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Erica Meltzer, founder of The Critical Reader

Erica Meltzer is the founder of The Critical Reader where she provides information about standardized testing and the college admissions process. She is also the author of the highly praised book, “The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar,” which has become a test prep must-have for students and tutors alike. Read on to learn more about Erica.

1. Looking back to when you took the SAT as a senior, how did you prepare and what do you think was the most important test prep strategy in helping you get an 800 on the verbal section of the SAT?

I did relatively little of what most people consider SAT prep. I took the SAT twice, once in my junior year and again in my senior year. The first time I didn’t prepare at all, and I was also completely exhausted when I took it. I bombed the reading by my standards (let’s not even talk about the Math), so I took a Kaplan class the summer before junior year. In reality, it didn’t actually teach me much, but I think it made me feel a little more in control of the process and less nervous. There were three pieces of advice that helped me a lot, though: slow down, define relationships precisely, and break each question into steps that you can work through systematically. That advice let me marshal my skills enough to get to 800 (I had a 760 on the PSAT and a 710 the first time I took the SAT). But when talking about my score, I need to stress that I only needed a tiny bit of “polish” to score perfectly. I was (and still am) a voracious reader, and I read an incredibly wide range of works for pleasure — novels, history books, plays…you name it. All of the skills I needed were already there. My high school also placed a huge emphasis on vocabulary; I think I had a vocab test pretty much every week all four years. I also studied French and Latin concurrently. So I never had to study vocab or memorize roots just for the SAT. I don’t even think I bought the Official Guide: I have a memory of sitting on the floor of Barnes and Noble, going through some of the practice tests, and eventually I just kind of learned to intuit what a right answer looked and sounded like. Along with slowing down and working systematically, that was the most important factor in getting me to 800: learning to “read the test” and, when I got stuck between a couple of answers, asking myself which one the College Board would be most likely to consider correct. I took my own ideas completely out of the equation, and I think that’s an important lesson: sometimes you need to temporarily put aside your own preferences and focus on other people’s expectations. Then, when you’ve accomplished your goal, you can go back to worrying about yourself. Learning to do is that part of becoming an adult.

2. What is the “Ultimate SAT Verbal” blog and how did it grow into thecriticalreader.com?

There are a couple of reasons I started my original blog (ultimatesatverbal.com). First, there were (and still are) very few accurate online resources devoted to Critical Reading and Writing. I found some sites with practice sentence questions, but most of them weren’t particularly accurate, and no one seemed to be discussing just what Critical Reading and Writing were testing in any sort of systematic or in-depth way. Most of the tutoring sites/blogs I found basically just rehashed a handful of strategies. It all seemed very superficial At that point, I’d already spent a fair amount of time taking the test apart and really thinking about what it was trying to accomplish by testing the particular skills it was testing, and I wanted to write about those things in a public way because no one else seemed to be saying them. A blog seemed the ideal vehicle. As someone from a not particularly well-off background, I was also becoming increasingly concerned about the economic disparities in terms of students’ access to high quality test prep. I wanted to create a free, public resource where anyone could access the exact same strategies and in-depth analyses of the test that my students were privy to. It seems to have worked: I’ve had kids email me and tell me that they raised their scores a couple of hundred points just from reading my site.

I finally decided to have a full website (thecriticalreader.com) built because there were too many things I wanted to do that Blogger wasn’t particularly amenable to. In particular, I wanted to post more extensive grammar and vocabulary exercises, and there was no way to do that on my old site. I also wanted to be able to create an organized archive of all of my articles.

3. What prompted you to write “The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar” when there were already many SAT grammar books available? What was missing from those books and what did you want to do differently?

“The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar” started as a handful of sentences copied down from the newspaper onto a Word document. I’d already written some mock Writing tests for a couple of test-prep companies, but it didn’t occur me just how inaccurate most of the books were until I ran out of tests for a student and went to the bookstore to look for supplemental material. When I looked at it closely, I saw that there were all sorts of things that didn’t match up with what was on the real test. There were lots of certain kinds of errors (pronoun-agreement, subject verb-agreement) and virtually none of others (the hardest types of parallel structure, subjunctive) that show up less frequently but that are *always* there. There were also too many questions testing concepts that are inconsistently tested on the actual SAT — diction, for example, which never shows up more than once per test, if at all. The questions were also in the wrong places — “hard” parallel structure, for example, is often tested in the last Fixing Sentences question, but I don’t think I ever saw that in a big-name commerce prep book. Otherwise, sentences, were too long, too short, too hard, too easy… you name it. The great “trick” that SAT Writing sentences pull off is that they sound wrong when they’re right and right when they’re wrong! In other words, they’re very rigorously constructed to test particular concepts in particular forms. There’s some flexibility, but only to an extent. I found that a lot of the existing books either stole question structures verbatim from College Board exams and reworded them (which is of limited effectiveness because the SAT isn’t *that* repetitive on every single question), or tried to do new things, and the questions ended up sounding completely wrong.

After looking at a lot of tests, I got it in my ear what authentic SAT Writing questions sounded like and how they were structured, and I just kept on collecting more and more of them — whenever a student had trouble with a particular concept, I’d just grab a bunch of random sentences from Wikipedia or the newspaper, plunk them down with everything else I already had, and reconfigure them to contain SAT-style errors. To make sure that I was covering everything, I went through all the questions in the Official Guide and categorized them by error type/grammatical concept.

To be honest, some of it was also laziness! I got so tired of writing down all those grammar rules over and over again that I decided I needed something typed up that I could just hand to my students and refer to as well worked. I stuck a bunch of explanations in between my practice sentences, and the book just kept growing from there.

I actually started off tutoring French, and my goal became to teach English the way I taught French — with the premise that students were starting from zero and needed to have everything explained. Most of the grammar books I looked at assumed some degree of prior knowledge. Being a native speaker of a language isn’t the same thing as knowing its grammar. I wanted to write a book that was extremely structured, that would walk the reader through each concept and then go back and reinforce it at various points. It’s too much to go from working through each concept individually to dealing with everything simultaneously in context of the test. I’d go through each concept individually with my students, and they’d understand everything, but then we’d go to the test and it would all fall apart. There needed to be a middle step — that’s why I put in the cumulative reviews.

4. Having written many practice exams, what advice do you have for students taking practice exams and how can they make the most of the experience?

My big piece of advice for students taking practice exams would be not to move on until you’ve gone over everything you got wrong on a particular exam and identified/worked on the underlying concepts or skills that caused you to answer those questions incorrectly. Very often, a student will simply chock a mistake up to carelessness or guessing wrong when they were down to two answers when in fact they’ve completely misunderstood a passage or a question. If you don’t have someone to ask, go on College Confidential and do a search — chances are, someone’s already asked about it, but if they haven’t, post and you’ll probably get a bunch of responses. There’s a lot of questionable information on there, so be careful, but there’s a lot of really great information as well. Whatever you do, just don’t crash through test after test, assuming that you just need to get comfortable with the format, questions, etc. Familiarity is not mastery!

5. In your experience, what is the most common issue students have with SAT grammar, and what is your best tip for overcoming that barrier?

From what I’ve seen, there are a few grammatical issues that seem to recur with exceptional frequency: one is verb tense, particularly present perfect (e.g. has gone) and past perfect (had gone) and when/how to use them. I think I’ve probably spent more time discussing the past perfect than I’ve spent discussing any other concept. (NB: when you have two finished actions in the past, the past perfect can refer action that occurred FIRST, e.g. By the time the play premiered, its opening had been postponed at least five times). Comma splices (two sentences separated by a comma) are also a big problem, mostly because a lot of kids don’t realize that when a pronoun rather than a noun is used as the subject of a sentence, it’s still a sentence. So they”ll look at a sentence that reads “The play is about to close, it has been running since last February” and say that it’s grammatically fine. Idioms are also a problem, but that’s the one thing on the SAT you actually can’t do anything about. I always tell people not to worry about them because it’s not like there’s an official list you can memorize. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of possibilities. And there’s no sense wasting energy worrying about what you can’t control, especially when there are so many things on the Writing section that are firmly within your control.