Prepping for the SATs!
October 27, 2013 12:19 AM   Subscribe

Three-part question: 1) what is the most effective way to prepare for the verbal section of the SAT test, 2) what are some good prep books to buy, and 3) where would I find them cheap?

My cousin is prepping to take the general SAT test soon, and I want to get him some books to prepare. It's been ages since I've taken any standardized testing myself, and I heard that they came out with a new version (?) recently.

My questions are:
1) How to prep for the verbal section most effectively? Is it still all about the vocabulary? Should I tell him to read more so he can absorb vocabulary organically? My cousin has no problems with the math section, but he's a slow reader and he doesn't really like to read for fun so the verbal sections are hard for him.
2) What are some prep/practice test books that I can get him? Is there any advantage to getting the really recent editions (2012/2013)? Should I get a lot of books so he can see all the types of questions, or is one/two basically enough?
3) Where can I find the books cheap? I'm ok with used, as long as there's no marks written in them. I've checked ebay and local craigslist, but the shipping/driving-to-pickup kind of makes it expensive. What other places should I check? Would used bookstores have these types of books?
posted by dragonfruit to Education (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
1) No analogies, and now there's a writing section with an essay. Have him take a practice test and see what types of questions he needs to improve. Vocabulary is important, but so is reading comprehension. Don't tell him to suddenly become a reader-- assuming he has less than six months before the test, it is an inefficient use of time.

2) Test prep books are generally reviewed in great detail on Amazon. There is a "book of choice" for most SAT/AP subject tests but not so much for the SAT. You could try getting the big official College Board book of real SAT tests, since there's always something a little off about the unofficial versions. And any decent SAT book should cover "all the types of questions" unless it specifically says otherwise. You can probably trust any SAT book published a year or two after the new SAT began.

3) If shipping costs for used books is a financial burden (you can get the official study guide used for less than $9 including shipping) then I recommend the library, or parents of college freshmen.
posted by acidic at 12:49 AM on October 27, 2013

Where are you shipping to? Because if you're in the US, shipping seems to be pretty easy to find at $3.99. You can get, for example, a SAT Verbal Workbook for under $10, including shipping. I don't think the format of the test has been updated since 2005, so a used book prepared after that change should still be sufficient to the task.

Personally, if he's a slow reader and doesn't like to read, I think one book and several practice tests is the way to go rather than weighing him down with a ton of reading. Practice tests can be photocopied at the library for very little cost. Most importantly, though, I would get or make flashcards to drill the vocab. Yes you can buy flashcards, but the rote tedium of physically making his own as he encounters vocabulary words he doesn't know from the book's list will actually help with memorisation.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:55 AM on October 27, 2013

1. Critical Reading section is still super vocabulary heavy. Most of the kids I tutor in the SAT struggle with this the most because they're not willing to sit down and just drill with flash cards.

One thing I've found that helps with my students who don't read quick enough to is to have them read the questions first, so they know what they'll need to be looking for in the passage.

2. I personally like the Princeton Review books that has strategies for the SAT. The official book College Board puts out is great for just practicing since they use old testing material. Some of the other practice tests tend to skew too hard or too easy.

3. Definitely used bookstore. Any book published from 2011 onwards should be good enough. Also ask friends who just graduated high school. Chances are, someone will have stacks and stacks of these lying around.
posted by astapasta24 at 1:09 AM on October 27, 2013

PS: Note you can make your own flashcards from word lists. There are also SAT vocab apps for both iPhone and Android if that's of any use. I don't think any are more than $5.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:14 AM on October 27, 2013

>>Where are you shipping to? Because if you're in the US, shipping seems to be pretty easy to find at $3.99. You can get, for example, a SAT Verbal Workbook for under $10, including shipping. I don't think the format of the test has been updated since 2005, so a used book prepared after that change should still be sufficient to the task.

I'm shipping to the U.S., but since I was only looking at the newest editions of books, they were coming out to be $20-$25 per book. Looking at the answers so far, I think I'll settle for slightly older editions, so the price won't be too much of a problem then.
posted by dragonfruit at 1:35 AM on October 27, 2013

Amazon's often got a pretty good used book selection and some of them are even available with Prime shipping and that sort of thing. I think the biggest determining factor is not so much the specific books as the buckling down and really working on it, so you might consider throwing in some more direct encouragement, etc, to go with the book. If he's a math/science type, I would consider throwing in some more advanced prep stuff for that, too; if that's his desired path, a really great score there might help offset being somewhat more mediocre elsewhere, if not necessarily a really poor verbal score. Also, it helps to be doing well with something while you're struggling with something else.
posted by Sequence at 1:55 AM on October 27, 2013

I address these comments to your cousin, because that is the way things must be.

My sister and I both got 2400's on the new SATs. Our mother attributed this to a grand ability to sit down and do 140 and 100 practice tests each. This did not necessarily lead to satisfactory results for where we went to college: I am very happy, but my sister was not. Certainly, the test did not help: it is a filter. A 1000 will hurt you, but a 2400 does not necessarily help. I got confirmation from the Princeton admissions guy (I didn't end up there, but still) that he was more excited by my extracurriculars, by far.

My mom came from the Korean viewpoint, where one test determines your educational fate. It was probably not that great a use of our time, but it was very effective.

I would take away two lessons from the experience that we had:

1. I would be chary of any approach that doesn't emphasize quantity.
2. Don't spend the amount of time we did. Do some research. Do some olympiads. Do some rich-people sports.
posted by curuinor at 3:55 AM on October 27, 2013

The big blue College Board test prep book is a must have. The price on Amazon is really inflated right now because the SAT is next Saturday. If you can wait a week, the price should come down to about $12. This one is worth the money, or you should go get it from the library as others have suggested. The only problem with it is that there are not explanations with the answers. I'd just supplement with a Kaplan book (I'm not overly fond of Princeton Review's tricks) and/or online practice tips at Sparknotes and The College Board's site also has an SAT you can print for free.

I wouldn't buy more than two books. Too many different tips and tricks can become confusing, and unless he's wildly self-motivated, he will never work through all of it anyway.

If by some chance he has a smart phone or ipad, there are free or cheap vocabulary apps that are useful. Reading comprehension questions make up the lion's share of this section, though. Still, it's worth it to study some words, especially if he doesn't do regular vocabulary study in high school English class.
posted by katie at 4:00 AM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is not 100% an answer to your question, but here is another take on the more general "how to prepare" question you're asking.

I'm an old (hah!) person who took the previous version of the SATs, but I found that my high school was INSANE about having everyone take and score well on them. This meant that the school sponsored numerous practice tests for free or cheap throughout the school year, and honestly practice testing in a mock testing situation was what helped me the most. I didn't do any other prep.

I don't suppose any of that has changed even though the test itself has. So I would encourage your cousin to ask his guidance counselor if there are any free or cheap practice test sessions he can attend in the run up to taking the test for real.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:13 AM on October 27, 2013

Both of my kids spent hours and hours on Kahn Academy for SAT Prep.
posted by COD at 6:35 AM on October 27, 2013

By far the most effective book for SAT verbal prep is the older edition of Barron's SAT prep. Why? It has an extensive and I mean EXTENSIVE vocabulary section that is pretty much like a dictionary. There has never been a single word I've ever seen that doesn't include at some of those words. The dictionary is excellent with awesome definitions and a comprehensiveness I've never found anywhere else.

If the individual you are choosing a book for has a low level of vocabulary, I'd recommend something like WORD SMART by Princeton Review. It has something like 200 words with clear definitions made for them.

There are no analogies on the SAT anymore I believe and so the other critical piece is the reading comprehension section. I don't know of anything other than getting as many reading comprehension passages and going through them as much as possible. There are no shortcuts or tricks that I know of that work consistently. What does work is simply doing 20 or 30 of those reading comprehension passages again and again and again until your brain starts anticipate what the questions are going to be before you even look at the prompts. Some people believe that you should read the questions first and then read the passage. Others argue that you shouldn't even read the passage but just go after the questions one by one. There isn't one right answer. I like to read the passages first just cause they're sometimes interesting and then going into questions.

The most important bit of advice I can give is the following: Do a bit of meta cognition and when stuck on a question try to ask "What is the author trying to figure out if I know or don't know." Usually you can tell immediately what they are testing for and when you do, the answer pops up in front of you. There are smart individuals who don't do well on standardized tests and it's because they look at those tests and try to answer the questions as if they were an editor and trying to sift out the wrong from the right interpretations. That isn't what you're doing on these tests. What you are doing is being tested on some element of aptitude or cognition and the test writer has to capture it in subtle ways without you ending up knowing what exactly being tested. Once you realize what the test question or test writer is trying to figure out you know or not, everything starts to make sense and the questions seem more tractable and even, dare I say it, easy.

Last point, when answering questions, try to predict what the answer should be without even looking at the answer possibilities. They are designed and worded to confuse you or fool you. The incorrect answers sound correct and in most cases they are sort of correct but there is usually one detail or one assumption in them that makes inappropriate as THE correct answer choice. Do not let these fool you. The best way to get around it is to try and write down and ANSWER before you even look at the asnwers that have been proffered for your confusion.
posted by RapcityinBlue at 9:51 AM on October 27, 2013

I have been an SAT essay test scorer. I tell test-takers the following:

1. Do not sprinkle your essay with words you don't know. Just write. They call the common misuse of big words the Plethora Effect. It makes us go argghhh.

2. After reading the bit in your big book (whichever one, see people's advice above), time yourself on writing an essay. Do it more than once. I can always tell when someone's never tried it, because 25 minutes is a ridiculously small amount of time to write an essay for the unpracticed.

3. Don't worry about being too neat (though it helps), and don't worry about getting all your facts strictly correct. You won't get docked for getting the author of a book wrong or whatever. However, don't try to make up a personal story on the fly to fit the prompt. You don't have time. Just tell the truth as you know it.

4. Think of a few books, movies or personal experiences that might be useful ahead of time. But if they don't fit the prompt, don't try to crowbar them in. Don't panic. Just think of something.

5. Don't use quotes extensively, if at all (as opposed to what that stupid woman who's been making the media rounds says). I'm scoring you on *your ideas*, not someone else's.

6. Fill both sides of the paper if at all possible. Length isn't everything, but I can pretty much guarantee if you're "done" on the first page, you're going to get a bad score. On the other hand, don't use huge loopy handwriting. It makes you look like a third grader trying to pull a fast one.

Edit: Also, you are being scored on your logic and ability to support your idea. Doesn't matter what it is. I've given good scores to proto-fascists who gave a "good" argument, because it was complete. Don't just give a one-sentence support in each paragraph. Explain.
posted by RedEmma at 10:22 AM on October 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

In my experience, for students who have reasonably good test-taking skills already, and are good students (think at least B averages), the best way to reliably improve your score is just to practice.

Definitely buy the Blue Book, but if you have enough time, also buy a couple other company's books that are just their collections of practice tests.

Kaplan and Princeton Review both have books of roughly a dozen tests. These aren't as good as the official ones (maybe 5-10% of the questions will be either too easy or too tough) but practice is practice.

The way I did this was save the blue book tests for Saturday mock test practices, and use the other books one section at a time. On a Tuesday night I might do one reading and one math section, for example. Do them timed, go over the answers, make sure you understand them all afterwards.

If you put in the hours, your score will go up.
posted by Precision at 11:50 AM on October 27, 2013

I used to tutor people for the SATs.

1. Vocabulary is a big deal, and I don't know any shortcut. Flashcards are the most time-efficient way to acquire vocabulary, especially if you can load them into spaced repetition software. I recommend Anki. That will be enough to let him recognize the words.

But flashcards aren't enough to let him recognize the nuances of connotation and register, and to use the vocabulary fluently and appropriately in his own writing. For that, I don't know of any way except broad exposure via extensive reading.

2. I always used Barron's because their questions are harder than the real SAT.

You can think of a practice test as divided between three types of questions:
- questions whose answers you already know, which are a waste of time to answer except to simulate time pressure
- questions whose answers you can figure out on the spot, which are worth answering because you actually learn something in the process of answering them
- questions whose answers you don't know, which are useful to encounter only so you know that you need to learn them afterward

The point of taking practice tests (ignoring questions of pacing and time pressure) is to find questions of the second and third types while wasting as little time as possible on the first kind. Once my students started scoring 2200 and up, if they still wanted to keep studying, I would give them pre-screened tests where I had already crossed out the questions I knew they could answer.

3. Sorry, I can't really help here. I always asked my students to buy a copy of Barron's and they never mentioned the cost. Back in the day, one could sit in Borders or Barnes and Noble and work through entire exam books without buying them, but I guess there's a reason Borders isn't around any more.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:21 PM on October 27, 2013

Other MeFites have given some good direction on the new (awful!) essay part, and how to prepare on your own. However, you asked about the most effective way to prepare, and in my experience (approx 15 years ago) it is definitely by hiring a private tutor. You get to work with someone (or someones, I had separate tutors for each section) who really knows their stuff and can gear their teaching towards you specifically.

That said, it's not cheap, but if it gets you into a better school or qualifies you for a scholarship, it's probably worth the money. My SAT score helped me get a 50% scholarship at a private school (I also had good grades) so the cost for us was definitely wort it.
posted by radioamy at 1:53 PM on October 28, 2013

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