The SAT is a standardized test, which means that it aims to be an objective measure of performance for test-takers regardless of whether the test is taken in October or May and regardless of which version of the test is taken. The actual questions on the test might change, but the SAT needs to allow college admissions officer to confidently compare the score of a student who took the October SAT to the score of a student who takes the May SAT even though the two students will see different questions on the tests.
The standardization of the SAT makes it a very valuable tool since it’s one of the very few objective measures that college admissions officers can use to compare students. Metrics like GPA and grades can vary between schools. At the same time, the standardization of the SAT is its greatest undoing and makes it vulnerable to test prep strategies. There are only so many “tricks” that the SAT can employ to add difficulty to its questions before the test no longer becomes “standard” anymore. The test writers cannot write questions between tests that are so different that the different versions of the test no longer become comparable.
Once you know all of these “tricks”, the test becomes very easy since you will know how to disarm the test and eliminate most of the difficulty. In this article, we examine one of the most popularly employed tactics that the SAT uses to make Writing multiple-choice questions (and other types of SAT questions) difficult: obfuscation.
Obfuscate – vi. To make obscure; to be evasive, unclear, or confusing.
Not only is this a common way that the SAT makes questions harder, but is also a great SAT vocabulary word to know! Consider the following SAT Sentence Improvement sentence:
By encouraging people to ride bicycles and carpool more often, the level of carbon emissions have been reduced, and air quality has significantly improved in the city.
Without looking at the answer choices, can you determine whether this sentence is correct as written or not? It is certainly much more difficult to spot an error when you don’t have the answer choices to compare to and see if there is a better answer.
If you have studied the Veritas Prep SAT Writing Strategies already, you already know that there are only a handful of grammar rules that are tested on the SAT. If the SAT simply tested these grammar rules in a straightforward fashion, a lot more students would get perfect scores and the test would not do as good of a job differentiating between students. As a result, the SAT will add elements of obfuscation to these questions to make them more difficult. In a writing question such as this, a lot of “junk” in the sentence makes it more difficult to locate the error in the sentence. This junk can be participial phrases, prepositional phrases or just simply extra stuff that gets added to the sentence to make it more confusing.
In this question, although a large portion is underlined, the actual error is contained in a small area: “…the level of carbon emissions have been reduced…”
The error is a subject-verb/singular-plural disagreement. The subject of the clause is actually “the level” which is singular and should be paired with the singular verb “has been” vs. the plural verb “have been.” But as you can see, the verb is placed right next to a plural noun “emissions.” Here, the SAT tries to trick you into thinking that the word “emissions” is the subject and cleverly places it next to the verb to make the sentence “sound” better. The test-writers know that most students will rely on their ears to locate errors and takes advantage of this tendency. Tricky tricky!
The corrected version should read “…the level of carbon emissions has been reduced…”
Note that if you ignore the prepositional phrase “of carbon emissions,” the error becomes much more apparent: “…the level have been reduced.” By knowing how to selectively ignore the “junk” that the SAT puts into the sentences to obfuscate the errors, you can avoid falling into these traps! When you take away this main method that the SAT uses to make writing questions harder, it will be much easier to spot errors!
Jason Sun is the Director of College Prep for Veritas Prep. When he’s not in the office, he can be found competing in swing dance competitions or defending his title as a table tennis champion.