The SAT Writing & Language and Reading tests are designed to reward readers. By taking classes at Elite, you’ll zero in on specific grammatical rules and critical reading strategies, both essential tools for improving your SAT scores with time. But when it comes to breaking into the 700+ range for these sections, there really is no substitute for reading every day. As I’ve written in a previous blog post, Good at Math? Then You Should Ace the SAT Language Sections, a thorough knowledge of rules and test strategies is essential. But no knowledge is like the knowledge obtained by daily habit.
Most students do, of course, read quite a bit. When you’re not reading for school, chances are you’re reading your phone: text messages, Facebook statuses, Instagram captions and comments. Students today read just as much as, if not more than, their parents did when they were teenagers.
But not all writing is going to help you on the SAT. In fact, most writing will actively hurt your SAT score.
Our everyday spoken and written interactions perform subtle acts of grammar and syntax, usually without our awareness. Most of what we speak and write is ungrammatical, a fact that makes learning “correct” SAT grammar and syntax difficult work. Most of us use English in “incorrect” ways every day, and rarely do we speak with the complexity or nuance that you will find in the SAT Reading test.
To master the formal writing tested on the SAT and assigned in college courses, students need to actively engage formal, sophisticated non-fiction on a daily basis. To this end, I would echo the advice of Meg Campbell, Executive Director of Codman Academy. In 2011, she shared her “Secret to Raising SAT Scores”: Read The New Yorker magazine every week.
The New Yorker is an excellent source for a wide range of articles on politics and culture. The magazine will present a challenge, but a necessary one for those serious about not only raising their SAT scores but obtaining the critical reading skills needed to succeed in college and beyond.
I would add to this suggestion one more: read Scientific American, too. Many SAT passages deal with science and technology, issues that can feel very foreign to students accustomed to reading, say, nineteenth-century British literature. I recommend students alternate between these two publications—one New Yorker article Monday, one Scientific American article Tuesday, and so on.
Reading, though, is only half the equation.
To quote a UC Berkeley English professor: “How do you know when you’ve really read something?”
Anyone can pass their eyes over a page. But what does it really mean to “read” something? Reading is not a passive activity: it requires active engagement with the text. Active reading entails writing notes in the margins or in a separate document. It requires that we look up definitions of words that we don’t understand. And it means asking questions and seeking answers as we engage with a text.
Reading requires that we respond to the text and that we hold ourselves accountable for what we read.
And so, my suggestion to students—who, I recognize, already have quite a bit of work on their plate—is to both read every day and briefly summarize what they’ve read.
Download a free note-taking app (such as Evernote) and keep a folder filled with notecards, each devoted to a single article. In 100-200 words, explain the main idea and key details of each article that you read. This process mirrors the process of taking the SAT, which gives you a passage and asks you to respond by answering questions about that passage.
1. Read an article from The New Yorker or Scientific American every day. (I recommend alternating between the two.)
2. Using Evernote or a similar note-taking app, briefly summarize (100-200 words) each article you read. While reading, take notes, look up unfamiliar words, and ask yourself questions about the main ideas and big issues raised in each article.
Remember the old Latin proverb, Repetitio mater studiorum est: Repetition is the mother of all learning.
If you get in the daily habit of reading and responding to sophisticated non-fiction, you won’t just boost your SAT score—you’ll get to learn a lot, too.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and critical reading at Elite Educational Institute since 2010.