I won’t beat around the bush here. Let’s start with the report card for this book before I get into the nitty-gritty.
Quality of Lessons and Skill Building Exercises: B-
Authenticity of Material: C+
Amount of Material: B-
Quality of Explanations: C-
In order to write this review, I sat down with McGraw-Hill’s SAT 2014 Edition book and went through it page by boring page. And as I did, I took notes about each positive or negative reaction I had. I didn’t note anything about the totally standard material–stuff I would expect to find in any half decent SAT prep book — so to be fair, there are a lot of good things that didn’t get noted because they just weren’t surprising. But in any case, I came up with a list of about thirty issues and only two strong points.
You can see where this is going, then.
I should say that it’s really not all bad. There is a lot of good advice in this book. But in part, that’s just because there’s a lot of advice in this book, period. You put a thousand monkeys in a room with a thousand typewriters long enough, and they’ll produce a genuine SAT, right? Okay, that’s not a fair analogy. The writers clearly were not monkeys. I’m 99% sure that every one of them was human. But that brings up another, better point: it is pretty clear that a number of different writers were behind the words on the page, and while some were spectacular, some fell short. For that, I blame the editor(s). Even if there is some good content and real SAT wisdom in here, the book is just not well put together.
But let’s break it down into the pieces, shall we?
Quality of Lessons and Skill Building Exercises
For the most part, the lessons McGraw-Hill puts on the page are sound. The strategies they use are incredibly thorough, and they explain the reasoning behind each strategy clearly. And it’s easy to read–especially the math section, surprisingly.
But theres a ton of information here and just about squat for organization. How are you supposed to know the most useful math strategies to learn if they’re buried in 200 pages of assorted advice? There’s no order of importance, and it’s hard to penetrate. One 30-something page long chapter on math strategy overview is divided into these super helpful sections:
- Mapping the Problems
- Analyzing Problems
- Finding Patterns
- Simplifying Problems
- Connecting to Knowledge
- Finding Alternatives
- Thinking Logically
- Checking Your Work
Those are eight steps that you’re supposed to follow for each math question. Can you imagine walking yourself through eight different steps for each question? Keep in mind some of these problems should only take about 15-20 seconds to solve. That’s two or three seconds per step for those easy questions.
And where do you find the all-important test-taking strategy of plugging in numbers for variables? Why, in “Finding Alternatives,” of course. There’s no hint that you’d find that strategy there. It’s in the book, which is good (but not surprising), but it’s remarkably easy to pass by it if you’re not careful, especially when there are another 200 pages on math skills throughout which plugging in is barely mentioned, if at all.
And how about the best method for answering questions on paired reading comp passages? That’s in “Finding Alternatives in Attacking the Questions.” Apparently, McGraw-Hill considers most important strategies “alternatives.”
In that over-abundance of advice, you’ll find some conflicting thoughts, too. The multiple authors rear their multiple heads like a hydra. How is it possible to read the whole passage before answering reading comprehension questions and read one paragraph at a time, answering questions as you go? (By the way, I really don’t advise taking that second approach.) At first we’re told to definitely read the whole passage first, then told, “Hey, that’s not for everybody!”
But all in all, the reading section is actually pretty good. The problem is just that it’s all muddled up. The writing section, meanwhile, has bigger shortcomings. The grammar topics broach many arguable points that wouldn’t be on the SAT (such as the difference between “fall” and “fall down”–I mean, really?), lessons focus too heavily on the technical terms taken from claw-out-your-eyes boring English teacher ramblings, and practice exercises include sample texts that are all-too-often from sources unlike anything you would see on the SAT. I’m sorry, but you cannot pick apart the grammar of the Constitution and call it realistic SAT practice. And those practice exercises don’t mimic the SAT, either: they’re similar to worksheets you might get from an English teacher, not in the format that test strategy is good for.
And finally, I get to my personal pet peeve, the vocabulary section. You may have heard that Latin helps for the SAT, right? That the insanely rare words the College Board will throw at you have Latin roots, and if you know those you’re golden, right? Well, McGraw-Hill took that one to heart. Their entire vocab chapter is structured around Latin words. It’s a good set of words, if you list them out, but the constant exercises built around Latin roots is just a distraction from the language at hand: English. You can study the Latin all you want, but it’s really just a way to link words together and memorize them easily, and there are better ways to do that if you don’t already know Latin. McGraw-Hill doesn’t seem to realize how important mnemonics are, and those would be a much better way of learning the new words. But they’re barely mentioned at all.
At the same time, there’s some very solid advice braided through the book. The tips on writing style are solid, the structures of reading passages are broken down simply and clearly, and even tricky math concepts are put in pretty readable English. Each math lesson has both comprehension check questions, not in SAT format, and genuine SAT-type questions to bring it a step further. It’s a mixed bag, really, but all in all there’s too much nonsense for me to recommend their advice unequivocally.
Authenticity of Material
Speaking of mixed bags, this one is pretty well jumbled. The material in the practice tests is too easy pretty much across the board. I found I was able to do the most difficult math problems (the last 2-3 in each section) without a pencil or calculator in under 30 seconds, for the most part. The most difficult questions in a real SAT will make me scribble, grunt, and scratch my head for a bit longer than that.
But–funny thing–some of the questions that follow specific lessons are difficult enough. It’s not consistent, but there are good, challenging questions in there. They’re just not in the full-length practice tests, it seems. I’m chalking that up to different authors writing different sections of the book.
Similar problems come up in the verbal practice. The reading comprehension questions often have wrong answers that are too obviously wrong and have none of the really tempting traps that the College Board would sneak in there. The sentence completion questions, meanwhile, are closer to what you would see on the test but are usually too long, too weighed down. The SAT works pretty directly with the vocabulary, giving graceful, bare minimum detail in the surrounding sentences; the McGraw-Hill writers seemed to struggle to get the meaning in without bogging down the text with details.
The reading comprehension passages themselves, meanwhile, are largely pretty good. With the entire McGraw-Hill textbook catalog at their disposal, it seems they didn’t have a hard time picking out appropriate sources. And yet still, there are some clunkers–a passage taken from a dissertation by John Adams comes to mind. That’s too old, too difficult for the SAT. It’s great reading practice, but not realistic for the test.
Amount of Material
Altogether, there’s a substantial amount of math practice material, a good amount of reading comprehension, and a lot of sentence completions, but there isn’t nearly enough writing multiple choice material. Outside of the four practice tests, there’s only about ten pages, and that’s including the advice; the rest of the grammar activities are all in worksheet form rather than in SAT-style questions. Why, I cannot say. There are more than enough essay prompts, though, and over ten of them with sample essays, which is nice.
And if you need to work on pacing yourself and building stamina, you might want more full-length tests or at least full-length sections, but for most students, four is plenty. The book strikes a good balance between focused practice and full-length tests, really.
But there’s one more thing lacking, other than the writing multiple choice. There are flashcards in the back of the book, which I was excited about at first. And then I flipped through them…there are a total of 38 vocabulary flashcards. I’m not joking. 38. Who on Earth thought that was an appropriate number? We’re talking about a test that could easily include any thousands of difficult, rare English words. You could easily go through 38 flashcards in a single sitting–that is not what you need for the SAT, so to include it in the book is deceiving at best. Meanwhile, there are almost as many flashcards with essay prompts, which is nice, but clearly severely lopsided. It looks like McGraw Hill started a flashcard project, worked on it for about a day, then decided to abandon it and just slapped what little they had into the back of book as a selling point.
Quality of Explanations
Although the explanations of skills and strategies within the lesson sections are generally pretty good, those for the practice questions aren’t up to the same standards by any means. Many of the math explanations just show the work to the solution with no exposition as to how a student should approach the type of question, what traps to avoid, or what alternatives there are. They’re bare-bones, and will often leave you scratching your head if you have trouble with a specific topic. Similarly, the reading comp explanations rarely address the wrong answers, and so, again, don’t point out the traps, which are hugely important to see.
So this is short and sweet: they’re pretty weak.
Somebody, somewhere in the process of editing, decided that they needed to conserve paper, reduce the page count, or something like that, and that wasn’t the best decision. It’s crowded.
This might sounds like I’m nitpicking the aesthetics, but that’s not it. For one, the practice tests don’t look like real SATs because the sentence completions overflow onto the reading comprehension pages, and that interrupts the flow of the test, making you flip back and forth through more pages in order to answer reading comp questions than you would have to on a real SAT.
Besides that, the answers to most topic-specific practice sections are placed directly on the opposite page. So if you’re stumped on number 2, say, how tempting do you think it is to just look at the right-hand page and see the answer? Too tempting. And every time you do that, you basically sacrifice half the value of the practice question, if not more. If you do use this book for practice, it’d be a good idea to keep a blank piece of notebook paper tucked between the pages so that you can block your view of the answer page while you do practice questions.
The Final Word:
McGraw Hill does many things well, but there are too many flaws to recommend it for any one use in particular. If you already have it, you could get some benefit from using it, but I wouldn’t seek this one out specifically.
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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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