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SAT - Verbal: Top Secret Test-Taking Strategies
Monday, February 10, 2014

by Henry Zheng, Tutor Tango Test Prep Expert

Like you, I was once a student who dreaded the verbal section of the SAT because it didn’t seem to have answers that could be arrived at with a formula. However, as with any other test, doing well requires a systematic approach toward developing your mental toolkit. Hopefully the strategies below can allay your anxiety.

Manage Your Time Wisely
There are two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section for the Verbal portion of your SAT. Some people think that if they were given all the time in the world, then they would get every answer correct. Welcome to the unforgiving world concocted by the College Board in which time is precious. Start practicing without timing yourself. As you become familiar with the test, time each section without giving yourself any leeway (one minute over is one minute too many).

Preparation
Many people think that great readers and writers are born with the mystical ability of invention. However, just like in math and science, improving one’s reading comprehension requires constant practice. This means not only taking test after test under simulated test-day conditions, but breaking down each section and tackling each type of question critically. Approach your sentence completions, short passage and long passage questions with an eye for finding out why you got the answer wrong. It is painstaking at first, but you will gradually understand the patterns that govern critical reading questions. Also, it doesn’t hurt to also find out why you got the answer right (hopefully not from lucky guessing).

Plan of Attack
Although there is no direct formula for obtaining a correct answer, there are strategies that will guide you toward the right answer for each portion of the verbal section.

Sentence completions- First, read the sentence without looking at the answer choices. Try to fill in the blank with a word that would make sense. Then try to see if any of the answers are similar to or synonymous with your preconceived word. If you are unable to think of a word, try to glean from the context whether the correct answer has a positive, negative, or neutral connotation. You can immediately eliminate any of the words that fall under the opposite category.

Short passages- Read the text first before approaching the questions, making notes about the main idea, and the author’s purpose, tone, and word choice.

Long passages- One thing to keep in mind is that the questions are often arranged in the order of the text, and they will give you line references for vocabulary. Some choose to skim the questions and then read the text, while others read first and then answer the questions. It’s up to you, but make sure that you try to understand the author’s purpose, main idea, underlying message (if there is one), and the organization of the passage. In addition, questions in which the author wants you to substitute a word in the passage with a word from an answer choice phrased as “What does the author mean by this (word)” are actually very straightforward. Think of the word in the passage as a blank and fill it in with an answer that makes sense in the context of the sentence. Remember, all of the answer choices are synonyms or definitions of the word, but only one answer fits.

Process of Elimination (POE)
This is extremely helpful not only in guiding you toward the correct answer, but also making sure that you don’t jump the gun. The folks at College Board often like to mislead the uncritical test-taker into choosing an answer that sounds right, but is actually very wrong. Always refer back to the passage when you’re stuck and don’t try to infer something that is not there. It’s not what the answer should be, but what the answer is.

Guessing
If you narrow your answer choices down to two answers, it is okay to guess. Even though there is a penalty for getting the answer wrong as opposed to leaving it blank, POE should increase your confidence. The point is not to second guess yourself as it takes up precious time.

Take a breath, and happy-test taking!