SAT Tip of the Week: Use Your Gut and Your Brain to Get a High Score

SAT Tip of the Week - FullYou’ve always been a person who trusts your gut.  You’ve got good instincts, everyone says so.  It’s why you were such an early adopter on Instagramming pictures of your dog dressed as different fruits and why you knew not to eat the “cold noodles” at the sketchy Chinese food place on the corner that sent your friends into an abdominal abyss for days, so it’s no wonder you’re so good at tests.  You just pick the answer that feels right, and most of the time, your feeling is right! Great, right? WRONG!

Let’s talk for a second about what a “gut feeling” is.  A gut feeling is your brain trying to communicate information to you that is based on some information or experience from the past. A gut feeling is, by its very nature, just a feeling.  It can be an effective alarm bell to investigate something more closely, but a gut feeling, like most feelings, is rooted in a complicated interplay between different brain regions which gives you information that is about as specific as a blank greeting card.

In order to score at the highest level on the SAT, it is imperative to not just know that something feels incorrect, but that it is incorrect.  This is not to say that there should be a complete disregard for the alarm bells that tell us something is wrong in a problem, but when the problems get more difficult, it is necessary to separate the feelings from what is quantitatively true.

This is especially helpful for the identifying sentence errors problems on the SAT. Let’s look at three examples:

Everyone knows (A) that it’s a bad idea to act (B) without thinking, but no one (C) actually does it. (D) No Error (E)

On this medium problem there are all kinds of gut alarm bells going off.  It sounds “weird”. Your gut is correct and may even prompt you to examine the second half of the sentence as the “weirder” part.  Maybe the answer is C?

Probably D though, because that sounds the weirdest, and beyond sounding weird you remember that pronouns need to have a clear thing or person that they refer to.  This means that the “it” at the end is bad news bears because it does not have a clear referent. Gut wins! Well, not really, because we still needed a little know-how to finish the problem.  Now let’s look at a tough problem.

The roots of (A) European influence on world culture, world  travel, and the perspectives (B) of the world’s denizens is (C) steeped in, even obscured by the (D) powerful effect European economic norms played in creating a new world order.” No Error (E)

The gut is silent.  This sentence sounds OK, if not a little academic.  You reach into your memory and something about parallel structure comes out.  In lists and around word like “and” or “but” you need the same structure.  “World culture, world travel, and the perspectives of the worlds citizens”, is that parallel? The gut grumbles a little, but you may just be hungry.

Our gut is failing, now let’s turn to our brains! In fact, this phrase is fine because the structure of the list grammatically is the same.  The list contains three nouns with some descriptive information relating it to “the world”.  Your brain then reminds you that the first thing you should do is check subject verb agreement by placing the subject and the verb right next to each other.  The subject “The roots” (“of European influence on world culture” are two prepositional phrases and are not a part of the subject) does not match the verb “is” and the problem becomes super easy! Let’s use our brain on a VERY hard problem.

Far from being a cozy, intimate haven to just sit and enjoy the company of friends, many coffee shops have become noisy, bustling metropolises with no space for patrons to sit and enjoy themselves. No Error

The gut attempts to pipe in, “Just enjoy?” it says?  That feels wrong. Luckily, the brain jumps in before any damage is done.  “Just” in this case is an adverb and is modifying a verb.  No problem there.  Let’s keep using the brain. Subject-verb agreement? “Many coffee houses have” is correct.

Choice C also has a list with two adjectives which can be separated by a conjunction or a comma so no problems there either. D is part of a descriptive phrase, which rarely contains errors, and is just fine.

Any pronouns? There are two words that act like pronouns in that they take the place of another noun.  “Metropolises” takes the place of “coffee shops” as does “haven”.  AHA!  All of these nouns have to agree and one does not. “Coffee shops” and “metropolises” are plural and “haven” is singular, thus the error is in Answer choice A.

The gut is a tool, but the brain is a much better and more effective one.  You do want to honor your gut by investigating the things that it seems to have problems with, but you also have to understand why things are incorrect in order to score at the highest level on the SAT.  So give your gut a little break, it’s your brain that is the real tool.  Happy studying!

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David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT