Sunday, February 20, 2011

Common SAT Errors and How to Avoid Them (Holt)

Thanks to Miriam Holt for contributing this post. She tutors students in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, both independently and with local tutoring agencies.  She has prepared over a hundred students for the SAT in the past six years and humorously admits, "I have come to respect the SAT." This post addresses five SAT tasks that are pertinent to reading and writing.  For each task, Miriam describes what she views as the most common types of errors; for each type of error, she offers brief suggestions for instruction. Miriam can be reached through Parliament Tutors.

1. Essay
-Writing an off-topic essay
How to fix it: Students must focus like a laser on the quote in the box and the essay prompt that follows it.  Those words must determine the topic of the essay.
-Spending too long on the intro paragraph and shortchanging the body
How to fix it: This pitfall can be avoided by starting with the body paragraphs, about a third of the way down the first page, and then adding the conclusion and the introduction in their appropriate spots after the body paragraphs are written.
-Errors in grammar and punctuation
How to fix it: Student must save time at the end to proofread.
-Wandering, disorganized writing
How to fix it: Student must outline to ensure the essay progresses in a clear, well-reasoned way.
-Accidentally proving the other guy's point: Some students set out to write an essay supporting one idea and, while writing it, find themselves making so many concessions to the other side that their essays end up supporting the other side more than their own
How to fix it: Student should write the body paragraphs first, evaluate them afterward to figure out what point they prove the best, and let that determine the conclusion of the essay.  After writing the conclusion, they should go back and write the intro paragraph, including the thesis statement.
-Mental lock: under pressure, the student freezes up and can't think of any examples to prove the chosen position
How to fix it: Student should create and practice using a repertoire of useful fiction, historical events, and personal stories which have material in them that lends itself well to proving the sort of positions suggested by the essay prompts.  Abraham Lincoln, the French Revolution, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Rings, and Romeo and Juliet seem to be popular among many students for their broad applicability, but each student must assemble his or her own favorite materials.
2. Critical Reading: Sentence Completion
-Over-Suggestibility: student sees an answer that "sounds good" and becomes enamoured of it, believing that the answer is correct without checking to see whether the words fit what is required by the sentence
How to fix it: Student should cover up the answer choices and read the sentence, analyzing it carefully and making guesses as to what sorts of words ought to go in the blanks, writing down those guesses in the blanks, and only then uncovering the answer choices to seek synonyms of those guesses.  Important: if the sentence has two blanks, the student should try starting with the second blank.  It's usually easier to figure out what goes in the second blank than in the first one.
-Disregarding unknown words and only considering familiar words: this is a tempting error that many students make because they just don't want to have to deal with words they don't know.
How to fix it: We use two different sets of strategies depending on whether the sentence has one or two blanks. These are described below. 

One-blank sentence: If it's at the end of the group of sentence completion questions, expect the answer to be a word that's more obscure than familiar.  Eliminate answer choices that seem like easy words.  Then, look at the sentence again to figure out what kind of word ought to go in the blank.  These sentences will usually incorporate a definition of the missing word into the sentence itself, so the student should locate that definition and, covering up the answer choices, think of a good word to go into the blank and then try to find something that could be a synonym for that guess from the remaining answer choices.

Two-blank sentence: Student must rate each individual word more consciously, by assigning it a plus sign if it works well in its blank, a minus sign if it is certainly not a good choice, and a zero if the student isn't sure.  Unfamiliar words get zeros.  Student should only eliminate pairs of words that have one or two negative ratings. Remaining pairs of words should be chosen based on whichever has the most plus signs.  If there are still too many choices, more choices can sometimes be eliminated based on what the relationship needs to be between the two words.  For example, if the words in the sentence's blanks need to be opposites but the words in an answer choice are synonyms, the answer choice can be eliminated.
-Weak Vocabulary
How to fix it: Student should devote several hours per week to studying Greek and Latin roots and prefixes.  Flash cards and mnemonics may help.  Once a student knows roots and prefixes, the words in the answer choices can be broken down to give clues about what the word means.  For example, if we're looking for a word that means something like 'irritable and quarrelsome' and must choose between sanctimonious and cantankerous, even if we have no idea what cantankerous means, we can choose it over sanctimonious if we know that sancti has something to do with holiness--completely unrelated to irritability and quarreling--and should therefore be eliminated.
3. Critical Reading: Passage-Based Questions
-Reading too slowly/Not absorbing the content/Zoning out/Not paying attention while reading
How to fix it: Student should try 2 things:
a. Read as though he or she will be asked to recount the entire passage from memory after one reading;
b. Skip the passage and go straight to the questions with line number references in them: read the questions, then read a portion of the passage from two lines above the reference line to two lines below to search for the answer, and then look at the answer choices to pick the best one. After answering these questions, the student should proceed to the questions that ask about the passage as a whole.
-Attraction to strongly-worded answer choice
How to fix it: Student should be aware that the correct answer is often moderately worded, and the answer choices with more extreme or black/white wordings--containing words like "never" and "always"--are often incorrect.
-Getting bogged down in reading the answer choices, taking too long to decide
How to fix it: Student should, whenever possible, read the question with the answer choices covered up and try to anticipate what the correct answer will be, and then look for that answer in the choices.
-Imprecise analysis of answer choices: student fails to consider everything that an answer choice is saying, and chooses it even though it is only partly correct
How to fix it: Student must be carefully precise when reading answer choices, eliminating an entire answer choice even if only a single word makes it wrong.  If the passage says dogs are often loyal to their masters, an answer choice saying "dogs are always loyal to their masters" is wrong and should be eliminated.
-Failure to identify the tone of the passage
How to fix it: Student should try considering what sort of voice a reader would use to read the passage aloud.
-Confusing the content of the 1st passage with the content of the 2nd
How to fix it: Student should pause after reading the 1st passage and jot down a few notes about its content to let the information solidify before moving onto the 2nd passage.

4. Grammar/Writing: Sentence Correction
-Confusing the object of a prepositional phrase for the subject of a sentence, and thus choosing the wrong verb, e.g. choosing “None of us are going,” instead of the correct version, “None of us is going.”
How to fix it: Students should learn to recognize prepositions and put brackets around prepositional phrases so that they can help themselves find the true subject of the sentence.
-Failing to consider a small word at the beginning of the sentence
How to fix it: Student should remember that just because a word shows up early in the sentence doesn’t mean it’s correct.  Scrutinize prepositions and conjunctions appearing at the beginnings of sentences.
-Failing to look for parallel structures
How to fix it: Student must become accustomed to requiring parallel structures in sentence construction on the SAT, even when we would not hold such strict requirements for other formal writing.  According to the SAT, this sentence is incorrect: “To call her narrow-minded is like calling water wet,” but this one is correct: “Calling her narrow-minded is like calling water wet.”
-Permitting a misplaced modifier
How to fix it: Students should make sure that dependent clauses with unspecified subjects are placed adjacent to their subjects in the sentence, e.g. “Carrying an umbrella, Carol didn’t mind the rain,” instead of “Carrying an umbrella, the rain didn’t bother Carol.”  The second example is wrong because, technically, it implies that it was the rain who was carrying an umbrella.
-Choosing the wrong pronoun #1: pronoun case
How to fix it: Student must learn the difference between a subject and an object and must clearly understand when to use which pronoun case.  If a pronoun appears as the object of a prepositional phrase, that pronoun should always be in the objective case.  The SAT loves to try to catch students who don't know this rule.
Subjective case: I, you, he/she/it/who/one, we, you, they
Objective case: Me, you, him,her/it/whom/one, us, you, them
-Choosing the wrong pronoun #2: pronoun number
How to fix it: Student should resist the temptation to replace words like “someone” or “anyone” or “everyone” with pronouns like “they” and “them”, because plural pronouns cannot replace singular nouns.  Instead, the student must choose singular pronouns such as “him”, “her”, “he”, “she”, and “one”.
-Permitting an unspecified pronoun
How to fix it: Students should be sure pronouns only appear in sentences that also explicitly state which noun the pronoun replaces.  This is wrong: “He promised to cut taxes and improve services, but he failed to keep them,” but this is right: “He made promises to cut taxes and improve services, but he failed to keep them.”  “Promised” is not a noun and cannot be replaced with a pronoun, but “promises” is a noun, so it’s fine to use a pronoun to replace it.
-Untrained ear: some students can’t detect grammatical errors easily because they’ve never been trained to speak or write according to the rules of grammar which the SAT uses
How to fix it: Student probably needs to take a course in grammar. 
5. General Test-Taking
-Student's performance starts out high and gets lower and lower as she or he moves from the beginning to the end of the test/Student can't focus on the test for 4 hours straight and gets mentally exhausted
How to fix it: Student should make sure to get enough sleep, have enough to eat and drink, and practice lengthening the attention span by, e.g. reading difficult books for several hours at a time and by taking practice tests under simulated testing conditions.
-Bubbling errors: student bubbles an answer in the wrong row, possibly because of skipping a question on the text booklet but forgetting to leave a blank row in the answer sheet
How to fix it: Student should bubble answers in groups of 5, or should finish all the problems on a page and then bubble in their answers all at once.  This strategy saves a little bit of time, too.
-Failing to complete a section
How to fix it: Student should not linger over questions in uncertainty, but rather answer as many answerable questions as possible, skimming over the difficult ones and coming back to them later if time allows, but meanwhile gathering all the points for right answers that can be easily gathered.

Miriam (at Parliament Tutors dot com)


  1. Great post Miriam and Susan. Another thing I'd like to add is the importance of guessing! If you can cross-out even one option, my strategy supports guessing between the remaining options!

  2. Thanks Miriam and David. Regarding vocabulary tips:

    I agree that studying roots will improve SAT performance, but I also suggest that even if students do not know that sanct means holy, they could possibly draw an analogy to figure it out. They could think: "I don't know sanctimonious, but I do know a temple or church is called a sanctuary, and that has something to do with holiness."

    With encouragement and validation, we help readers develop confidence in their ability to draw an analogy. Many CAN do it but simply do not trust in their own problem solving ability.

    Have you seen this play out, in your work with secondary students?

  3. Very interesting post. It's surprising to me -- and sad -- that the SAT continues to target such ridiculous prescriptive "rules". The OED accepts plural concord for (as in "None of us are going"), in fact, listing it as more prevalent. And the gender-neutral, 3rd person pronouns for singular/collective antecedents like "everyone" are widely acceptable in writing. Of course, both of these constructions have been with us since Old English, since well before the 18th century prescriptivist grammarians got a hold of the language, let alone before the SAT.

  4. I is sad, and only imagine how the students feel when they are docked for grammatical "errors."

  5. Thank You To whoever wrote this! Great easy to follow tips :)


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