Here’s something I learned while running an SAT-prep tutoring business in an Asian-American community for 20 years: While many students studied hard, only a small number of them were able to steadily improve their English scores toward a perfect 800. The rest of the students showed general improvement before their progress inevitably plateaued. The score at which they plateaued varied from person to person.
If anything, this score-stagnation phenomenon has become more pronounced in recent years. Unfortunately, because most students (and their parents) usually look for clues in the wrong places, they also end up with the wrong solutions.
"The last SAT’s Reading section was too hard!" I’d hear this from many students after each SAT test. (Most of you already know that the new SAT English test, revised in 2016, consists of two parts now: Reading section and Writing & Language section.) Of course, as true as this may have been felt to those students, the College Board that administers the SAT is constantly adjusting the test to ensure that the national average scores of both the English and Math sections remain relatively stable.
"I've been studying so hard—getting tutored, taking practice tests—but my English score is still almost 200 points lower than my Math score." This kind of disappointment wasn’t rare, even among many brilliant Asian-American students whose performance was outstanding in all the other subjects.
Many people believe that getting straight As in English at school will translate to high English scores on the SAT. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. What you learn in English Lit won’t necessarily help you nail reading comprehension questions.
Additionally, recent studies show that grade inflation in schools is rampant across America, meaning that there’s a weaker correlation between straight As at school and high SAT English scores than you might assume.
There’s no shortcut: You have to read, read, read in order to improve your critical reading skills. In this sense, the best teacher...is you!
Think about it this way: You could sit in a classroom and have the winner of the Tour de France teach you how to ride a bike. Sit this way, lean this way, pedal that way. You can even learn the physics behind how bicycles stay upright. But no matter how expert the instruction, there’s absolutely no replacement for hopping on a bike and riding it yourself. By riding every day, it becomes second nature to you.
In just the same way, you should read constantly, until it becomes natural and even enjoyable. Your eyes and brain will become accustomed to working together, so that instead of drilling yourself on reading techniques and thinking about what you’re doing step by step, you’re naturally comprehending, analyzing, and assessing the sentences on the page intuitively. That’s what it means to have good critical reading skills.
Of course, it might be hard at first. Just as you can’t hop on a bike for the very first time and go for a leisurely spin around the block, you’ve got to practice reading. The tricky part is to stick with it, even when it’s not exactly fun. (You can make it more fun by starting with stuff you like to read anyway!)
Teachers can definitely show you how to write a basic essay, and elements like structure aren’t too hard to learn. But it’s incredibly difficult to learn how to write a very good essay if you haven’t already developed an intuitive sense of language through a good habit of reading.
I’ll give you an example. At our tutoring school, we had a high school student whose essay-writing skills registered at 12 out of 24 when he first enrolled. (This indicated to us that he hadn’t developed an avid reading habit.) After about eight weeks of tutoring, his essay scores improved to 15.2, on average. Not bad. During the next eight weeks of tutoring, however, his scores plateaued, fluctuating between 14 and 16. Because he hadn’t come to us with a firm history of reading in place, he was having to fight and struggle for every additional point.
On the other hand, we had another group of students who had maintained a good habit of reading since they were young. They displayed radically different results. Their average score upon enrollment was 18.2 out of 24, and it took only four weeks for the group’s average score to reach 22.4.
From these observations, weI can confirm that, for both reading and writing performance, the effectiveness of teaching tips, tricks, and techniques is very limited. Without a self-driven reading practice, it’s a major struggle to improve your SAT English scores above a certain threshold point.
And remember: even if you somehow miraculously achieve your dream score by focusing strictly on scoring strategies available to you in the test-prep market, that score has nothing to do with your true English proficiency. I’ve seen students come to understand this—with a great deal of stress and consternation!—once their college life begins.
It’s the absolute best way to improve your SAT English score.