Reading to Improve Your ACT/SAT Test Scores

I recently had a conversation with a friend, who was telling me excitedly about a great first date she had. After eating dinner, my friend and her date browsed in a bookstore and connected over authors they both loved. “It was a little bit like a whirlwind,” she said. “For every book I pulled off the shelf, this guy had not only read it too, but could rattle off several similar titles he’d also read.” My friend mentioned having started Jack Kerouac’s On the Road but not loving it. “Try Dharma Bums!” her date suggested, “Or Big Sur. I’ve read all three and I’ve got to say On the Road is my least favorite.”

My friend was surprised – in today’s technology-saturated society it’s (sadly) becoming increasingly rare to find dedicated readers. What’s more, this man didn’t begin learning English until he was 15 years old! After immigrating to California from Iran, he holed up in the library for most of his late teenage years, familiarizing himself with the English language through literature. He eventually attended the University of California, Berkeley and now has a successful career in computer programming, and many friends.

Hearing this story, I wasn’t surprised to learn this man wound up leading a fulfilling life. Simply put, reading is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Through reading stories about others, we deepen our compassion and increase our understanding of the human condition. On an academic level, it strengthens our focus, helps us find connections between different ideas, and helps us develop a killer vocabulary. (This last part is especially helpful when it comes to college admissions…)

Of course, for anyone hoping to attend a top university, excellent test are scores are critical. Vocabulary has always been a significant portion of both the SAT and the ACT—to the chagrin of countless students over the years. Rote memorization of words like “befuddle” and “obstreperous” with the aid of homemade flash cards has been a ubiquitous (another test word!) study practice for generations. However, I argue that memorization is not the best, and certainly not the only way to study vocabulary.

In my experience, the students who have the easiest time with test prep are the most voracious readers. This is true for native English speakers as well as international students—I recently worked with a Vietnamese student who breezed through test prep despite English being her second language. The reason? She devoured books.

More True Now Than Ever 

When it comes to learning vocabulary, context is key. Rather than simply asking students to provide the definition of a given word, the ACT and SAT tests focus on how that word can be used in context—how well the vocabulary word fits with the other words in the sentence, both in terms of definition and sentence clarity. For example, here is a sample question from the ACT:

“If a feather breaks off with the stub of its hollow quill shaft still in place, the bird’s body mistakenly believes the feather is whole.”

Which of the following alternatives to the underlined portion would NOT be acceptable?

  1. sound
  2. complete
  3. total
  4. intact

All of the choices are appropriate synonyms for the word whole, but only when we plug each word into the sentence do we see that answer C) total doesn’t fit, because “the feather is total” is not proper syntax.

Context is crucial for the SAT, as well. The new version of the test, which went into effect in Spring of 2016, tests vocabulary in a much more nuanced way than it has in years past, asking students to identify the contextual meaning of a certain word which, in a different context, could have a different meaning. Here’s a new example question, provided by The College Board:

[. . .] The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by inadequate human or other resources.

As used in line 55, “intense” most nearly means

  1. emotional
  2. concentrated
  3. brilliant
  4. determined

While the correct answer to this question is (B), any of the answers could be true, depending on the context in which the word is used. This represents a big paradigm shift in the way students planning to take the SAT need to prepare—they have to go deeper.

So, what can high school students do to prepare for this new type of vocabulary testing? Read.

Reading has always been one of the best things a student can do to improve his or her test scores. This is especially true for international students. Reading books in English is a way to incorporate the language into your normal thought processes—greatly deepening your fluency. Plus, the words and ideas learned through reading literature tend to stick more easily in our memories than words we simply memorize, because we can relate them to our own lives, forming a more personal memory of them.

Beyond the tests

American universities place a special emphasis on the character of their applicants. Beyond stellar test scores, they are looking for students who bring insights into the academic community. Reading helps us develop that character. It’s therefore no surprise that so many universities directly ask students to share their favorite books and authors on the application. Here are just a few examples of short answer questions from top American university applications last year:

Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or musical artists. –Stanford

Please list three books, along with their authors, that have been particularly meaningful to you. For each book, please include a sentence explaining their influence upon you. Please note that your response is not limited to math, science or school-assigned texts. –Caltech

What is your favorite fictional character? Favorite book? –University of Southern California

As we have written about before, life is about much more than getting into the college of your dreams. And if approached with the right attitude, applying to college can be an enlightening process in which we face ourselves honestly and discover what we really want from life, both in and out of the classroom.

Reading supports us on that journey. As we see parts of ourselves and the people in our lives in the characters we read about, we realize new truths about ourselves. We also learn things about the world around us, some things we may love, and some things we may decide we must work to change. In short, we relate to what we read. And that relationship helps us to continually unfold, becoming the best and truest versions of ourselves.

[To learn more about Spark Prep’s revolutionary holistic test prep programs, drop us a line].

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