Artful Vocab


First, choose a few words that describe the picture: poise, shadow, cheerful.  Using, find several new words that have similar meanings:

POISE: aplomb, deft, equanimity, serenity, tranquility

SHADOW: penumbra, obscurity, eclipse (v.), veil (v.), obfuscate, murky

CHEERFUL: winsome, effervescent, jaunty, vivacious, sanguine

(Test makers love to throw in verbs typically used as nouns.  For example: eclipse and veil, above.)

Now you can describe the picture in several sentences, making use of your extended vocabulary!

1. The vivacious dancer springs from the obscurity of the shadows with one deft leap.

2. The serenity of the murky corners of the dance studio was soon plucked away by the sanguine scuttling of a thousand toe shoes.



Visual Thinking Strategies and the SAT


Click the picture to view a video about VTS programs at the Boston MFA

As a graduate intern at The Phillips Collection, I was introduced to Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a method for drawing out discussions about art.  The method consists of three simple questions that ask viewers to discuss what they see and what they think it means.  

While there is no visual analysis section on the SAT, many skills employed in VTS carry over to the test.  Critical thinking skills are employed in discussions about visual art.  In fact, you would be surprised how contentious these discussions can be!

Each of the three questions asked of visitors in VTS employ skills found in the Verbal section of the SAT:

VTS Question #1 What is going on in this picture?

SAT Verbal question type: meaning

‘Meaning’ questions ask about the overall meaning conveyed by a passage.  In VTS discussions, viewers uncover the meaning of a work by talking about what they see.

VTS Question #2 What do you see that makes you say that?

SAT Verbal question type: function

‘Function’ questions ask students to examine a piece of information, quote, or paragraph and analyze the function it performs in the passage.  In VTS discussions, viewers are asked to examine their initial statements about a work of art and identify specific visual elements that contributed to their interpretations.

VTS Questions #3 What more can we find?

SAT Verbal question type: detail

‘Detail’ questions ask students to scour the passage for the specifics that drive its meaning. In VTS discussions, viewers are asked to take a second look to find elements of the picture not noticed at first glance.  You would be surprised by how much you miss! 

As a teacher in the video above mentions, VTS also helps students to realize that there can be many perspectives about the same issue.  This skill is helpful in the SAT, where students are asked to identify the author’s viewpoint.

Trend Spotting

Many students begin their study of the SAT critical reading section with the same question: “I heard that I should skim the questions before I read the passage.  Is that true?”

In many cases, this would be great advice!  However, the SAT is a standardized test.  So, there are several question types that appear over and over again throughout the test.  If you learn these question types, you will know what to look for in the passage.

Here are the most common critical reading question types:



In line 16, the word “outstanding” most nearly means


The primary function of the first paragraph is


According to lines 56-60, MacArthur’s primary aim was to


In lines 30-36, the author implies that Strauss

Try this exercise: Look at one SAT critical reading passage and, without reading the passage or answering the questions, identify the question type for each item.  Some may fit more or less into the mold, but definite patterns will begin to emerge.

Do you believe in the SAT?

It’s SAT season again, and teenagers across the country are dreaming of #2 pencils, raw Imagescores, percentiles, and thousands of little grey circles with letters in them.  Amidst this confusion, many people forget one very obvious fact: the SAT is boring.  In fact, If you were to strip away everything exciting and fun from this world, what you would probably be left with is standardized testing.

While some people, such as crazy SAT tutors like myself, find the ins and outs of such tests oddly fascinating, most need inspiration to succeed on these exams.  I find that, before you can address these issues of motivation, you have to diagnose them.  What is it that makes the SAT so uninspiring?  My colleague Anna Menditto at George Mason University and I developed this scale to uncover hidden beliefs about the SAT that influence a student’s approach to – and ultimately success with – the test.

Pilot Study, SAT Beliefs Scale

Circle the number that best describes your beliefs about the SAT.

If you strongly disagree, circle number 1.  If you strongly agree, circle number 5.

1. The SAT has an impact on my future.

1          2          3          4          5

2. Studying for the SAT will make me a better student.

1          2          3          4          5

3. The skills I use on the SAT are of value.

1          2          3          4          5

4. The SAT is relevant to my academic life.

1          2          3          4          5

5. The SAT is worthwhile.

1          2          3          4          5

6. I am good at the SAT.

1          2          3          4          5

7. Students who get good grades do well on the SAT. 

1          2          3          4          5

8. The better you do on the SAT, the better you will do in college. 

1          2          3          4          5

9. Studying for the SAT will improve my everyday life.

1          2          3          4          5

10. I will score well in relation to my peers.

1          2          3          4          5

Admissions Process Revealed

There was a great article in the Washington Post magazine this weekend in which Washington writer and parent R. C. Barajas goes behind the scenes to ask the questions every parent and high school senior wants to know about the college admissions process.

Barajas profiles several schools, including Goucher college, a liberal-arts program in Maryland, which actually allowed her to sit in on the admissions sessions.  Some interesting, and actually very heartening, findings emerged.

First of all, it seems that college admissions departments actually read those essays!  The admissions department meets together in a room and goes over all elements of the application, weighing its various merits and shortcomings.

One interesting finding: your college counselor is your best friend.  According to the admissions director at Goucher, when the team has misgivings about a student, they often seek clarification from your school counselor. 

At least at Goucher, extra-curriculars are very important.  The team creates a score for each student: 1-6 for grades and SATs and A-D for all non-academic elements.  For example, a 1C is someone who does well in school and on tests, but has not really taken advantage of sports and clubs, or pursued personal interests.

Barajas has a great quote from Goucher president Sandy Ungar: ‘”I’m very interested personally in the kids who are searching and who’ve learned some humility along the way, who know how to learn and who know there’s still so much to learn, and who are not fooled into thinking that taking 12 [advanced placement classes] makes them brilliant.”‘

SAT Essay: Drawing out the Details

Assignment: Does progress reduce the number of problems in the world, or does solving old problems just lead to new ones? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

 In the preceding post, The Civil Rights Movement was one area that I brainstormed to address this question.  Going off of that idea, and since I recently enjoyed watching the film Lincoln, I could use that as one of my examples. 


So, in my outline, I would write some quick details that I could use to support my thesis.  First, of all, I have to decide on a thesis!  Since this question is leading me in an obvious direction, I am going to follow along:

 Thesis: Progress creates as many problems as it solves.

 Example #1: The Civil War

             Subthesis: While the Emancipation Proclamation temporarily freed the slaves, it created problems of constitutionality that could only be solved by a constitutional amendment.

             Supporting Facts:

–       The Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves living in the rebellious states free in 1863.

–       This law was passed under martial law and could only take place during wartime.

–       So, in 1865, Lincoln had to garner support for the 13th amendment to the Constitution.

–       Many historians believe that the Emancipation Proclamation was unconstitutional and set a dangerous precedent.

–       While progress was temporarily achieved with the Emancipation Proclamation, this law created some new problems still being solved today: as a country, we are still deciding the extent of executive power in wartime.


Of course, on the actual test, such an outline would be too time-consuming.  That is why it’s good to create about 10 ready examples prior to the test.  You can then mold these examples to any prompt. 

 Here are two more real SAT prompts for which you could use this example:

1)    Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in authority?

2)    Should people take more responsibility for solving problems that affect their communities or the nation in general?

Honest Process: SAT Essay

First step – considering the question:


Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

We would like to think that progress causes problems to be solved completely, and sometimes that happens. For example, some diseases that once posed a serious threat are no longer a problem, thanks to modern medicine. Some problems can be solved, and they go away. But as often as not, problems exist in a chain of cause and effect: for each problem solved, a new one develops.

Adapted from Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse

Assignment: Does progress reduce the number of problems in the world, or does solving old problems just lead to new ones? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

The underlined portion of the prompt is the most important part: you need to directly answer this question.  How would you go about this?  First of all, what is meant by progress?  What are some examples of progress?  (Sometimes looking at the quote helps jog your memory – sometimes not).

Some ideas:

–          Civil rights movement

–          Technology

–          Medicine

–          Infrastructure

–          Modern Art

For a five-paragraph SAT essay, you need three examples, an introduction and a conclusion.  This format is somewhat constrictive, but the SAT essay readers are looking for it.  It is helpful to generate more than three ideas, however, so you choose your three strongest – or combine them.  For example, I could combine technology and infrastructure to talk about advancements in transportation.

Of course it is much easier to brainstorm great essay ideas while sitting in your favorite coffee shop or on the back porch – less so at 9 a.m. in a bare classroom full of strangers.  So, begin your brainstorming now.  Come up with an arsenal of about ten essay examples that are widely applicable.  Think about your own interests and specialties.  Choose examples related to your favorite subject, sport, or hobby.  Keep in mind that the essay readers know nothing about you!  What may seem very familiar to you is completely new for them.  This is a situation in which it helps to apply that much-referenced dictum: write what you know.

Stay Tuned: Drawing out the Details!

Vocab in Context

The Sentence Completions section of the SAT asks students to determine the meaning of a word in a given context.  So, why study for the test by flipping through hundreds of flaImagesh cards at breakneck speed?  Pretty soon they begin to look like a blur: mitigated, malignant, militant, mollified, mortified, mellifluous…

Why not prepare for this section by studying vocabulary in context?  Even better: create your own context. has great word lists compiled by subject.  You can either pick words at random, or pick a few that fit a theme.  Put them together into a short paragraph of your own making!  Here’s mine:    

My chosen word list: presumption, trajectory, catalyst, rote, pitch

I had my presumptions going in.  New school, new town, new friends: who knew the trajectory this path would take?  As I got off the bus on that first day, almost nostalgic for the rote reality of my former life, I practically had to pitch myself forward down those steep steps.  I never would have believed you if you had told me what a catalyst for change this new place would be.

Go for it!

Wonder Actively

A freshman English professor makes an unexpected observation in this American Spectator article: none of the students in a remedial writing class knew who Charles Lindbergh was, whereas almost all the honors students did.  Of course, being able to identify the man who made the first solo transatlantic flight is not essential to good writing, but it does show intellectual curiosity.  These honors students are the kind of people who ask questions about the world around them – and seek out answers.  I remember very well a meeting with my thesis advisor at St. Andrews University in which he brought up a tangential issue, to which I responded, “Oh yes, I was wondering about that.”  I will not forget his response: “Next time, wonder actively!”

Knowledge can come from anywhere.  A favorite movie inspires an interest in its setting, which could lead to a trip, and perhaps even a new language.  A passion for cookies can become a science project, and perhaps even a small business.  Personally, my love of Ricky Martin in high school taught me more Spanish than I probably would have learned in a first-year course!

Colleges are looking for intellectual curiosity in future students.  Yale’s admissions department ask themselves, “Who is likely to make the most of Yale’s resources?”  They want students who will follow their curiosity and engage actively with the world around them.  The President of Stanford University urged incoming freshman to emulate Charles Darwin by following their intellectual curiosity wherever it might lead them – despite setbacks.

The greatest setback on a path forged by curiosity is probably the lack of a clear goal.  Students and parents want to know that the work they do will improve grades, SAT scores, and college applications.  Don’t worry!  Following your interests leads to success in these areas because it employs critical thinking, research skills, creativity and communication.  Most importantly, it will lead to a life filled with learning!   After all, what good is a 4.0 grade-point average if you find yourself on the elevator with the president of your dream college, and you don’t know who Charles Lindbergh is?

Free Writing to Combat Test Anxiety

By Evelyn Gardett

According to a study in Science Magazine, free writing about your feelings prior to an exam can help prevent test anxiety.  Two groups were tested: one was asked to write about academics, the other about their feelings of anxiety.  The group who confronted their anxiety head-on by writing about it performed better!

Free writing has long been a widely accepted way of dealing with a range of emotions.  What is so interesting in this study is that it shows that acknowledging and bringing these ideas to the surface right before a test does not make the feelings worse, but better.  It’s a similar concept to listening to rock music or running a marathon to deal with stress.  Actively taking on the stress of life – but on your own terms – gives you ownership of the stress, and actually decreases its hold over you.

The “free” nature of the writing is also pivotal.  Free time is essential for academic success in students of all ages.  It RE-creates the mind, and liberates creative thought.  For me, free unstructured time spent reading for fun, watching movies, or listening to music helps me make connections among elements of my life that I previously saw an unrelated.  It’s the mental equivalent of taking a look around your tool shed and realizing that you already have all the materials you need to complete a project.

Granting ourselves free time is difficult – especially in that moment before a test when prudence would seem to dictate last-minute cramming.  We are so beset with obligations, wanting to get the most out of every minute.  Even typically restful activities, such as sports, the arts, and social functions, can don the livery of achievement.  Find something to do that will not bring you any material gain, something that you would not put on your resume, and pursue it for its own good.  Here are some ideas.

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