Despite the size of the test prep industry, there’s this lingering myth that the SAT is an IQ test, so studying for it is futile. The official response to that from the test prep giants (Kaplan, Princeton, Barron’s…) is a pretty unanimous “hogwash!” Or maybe it’s “horsefeathers!” It’s something barn related, in any case.
But of course they say that! They want you to believe that the SAT has nothing to do with reasoning ability–that it’s all about test-taking secrets that they’ll give you. That’s not it, either, though. At least, it’s not the whole story. The truth is hard to pin down; look around, and you’ll get a lot of different opinions. But if you really pick apart what it takes to do well on the test, I think you’ll inevitably end up agreeing with what’s below.
The SAT tests learnable, knowledge-based abilities
Like it or not, the SAT is closely tied to what you’ve been learning in school. If you take tough math classes, work to improve your essays, and really engage with what you’re reading, you’ll be in great shape for the test. For some, that’s a boon—after all, that path is pretty clear. Meanwhile, the logical faculties that IQ tests supposedly measure are a lot harder to improve.
Here’s one piece of incontrovertible proof for each section that the SAT is not an I.Q. test:
Writing: It tests grammar a lot. And you can actually learn many of those grammar topics in a couple of weeks, if you try.
Math: Having memorized formulas for the math section makes a huge difference.
But that’s not all you need.
Really difficult questions are similar to I.Q. questions
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; the SAT is tricky. Tricky and sneaky. If the College Board were to hire an animal to write the SAT, they’d probably hire a weasel. They’re not evil—they can even be playful—but they’re cunning.
Outwitting those high-end questions takes a talent similar to what IQ tests look for.
You may have to manipulate 3D objects in a strange way, for example, using visualization skills that just can’t be taught all that easily. Or maybe you’ll have to make a draw a logical inference from a reading, but two of the answer choices will seem perfectly reasonable (the flaw can be really subtle).
Making a relevant and valid argument in your essay also takes cold rationality rather than a deep pool of factual knowledge.
The SAT is a mixed bag
All in all, I’d say the SAT is about 70% book learning and 30% reasoning ability. You have to have the exposure to the topics the test works with, but that alone won’t get you into the SAT hall-of-fame.
But if that sounds like a bad deal, don’t get too ticked off. Since the SAT is standardized, the same types of questions come up again and again. Even if they’re tricky, you can learn how they’re tricky—at least to some extent—and score points on those questions that seem like they’re meant for geniuses rather than hardworking students. You just have to practice them.
And like I said, the test is still mostly about what you learned in school. Get that stuff down and you’re looking at a respectable to outstanding score no matter what.
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About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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