No one should believe the editors at The Princeton Review ® when they claim in Cracking the SAT ® 2011 Edition: “Ideally, we’d like to see the SAT eliminated altogether; we think the test is that bad (2).” The publishers make a fortune on selling SAT study guides, not to mention their Cracking the PSAT ® /GRE ® /GED ® /AP English Language & Composition Exam ® , etc. The apparent hypocrisy notwithstanding, The Princeton Review ® still publishes a guide that certainly has its uses (as well as its limitations).
The SAT originally consisted of two sections -math and verbal- which combined to make a total score of between 200 and 1600. The test has undergone significant changes, notably the addition of a 25-minute essay section, and the elimination of analogies. The SAT now contains writing, critical reading and math sections, as well as an unmarked experimental section. Many students find the new essay requirement, added in 2005, to be particularly daunting. The maximum possible score on the new SAT is 2400.
Cracking has a light, humorous tone geared towards making anxious students feel more comfortable about a test which The Princeton Review ® rightly assesses has little to do with measuring intelligence or academic prowess and mainly gauges how well students take standardized tests. Throughout the Cracking series, The Princeton Review ® cannot refrain from taking frequent swipes at the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which produces the SAT. Cracking is never condescending to readers.
Cracking is a hefty, pricey guide at 716 pages and $35. For this, consumers get a tutorial tome with 26 Chapters, eight practice tests (half of which are on a CD-ROM), and numerous exercises and drills, all further divided into seven discrete sections. Despite the levity that The Princeton Review ® injects into this book, they take their publication very seriously, covering the essentials in their 31-page Orientation that comprises Part I, and then attacking the various sections methodically, as follows: Part II: How to Crack the Critical Reading Section, Part III: How to Crack the Math Section, Part IV: How to Crack the Writing Section, Part V: Taking the SAT, Part VI: Answer Key to Drills, Part VII: The Princeton Review SAT Practice Tests and Explanations.
The eight practice SAT’s are arguably the book’s best feature, as they provide not only good examples of what students will have to face, but detailed explanations that clarify each answer choice. The wrong answers are as clearly explained as the right answers.
The strategies recommended by The Princeton Review ® are often unorthodox by the publishers own admission, and some strategies may not be the most useful to all students. One point on which educators and SAT tutors often disagree strongly is the advice that students not read the entire passages to answer the Critical Reading questions, just what they need. While students should read the passages reasonably quickly, jumping to the questions first is just not sensible. The Princeton Review ® is correct, however, in telling readers not to be obsessed with irrelevant details. The suggestion that students guess an answer to a question when at least one out of the five answer choices can be eliminated is also of dubious merit: that still leaves only a 25% chance of choosing the correct response.
Chapter 8 Vocabulary, in Part II, contains 249 words divided in themed sections, e.g. DO YOU AGREE? (121) contains concord, concur, etc. The vocabulary in Cracking the SAT ® 2011 Edition is identical to that of Cracking the PSAT ® /NMSQT 2011 Edition, so graduates of the latter need not spend an inordinate amount of time on Chapter 8. And although a strong vocabulary is an asset in life, memorizing dozens of new words is time-consuming and unlikely to raise one’s SAT score significantly. A better use of time would be to peruse a list of word roots and suffixes.
One-third of the SAT is devoted to math questions, most of which are standard multiple choice, but some of which are “grid-ins,” meaning that test-takers have to fill in the answers themselves rather than select from a possible five. Cracking devotes 150 pages, or all eight chapters of Part III, to the Math sections of the SAT. Although the editors are not attempting to review every math concept that students have spend the past 10 years learning, they do provide very useful reminders about math terms and give breakdowns of the types of problems students will encounter. The chapters tackle everything from proper use of a calculator during the SAT through basic math, Algebra, Algebra II and Geometry. The chapters are written in an informative, supportive style. Particularly valuable are the methods for eliminating one or two obviously wrong answers on difficult questions without even doing much math!
The CD-ROM features interactive exercises with actual instructors who know the SAT well and can convey both knowledge and confidence to test-takers. This is especially useful for students who are not verbal-oriented and might balk at reading the hundreds of pages in Cracking. Considering the subject, the CD-ROM presentations are about as interesting as they can be.
The book’s one weakness is Chapter 18, Essay, which merely touches upon what is for many students the most challenging part of the SAT. Immediately upon sitting down to take the test on the Saturday morning in question, students are faced with a prompt, i.e. a quote or excerpt coupled with an assignment phrased as such: “What is your opinion on the issue of. . .? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view. . .” The idea is to choose a side of the issue, and clearly state one’s opinion, using pertinent examples from literature, history, current events and whatnot. Cracking provides minimal advice and support. One method that usually works is making a list of examples from the above-named sources that can be tailored to a variety of possible essay prompts. This sounds far-fetched, but really is effective. Common examples that students choose are Martin Luther King, Jr., the Revolutionary War and any number of Shakespeare plays. The SAT doesn’t ask for total originality, only that students prove their points. But The Princeton Review ® apparently is unaware of this theory of essay topics, or simply puts no stock in it.