It took over two years for me to finally get around to adding a very short list of "The Best SAT Books" to the "Recommended Books Page"-- but, now that I've arrived, there's no turning back.
I'll be adding a few more books in the coming weeks (/months/years) -- plus, reviews that explain why I think these books are so great.
The first book I'm going to address is The Critical Reader by Erica L. Meltzer.
Erica Meltzer is the real deal in an industry that's rife with misinformation. I discovered her website late one night while hunting for good test prep and ended up working with her on the verbal sections of the SAT during the summer of 2011. I ultimately scored a 760 on the Reading and an 800 on Writing, and I'm now using her techniques and books to tutor my daughter.
The night before I took my last (of 7) SATs in 2011, I had an 11th hour epiphany about the critical reading section:
There are two authors to be aware of -- the writer of the passage and the writer of the questions and answers.
This had never dawned on me before and I remember thinking it was quite the revelation, so I called Erica to inform her. She was somewhat startled that I'd never realized this because she'd always understood it instinctively and hadn't realized that other people didn't see it until I pointed this out to her -- the night before my 7th SAT. That comment forced her to rethink her approach to the test, and to consider all the assumptions that she took for granted.
Now she's published a critical reading book as a companion to her writing book, and it's truly extraordinary.
So why do I think Erica's critical reading book is better than the others? The following are a few ways her book is distinct:
- She teaches you how to read the critical reading section of the SAT in the sense of what characterizes the right and wrong answer choices as well as the underlying assumptions of the test (e.g. authors are always interested in their subject, so they're never "apathetic" or "indifferent" about it; "extreme" answers are usually wrong because adults generally avoid making overly grandiose statements about what can be known or assumed; authors can discuss other people's ideas without being "ambivalent" about what they think themselves).
- Erica approaches the SAT from a college perspective. In high school, the focus is on "proving" your argument whereas in college it's about understanding and interacting with other people's arguments. Her critical reading book teaches you to approach the test from both angles simultaneously. She shows how to read closely to answer the questions for real, how to read the test, and, how to switch back and forth between those two things.
- Other critical reading books might advise avoiding "extreme answer choices." Erica's goes and actually lists the answer patterns for frequent right and wrong choices, including specific words for each that are often used on the test.
- She covers the rules -- and the exceptions. After she explains the rules and shows how the test breaks them, she then has exercises that include the exceptions (e.g. extreme answers that are right). One of the main themes of the book is that achieving success on the SAT requires flexibility, and she teaches you how to be flexible -- while also being relentlessly literal.
- She uses the same authors that show up on the real test. The SAT is a test about contemporary non-fiction (with a little fiction thrown in for good measure), and a lot of the commercial prep books don't reflect that fact. They try to get around copyright restrictions by using passages from books that aren't under copyright (read: outdated language that's hard in the wrong way), or worse, by having their own writers write passages (too easy, too straightforward). The Critical Reader uses passages by Stephen Hawking, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and Anna Deaveare Smith -- "serious" authors who write for well-educated adult audiences -- and covers favorite SAT topics such as feminist art history, quantum physics, light pollution, and Henry David Thoreau. The passages are hard and "quirky" in the same way the SAT is hard and quirky.
I've listed some of the other books I stand by on this "Best SAT Books" page, and I'll add a more books, plus "reviews" in the coming weeks/months/years.