There’s a gym I go to across the street, where every week or so I jump into the spinning class and, for an hour, pedal like a cyclone. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty fast and, at one point, I started to think I’d become quite the cyclist. When a friend asked me to go on an actual bike ride—something I hadn’t done for years—I thought, he is going to have trouble keeping up with the likes of me.
Within the first five minutes, my friend’s back quickly ahead of me, and I knew I was gravely mistaken. At the first hill, as I braced myself against the wind, I had an epiphany: this is nothing like spinning.
When I flipped through Kaplan’s SAT Strategies, Practice & Review, trying the numerous questions, I had a similar epiphany: this is nothing like the SAT. Like spinning, the Kaplan SAT was much easier than the real thing. Reading passages are not quite as complex, and the questions that follow are softballs compared to what the real SAT will give you; even the so-called tough math questions in Kaplan would be medium-level difficulty questions on the SAT. Needless to say, this book is not among the best SAT books I’ve read.
But that’s only a real high-level overview. Below, I’ve broken the book down into three parts of the SAT, giving each section its due.
Verbal section (C-)
For a vocabulary drill, the Sentence Completions in this book are helpful. For a sense of how tricky and subtle an actual SAT question is, you’ll need to use the SAT blue book, or at least some of the other publishers out there (Barron’s—though not as good as the SAT—does a much better job).
The reading passages tend to be on the easier side. Perhaps more notably, some of the passages lack that “SAT feel” and appear as though they were lifted out of a textbook. If you are just preparing for the reading comprehension for some state test, the Kaplan passages are fine. But the SAT carefully chooses its passages based on a number of factors, including density, style, vocabulary, and ideas. Most of Kaplan’s passages miss the mark in one or more of these areas.
But really, it is the questions that follow that do disservice to the SAT. Simply put the SAT writers—given the same passage—would write the questions that Kaplan does. The SAT would sprinkle vocabulary throughout the answer choices and word things in a way so that the answer would also not be so obvious. And it would definitely do a job of making one of the answer choices almost right, but wrong for some subtle reason. And that’s the gist of the SAT reading comprehension: It’s not just about how well you understand the passage; it is about how well you can figure out which is the better answer between two answer choices.
Math section (C)
The parts that cover strategy on the math section are actually pretty helpful, especially if your math is rusty. Some of the problems are actually quite tricky. Like the writing section (discussed next), it seems that a different person wrote the math questions on the practice tests, which aren’t nearly as difficult, complex, or subtle as those found on the actual SAT.
And that’s the whole point of these practice guides: not to only give you helpful strategies, but also to give you questions that are similar—and as difficult as—questions you’ll see on the actual test. If the questions are different and easy (which Kaplan’s are), you’ll get a false sense of mastery that could translate into quite the debacle come test day.
Even as a supplementary math text, Kaplan falls short. Barron’s and Princeton Review both have helpful strategies, but they have questions that are much closer to the real thing.
Writing section (D-)
The SAT writing questions are ordered in such a way that the easiest are at beginning of each questions type, with each question getting progressively more difficult, till the last—and hardest–question. Kaplan’s questions aren’t really in any order. The last question—one that is so deviously constructed on the actual GRE—is transparent to most students. And the easiest questions, ones that, on the real SAT, you can just “sound out” to find the error, are sometimes harder than the medium questions.
The reason this is such a big deal is you have to pace yourself on the actual SAT by spending less time on the easy questions and building your way up to the tougher questions. This technique is totally irrelevant when the questions are of random difficulty.
Then there is perhaps the even the more glaring error that the Kaplan writing questions seem to test the same grammar errors over and over again—verb tense/verb form errors seem to be over 50% of the questions. The real SAT, by contrast, has a vast range of grammar errors that Kaplan totally overlooks—idioms, for one. The surprising part is the grammar intro in the beginning—the only saving grace to the writing section—covers all the basic grammar errors. It’s as though a totally different person wrote the questions—one without much knowledge of the SAT writing section.
Across the three question types, there is a simple lack of complexity. To resurrect the cycling metaphor yet again, there is no wind, no sense of balancing a bike, and no rough roads to these questions.
Wait a second, buddy…
One obvious objection to everything I’ve written is, Oh, you are a competitor of Kaplan, so it’s not like you are going to write a good review. But I tutor SAT and I want my students to get the best score possible. By extension, I want them to use the best material. I’m not only going to have them use Magoosh questions, which form just a small part of their practice sessions. They will primarily use College Board materials, along with a sprinkling of Princeton Review for the writing section.
The only reason I could imagine using Kaplan is for those students who are around the 1300-level on the SAT and generally struggle in class. For them, most of the actual SAT questions will simply be too tough. Kaplan will be a way for them to get familiar with the test format and to practice on questions that they’ll have a better chance of getting—which should boost their confidence. Going back to my little analogy, I’m sure I’d have been much slower that day I went out biking with my friend, had I never done any spinning classes. But even if I became a competitive spinner (if there’s such a thing), that wouldn’t translate to me joining the Tour de France.
So, amongst lower scoring students, using the Kaplan book may improve their scores—up until a point. A student might be able to go from 1550-level to the 1650-level. The SAT, however, is the Tour de France, so you’ll need to jump on the bike that is the SAT blue book, which is filled with previous questions SAT—questions that have a rigor and complexity totally missing from the Kaplan book.