June 22, 2019

How to Raise Your SAT Score by Reading Biographies

Update: I've added Boomerang, Bad Blood, and Bitcoin Billionaires to the reading list.

The easiest way to raise your SAT Reading score is to read. The skills the SAT tests - knowing vocabulary, literal and careful reading, expressing complex ideas in subtle and clever ways - will naturally become part of you.

Reading is the cheapest and most enjoyable way to expand your knowledge. It's less annoying that paying a professor to force you through a curriculum. It's the way you're expected to train yourself if you go for a graduate degree or run your own business. It's arguably the only way to become the best in your field: you have to read to know what's going on and what projects to pursue.

There's no way for the SAT to test all that directly, so it measures the byproducts: skills like vocabulary, faithfulness to an author's intention, and the ability to restate complex ideas. Ironically, most test prep companies teach you to game the SAT by drilling the byproduct skills while missing the the original point: reading as a life-long learning tool.

You get more of what you measure. 

It's okay to teach to the test and study to the test if you want a 1400. Test prep companies guarantee that you can reach a 1400 because they know that most people can achieve it by learning simple techniques and guessing strategies. The biggest companies train newly recruited tutors to 1400+ and release them into the wild.

If, however, you want to be in the coveted 1520-1600 range, it's better to start early and learn the valuable core skills that the SAT tests only indirectly. It's one thing to fudge a 700 on SAT Math by plugging answer choices back into problems; it's quite another to solve math problems just by looking at them. Similarly, skimming strategies and answer choice elimination can get you a good Critical Reading score (35/40) but probably not a perfect one.

The challenge is to find books that are interesting to you as an individual without simply rehashing what you already know.

To that end, I've begun recommending biographies. These ubiquitous library items combine interesting narrative (resembling fiction), background knowledge (history and social science), and deep knowledge of a subject (natural science, sports, music, or whatever else the biography is about).

Biographies, especially autobiographies, are ideal if you like reading fiction. You can choose ones that focus on your hobbies or challenge yourself by studying subjects that are similar to the ones you struggle with the most on practice tests.

Don't torture yourself with boring books. Books become interesting as you gain background knowledge, so don't force yourself too early. If you struggle with science passages, go to the science shelves at the library, flip through the biographies you find there, and take the most interesting ones home with you. As you learn more science through fun books, the harder ones will become more relevant.

A book is at the right reading level for you if there's about one word per page that you have to look up. If you're still not sure, err on the side of fun rather than hard.

In case you want suggestions, I've compiled a list of biographies I've read, sorted by topic, below. Story-like books that aren't strictly biographies are marked with *stars.

TEST PREP (of course)

The Perfect Score Project by Debbie Stier


NATURAL SCIENCE




SOCIAL SCIENCE

*Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

*Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner


*Next: The Future Just Happened by Michael Lewis


HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY

The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth



*Wealth, War, and Wisdom by Barton Biggs


FINANCE




Mr. China: A Memoir by Tim Clissold




*The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

*Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

*The Quants by Scott Patterson

*Hedgehogging by Barton Biggs



PERSONAL GROWTH


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