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The Importance of the Fundamentals

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Understanding the test format is one of the most important aspects of preparing for the ACT or SAT. By getting “under the hood” and looking at how the exams actually operate, prep guide authors and tutors have been able to uncover a veritable treasure-trove of design quirks and unwritten rules that can help students to maximize their scores.

However, these “insider” strategies are only effective if a student already has a solid grasp on the subject matter that the exam covers. How well a student can make use of strategies that exploit the test format is entirely proportional to how familiar he or she is with the test content.

The authors of strategy-centric guides will often downplay the importance of being familiar with the fundamentals of reading, writing, and math. In my experience, this seems to be due to a well-meaning but erroneous assumption on their part. Simply put, these authors tend to assume that the average high school student is better-versed in the test content than he or she actually is.

Even the best “unlocking” guides that I have used are not immune to this line of thinking. One otherwise excellent resource for the SAT Reading section almost entirely dismisses the idea of memorizing SAT vocabulary words. Instead, the guide’s author recommends that students focus on learning techniques that will help them figure out the meanings of difficult words on the fly.

The elephant in the room is that many students, even above-average students, possess a shockingly limited vocabulary. The techniques advocated by the guide just don’t seem to be very effective unless a student already has at least a moderate knowledge of the sorts of archaic words that the SAT likes to include in Sentence Completion questions. In other words, the guide assumes that students will taking the SAT with a larger vocabulary than the vast majority of them actually possess.

This same guide also stresses the importance of being able to read precisely and carefully in order to correctly answer Passage-Based Reading questions. Yet, the guide doesn’t offer students any sort of overview of the critical reading process. As with the size of a student’s vocabulary, the degree of his or her proficiency in critical or close reading is not something that one can easily make assumptions about. Critical reading is a learned skill. It is entirely possible to do well in high school without having to read as closely, precisely, and literally as the SAT requires students to.

The lesson here is that strategies for taking advantage of the ACT or SAT’s format don’t take the place of a thorough knowledge of either exam’s content. Rather, they build upon and enhance that knowledge. Understanding the exam content and the exam format are equally important for success on the ACT and SAT. You won’t get very far if you master one but neglect the other.

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