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SAT Myths Debunked



By Catherine Groux
Posted January 27, 2013 10:00 AM

Students should avoid falling for these common SAT myths.
Students should avoid falling for these common SAT myths.

The SAT is one of the most important tests students will take on their journey to earning an associate's or bachelor's degree, and therefore should be taken very seriously. However, many high schoolers feel anxious about the exam, falling victim to many of the rumors surrounding it. To help students maximize their scores and truly understand what the SAT means in the college admissions process, Colin Gruenwald, director of SAT and ACT programs for Kaplan Test Prep, recently debunked some of the most common SAT myths.

Students Can't Prepare for the SAT

I can say with great certainty that students can, do and absolutely should prepare for the SAT. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that Kaplan has found year after year is that even simply taking the test at least once before test day is statistically likely to raise your final test score. Students who simply take a sample test or take a real test, do nothing whatsoever in terms of regular preparation, studying the content, doing extra quizzes or what have you, but then just go back and take the test again, like clockwork about 50% of them are going to see their scores go up.

Students go into testing with a certain set of experiences. They are used to the types of tests they have been given in their classrooms for as long as they can remember, where you learn a unit for a couple of weeks, get a study guide for that unit, and then demonstrate what you do and do not know. The SAT is not that type of test. The SAT is going to test how you are going to respond to new information. So if students go in and think, "I guess I know what I know and don't know what I don't know," they are doing themselves a great disservice. You absolutely can prepare for the SAT and it will make a difference in the admissions and financial aid process.

SAT Scores Are No Longer a Big Part of the College Admissions Process

That is not true. The top factors for admissions and financial aid decisions, as reported on by the National Association for College Admission Counselors, have been largely unchanged for decades. The top three factors are your performance in college-level courses, your overall GPA in your curriculum, and your standardized test scores on the SAT and ACT in particular. Your standardized test score is going to make a significant difference in your eligibility for admissions to schools and financial aid. It's a very big factor. For many students it will actually make a bigger difference than their high school GPA. It's a big deal.

The Longer Students' Essay Is, The Better Their Score Will Be

The direct length of an essay does not correlate with the score. That is not what is being graded for. What's being graded for is the quality of the argument and the quality of the writing. The reason that there is a correlation is that it takes time to fully explore an issue, to maturely and seriously address a question that's being asked. If you take a complex question about say, what the best way of setting up a high school curriculum is, which is the type of question the SAT is very likely to ask students, if you think you can answer that in one paragraph, I hope that's a great paragraph. That's a really complicated issue that people have been debating in the real world for a couple hundred years. The mistake that students make is thinking that the issue that is being asked about is very simple, when oftentimes it's not. Answering it simply shows that you haven't given it a lot of thought, that you aren't taking it seriously or that you just haven't expanded upon it.

It's not length, it's quality and the maturity of the writing. We have run into students who just want to fill out their essay and say, "I am at 300 words now. I can bump up my score if I get to 500 words." You can't do that if those 200 words aren't very good, not if it's not a quality argument. What you really want to focus on is making the strongest argument possible.

If Students Don't Know an Answer, They Should Leave It Blank

What this comes back to is understanding the wrong-answer penalty. The way the SAT is scored, if you get a question right, you earn one point in that section. If you leave it blank, you don't lose anything - you get zero points. So if you get one right and leave one blank, you have one point. If you answer incorrectly, you lose one-quarter of a point. So if you answer one question correctly and answer one wrong, your total is three-quarters of a point, not one point.

That works because of the number of answer choices the SAT provides you with. On the SAT, the sections will all have five answer choices A through E. This means that statistically, if you were to answer purely at random, you would get one of them right, giving yourself one point, and get the other four wrong. The way it works out you would get a wrong-answer penalty because they want to discourage flat-out guessing.

However, that only works against you if you truly have no idea what the right answer is. If you are looking at A through E and thinking, "I have no idea. I didn't read the question, I don't have time, I am just filling them in at the very end," statistically, you will not benefit from filling in a random answer. But if you look at the answers and say, "I know it's not A and I know it's not D," now the odds are actually in your favor if you guess because your odds are one out of three instead of one out of five. While the wrong-answer penalty is still there, in the long haul, it's actually working in your favor now.

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