personal preference. For a modern reader who is not used to old-fashioned prose, these texts can be extremely difficult to parse. Furthermore, because these texts can’t be understood in a hurry, it’s hard to maintain the focus and patience necessary to teach yourself old-fashioned prose in the middle of a busy school year.
Are these books beach-reading? Possibly not. But it doesn’t have to be painful. Maybe you read some Nathaniel Hawthorne or Mary Shelley in school and hated it— no problem, there’s a whole world of old books for you to choose from, across different subject areas. Look for what you’re most likely to enjoy so that you can spend your energy on unpacking dense prose and not on trying to care about what’s up with Jane Eyre and her eccentric boyfriend.
• If you’re a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton, try combining your love with some writings from Alexander Hamilton himself.
• Enjoyed the 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law? Check out the original source material by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: plenty of old-fashioned prose to work through, but action-packed and rich in dialogue.
• For those with a romantic bent, any of Jane Austen’s novels is a sure fit. You can even watch the movie first, which will not only help you follow the plot (so that you can devote greater energy to unpacking the prose) but also solidify your investment in the characters so that you’re less likely to give up if the going gets tough.
• For the politically inclined, try Democracy in America (1835-40) by Alexis de Toqueville. Fresh on the heels of the 1830 French ousting of King Charles X, Toqueville traveled the U.S. in order to study democracy and report back to his fellow Frenchmen. A lot of his insights can help us understand even our own current political ups and downs.
• Likewise for the politically inclined, or anyone interested in American history, sociology or race relations, try The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W.E.B. Du Bois. In this series of essays, the author attempts to represent Black culture to a White audience, coining the term “double consciousness.” What is that, you wonder? Read to find out.
2. Improve your vocab
Even though the SAT no longer has a specific vocabulary section, questions that require a sophisticated vocabulary are embedded in the Reading passages and in questions scattered throughout the Verbal portions of the test.
One way to study vocab over the summer is to keep a Frayer Model vocabulary journal and record words as you come across them in your reading; you can download a template here and an example page here. If you need a more focused list, try starting with this shortlist of useful vocabulary words for the Verbal portions of the SAT. It includes “tone words”— words that describe the emotion of a passage or character— that frequently show up in SAT Reading passages and answer choices, plus obscure transition words and homonyms for the Writing/Language section.
Another way to improve your vocab is to focus on word parts in addition to the words themselves. The nice thing about learning classical roots is that these apply to multiple words, not just one; if we know that the Latin root here– means “cling,” that can help us understand (and remember) valuable SAT words like adhere, cohesive, and inherent. When you look up a word in a dictionary, pay attention to the word origin (or etymology) and add anything useful to your vocab journal. You can find a great, studyable list of Greek and Latin roots here and then quiz yourself here.
3. Study math memorizables
So much of SAT Math is about recognizing certain forms— the key to moving forward in a question might be, for example, that this expression looks like the vertex form of a parabola or that its multiple-choice answers all look like the discriminant of a quadratic function. In other words, you may be comfortable with factoring as a concept, but are you fluent enough that you’ll recognize a difference of squares when you see it?
Summer’s a great time to gently refresh yourself on these topics without necessarily diving into SAT material. We love the algebra chapters of the CliffsNotes Math Review for Standardized Tests— or, if you need something more interactive, check out Khan Academy’s suite of videos and exercises for assorted algebra topics, particularly functions, linear equations, and parabolas.
4. Practice mental math
The SAT has two Math sections; one of them allows the use of a calculator, but small mental math errors (or slow mental math) are likely to cost you points no matter which Math section you’re on. Some of us are more comfortable with mental math than others— but even for strong mental math-ers, if you’re testing in August, you have a couple of months out of school for those skills to atrophy.
To improve your mental math skills or keep your existing skills sharp, engage in low-key computations daily. If you’re already doing math enrichment for school, try doing as much of the math as you can in your head. If not, look for other opportunities.
One resource we love is ThinkFun’s Math Dice; it’s a convenient, tactile way to practice mental math, even in the palm of your hand, and it scales up according to your difficulty needs. (If your mental math is rusty, start off by rolling the two numbered dice in your hand and adding, multiplying or dividing the face-up numbers; for intermediate difficulty, try rolling the three dotted dice in your hand and adding, multiplying or dividing those; for advanced difficulty, try rolling one numbered die and one dotted die, and let the dotted die be an exponent.)
Another great resource is arithmetic-level math drill worksheets, like Kuta Software’s free pre-algebra worksheets.
5. Practice analyzing arguments
Formal rhetorical analysis can be hard to practice without some set-up from a tutor or teacher, but informalrhetorical analysis is just about paying attention to how people try to convince you of things, and whether they’re successful, and why or why not. That’s not only something the SAT tests, it’s a straight-up life skill.
To practice informal rhetorical analysis, you could visit a news website and check out its editorials or blog posts (any piece of opinion-based writing that is meant to be persuasive). Discuss what you read with a friend, noting what was compelling or not.
What we aim to understand is how the writer is trying to manipulate the reader (not necessarily in a negative way), so think about how the writer is trying to affect you (or someone else, if you’re not necessarily a member of the piece’s intended audience). Check out Purdue University’s shortlist of logical fallacies and then keep your eyes open for them while you’re reading articles, listening to friends, even watching TV commercials. You may find that this not only better prepares you for the SAT essay, it also makes you a better thinker, citizen, and consumer.
Conquering the SAT requires more than just honing your skills, of course. It demands active engagement with practice materials, savvy strategies for each section of the test, and a thoughtful plan for preparation, including practice tests. Open Door is proud to offer smart, effective one-on-one tutoring to help students improve their scores and their confidence. Contact us today to make the most of your preparation.
No matter what you do this summer, however, make sure you also include plenty of “you” time to have fun, relax, and just be. A happy brain— with plenty of unstructured time for play and aimless wandering— is a high-performing brain!
By Erin Webb, Open Door Education Master Tutor & Co-Owner