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RocketReader newsletter - The SAT - Vocab and Critical Reading


In the Harry Potter book the sorting hat was the ultimate authority on which child was assigned to each house. Would it be Gryffindor? Or, cue the dramatic music, Slytherin! Today, the SAT is a modern day sorting hat - largely determining who enters the gates of the Ivy League and who goes to a lesser known university.

Every year two million young people enter into this intellectual challenge. Many colleges in America look at the SAT scores to help decide who is accepted. Nervous students each year sit the SAT hoping that it will become their ticket to the college of their dreams. On test days anxious students are milling around the SAT hall clutching their number 2 pencils and snacks, apprehensive about the ordeal ahead. For those choosing three subjects, there is a three hour testing session that will drain mental energy and leave them exhausted by midday. The SAT is the Scholastic Aptitude Test and is feared by American youth. This article will examine the reading and vocabulary components of the SAT. We review the best methods and techniques to be fully prepared.

Reasoning Test

The SAT Reasoning test measures critical thinking in the areas of math, critical reading and writing. In this newsletter, we review the critical reading component.. The critical reading section is a 70 minute stretch comprising of sentence completion and passage based reading.

Sentence completion

Sentence completion asks word meanings and how sentences fit together. The following sentence completion example appears on

Hoping to _______ the dispute, negotiators proposed a compromise that they felt would be _______ to both labor and management.
(A) enforce . . useful
(B) end . . divisive
(C) overcome . . unattractive
(D) extend . . satisfactory
(E) resolve . . acceptable

It is clear here that choice (E) fits the sentence best. However, this example is somewhat deceptive as the questions quickly get harder and test much more complex word. For example, you might expect to be asked about words such as procrustean, vide, parley, catharsis, feckless, erupt, florid, sophist and nexus. Tricky? Yes, this where the SAT earns its reputation as being difficult. Here is a second test question, which is a bit more challenging.

There is no doubt that Larry is a genuine _______ : he excels at telling stories that fascinate his listeners.
(A) braggart
(B) dilettante
(C) pilferer
(D) prevaricator
(E) raconteur
In this question, only answer (E) is correct. If you are not familiar with the meaning of each of these words, go to and look them up!

Preparing for the SAT

It is not easy to prepare for this component of the SAT. Vocabulary is absorbed over years of reading, listening and speaking. The SAT tends to focus on less common words that we may not see in regular everyday use. Many students spend years in preparation by learning one or two word meanings each day and reviewing previous words they have learned. A good way to prepare in this way is to print out the word compilation on Choose interesting words from the list each day and learn and revise them. There are 5000 words on the list, so preparation should start early!

A second technique which is gaining popularity is the ‘SAT vocab party’. Here, friends have a conversation using as many SAT type words that they can cram together. When somebody hears a word they don't know, they put it on their ‘to learn’ list. We have prepared a great SAT list at that contains some words likely to be examined in the SAT.

The key to the sentence completion component is preparation. Those who have studied the words will gain easy points here.

Critical Reading

The critical reading section of the SAT presents various texts of length 100 to 800 words. It measures comprehension and the ability to reason about the subject material in the texts. There are three test areas.

  1. Vocabulary in context asks you about the meaning of words in particular contexts. In many cases words have different meanings, so this component can be deceptive.
  2. Literal comprehension questions will ask what the passage is saying.
  3. Most questions however, will fall into the category of extended reasoning. What is the main argument? What is the author's tone? What can be inferred? These are just some examples of the questions that will be asked.
A great way of preparing for this component of the SAT is read a broad variety of materials including books, web sites, business documents, magazines and articles. If you are exposed to many kinds of writing you are much more likely to appreciate the different points of view and styles. A great way to practice your critical reading skills is to read about hotly debated subjects on the web. Try some groups on Check out the quirky forums on You will come across many opposing points of views and you will soon see how the writers support and justify their views. It will also provide a great way to detect rhetoric, faulty logic and emotional appeals.

Critical thinking is about reading between the lines. The web is a great place to start. It is entertaining to read a feisty forum and witness the decay of logic as discussions rapidly degenerate into flame wars. By reading these articles you can quickly become a more critical reader.

Exercise - critical reading

For examples of critical reading, please see our newsletter on critical reading here.

Now we introduce a critical reading exercise. The following excerpt is a taken from a newsgroup called alt.atheism. Regardless of what you believe about a subject, critical reading is a skill that allows you to analyze what other people are thinking and how they are trying to persuade. Read the following debate about free will and try to understand the arguments made by each person!

Arky "If we have free will it means we can go against the will of god. Therefore in certain circumstances we can overpower god. God cannot be all powerful. As christianity requires both an all powerful god and free will I conclude christianity cannot be true."

Aswin "Free will doesn't exist"

Russell "surely the key here is in what terms one describes God. these arguments will certainly ring true if we picture a bloke with a white beard.

Western culture is constructed to understand things in Christian terms. Once we understand this, we can move away from the idea that God is an individual reality and towards the slightly more abstract comment that God is culture, systems, society - and fundementally language (which organises all these things and, consequently orders the ways in which we think).

There can be no such thing as "free will" as long as we are always working in these established patterns - following Barthes style codes.

'Free Will' can only be understood through things that language cannot represent. "

Chris "Then you have no free will to make a rational judgment, hence your opinion is meaningless"

Martin "Rational judgement does not require free will. In fact, rational judgement does not involve any kind of choice. For example: If someone asks me to do some mental arithmetic then, as long as I am preceding rationally, what choice do I have? There is only one correct answer. "

Denis "Do molecules have free will? Do atoms have free will? Since we're just made of atoms, where does this free will thing enter into the picture? Why should our brains, following the mechanical processes of physical law, possess anything called free will. The brain is just a machine. An INCREDIBLY COMPLICATED machine, but a machine nontheless. It's all just mechanical cause and effect. It could be that what we perceive as choices are only our own conceit, and that they are only the inevitable result of all the mechanical physical processes that led up to this point from the big bang, our own lives included. "

Peter "We have to considere random events. There existence means that even though free will may be a myth determenation is also a myth. If we start up the machine under the same starting conditions random events may bring about a totally different outcome. For nothing causes a instable element to discharge it's excess nucleons now in stead of somewhere in the 4th millenium.

So even if we were a machine our conduct could not be 100% foretold. As complex as we are now I doubt that anywone can get as near as 10% accurate predictions That is as far as individuals are concerned.

Just try and predict Boaty's next posting (and he is comparetively predictable)"

JPM "Read my posts below under "A QUESTION" in which I explain how free will does not exist. I may not be right, but it makes sense to me. And it also goes against Christianity, which I claim to be a part of. For if we do not actually have free will, how does God decide who shall join him in heaven and who shall not? So ... the older I get ... I fear I am moving away from Christianity. However, that does not mean that I will end my faith in God. He exists, only not in the way the Bible preaches. But as I said, for my interpretation on free will, read my posts below under the subject heading "A QUESTION.""

Angel "However, God exists and IS poowerful enough for the COMMON MAN to pick up his signals and indeed some have.....'Let him who has ears to hear what the Spirit has to say to the churches'"

Arky "Yeah yeah yeah but what about my original post. How can an all knowing all powerful god co-exist with man's (or even god's) free will. God knows the future and it is exactly how he has willed it. When God created the universe he knew I would type this article. That means I have no free will to not type it (or else god is not all knowing). This contradiction has never been answered. "

Greg "It is an old argument. If god is omniscient, then he knows every action we will make before we make it. In fact, he knew every action when he created the universe. As he could have created the universe in anyway he wanted, he must have created it with the intention we would sin. Remember, god is never wrong. For every choice we think we have, there is only one possible outcome - the one god decided on when he created the universe. We don't have choices, only the illusion of choice."

Denis "If the supposed god is omniscient, it knows everything we will do. It knew this when it created this specific universe. It could have created a different universe in which we chose differently, but it didn't, it made this one. That means it made all our "choices" for us at the beginning of time, by deciding which universe to actually create. It could have created a universe in which it knew I would be a Christian, but it didn't, and instead it made the universe in which it knew I would be an atheist. I have no choice in the matter at any point.

Now, answer this point. Point out where this chain of logic is flawed."

Denis "All current evidence indicates that the mind is produced by the workings of the brain. The brain is made of atoms and molecules that operate under strict mechanical physical law. That means the mind is a result of strict mechanical physical law. Where, in strict mechanical physical law, is there room for choice? You cannot show that all your "decisions" are not hard coded in your brain, an inevitable result of situation and brain chemistry.

I can point to observations that suggest that the mind is a product of the brain. I can point to observations that indicate the brain is mechanical. I can thus rationally conclude that the mind is mechanical.

Do you have anything more than feelings and cogito ergo sum to back you up?"

Exercise - questions

So ask yourself these questions
  • What reasoned arguments were presented?
  • What personal attacks were made?
  • Where was weak reasoning used?
  • Could you tell the point of view of most of the authors by looking at an exerpt?

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Reading Tips: ‘…Gathering more information on the authors and the organization they represent will give you an idea of whether the report has been written with a preconceived view or bias.…’  read article