Standardized test preparation has spawned a booming business. Stepping into the vast sea of available resources that have resulted can be overwhelming. What follows is a considered review of one particular resource, Princeton Review's Cracking the New SAT, Premium 2016 Edition. The hope is that this review will help you decide whether that particular book is worth your time—and how to approach it if it is.
Introduction to the Writer
I specialize in SAT (and ACT) preparation. I've worked as a full-time tutor, amassing over 1600 hours of actual time spent with students who needed help with all aspects of standardized testing. I currently blog for PrepScholar, one of the leading sources of test prep materials.
I therefore have some valuable perspective into what resources are going to benefit students the most. With the experience I've gained over the years, I've heard what questions students ask and seen where mistakes tend to be made. This gives me a sense of what needs exist in the student population overall.
I do, of course, also have some vested interest in seeing you decide that PrepScholar is the way you want to go when it comes to your test preparation needs; however, this review strives to be fair and objective throughout.
These are a few points that are not necessarily positive or negative in and of themselves, though they are still important to recognize.
The Assumed Audience Is Mostly Low Scorers
Cracking the New SAT is definitely aimed at low/mid-scorers. Most of the techniques are broad and basic. They are the types of techniques that will give your score a significant boost if you are lacking certain fundamentals of test-taking, but they are not necessarily appropriate for fine-tuning.
For example, the book instructs readers to answer every question on the test, even if that means guessing. That's great advice, and you can pick up some points that way if you're used to leaving large swaths of the test blank. If you're scoring a 1550, it won't bring you to a 1600. At the point, you're missing maybe six or seven questions on the entire test. If you get them wrong, you get no points. If you leave them blank, you get no points. If you guess randomly, you might get 10 or 20 more points by getting lucky on a question or two, but you're not going to nail that perfect score that way.
There are going to be a lot of people reading this book. Will you be one of them?
The Authors Use a Clear, SImple Style
The book's approach is simple and concrete. There are vanishingly few discussions of abstract theory. This is very useful in terms of direct application; the book is practical. It also means that anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the concepts discussed will be disappointed.
The authors of Cracking the New SAT steer clear of official terminology and SAT jargon. In their own words, "...we like to avoid big words whenever possible." This contributes to the philosophy of practicality and utility for the time being and the test ahead. It also means that they're going out of their way to use basic vocabulary in place of the official terms that might be worthwhile to know.
The Book Has a Clear Agenda
This book is essentially a giant ad for Princeton Review. The online resources are a way to get you on their website. The authors talk the company up a lot. None of this invalidates their advice. It does mean that the authors have a definite interest in hooking you in to their product.
Positive Qualities of the Book
First of all, let's be clear that Cracking the New SAT is a solid book with plenty of good qualities.
Way to go, Princeton Review!
Appropriate Style and Tone
The writing in this book is both personable and engaging. It's definitely not a stuffy, self-important textbook; it's something that a reader can actually develop some interest in. This quality is invaluable. What good is a book that I'm not in the least motivated to pick up? It may not be the next work of J. K. Rowling or George R. R. Martin, but it's a pleasant, easy read, while it also provides the information it needs to provide.
Another plus is that the authors of this tome are frank with their readers. If something's tough, they'll tell you it's tough; if something's unlikely to appear on the test, they'll let you know that, too.
The book also succeeded in getting a few chuckles out of me; it's got a decent sense of humor to it, which is nice to find in purely informational writing. The book does not, however, indulge in giddiness or absurdity out of the scope of its ultimate, informative end. It remains down-to-earth and clear about its focus throughout.
Promotion of Personalization
Princeton Review's readers are encouraged to advocate for themselves, promote their own needs, and, essentially, take a crack at personalizaing a very standardized test.
In test-taking, as in most things in life, one size does not fit all! Standardization of tests is tricky; it's very fair, in that everyone is jumping through the same hoops, but it's very unfair, in that those hoops are not designed with everyone in mind. Take a handful of brilliant student, and you'll find the don't all think the same way as the testmakers, and thus they don't all perform as well on the test.
The question then becomes what the solution might be, and, as long as standardized tests are around, the answer seems to be: learn how to use your individual strengths to get yourself through those universal hoops. This book understands that, and it's not afraid of broaching that topic with its readers.
Readers are asked to consider (really consider) questions throughout the text—the information is not simply dumped in their laps. For instance, one of the first chapters discusses the importance of the process of elimination. It doesn't just prescribe the process of elimination, though; it walks through a sample question about the capitol of Azerbaijan, pausing at each step to ask readers to think about some aspect of the problem and to discuss these specific considerations.
This is much better than if the book just tossed facts at the reader; this process encourages readers' brains to get active and involved, handle the information on their own for awhile, and make a few connections that wouldn't have been made sitting there passively.
It's all about asking those questions.
Clear Answer Explanations
There are clear, ample explanations for the answers that are given—in drills and practice tests, each question is viewed as an opportunity to learn. It's important to understand not just whether a question is right (or wrong), but why it's right (or wrong).
Whether you got a question wrong, or got it right, but felt a little shaky on it, or are just interested in diving deeper, you can find thoughtful, considered explanations of what's going on with every question. The book does not abandon you to your own devices.
The mnemonics in this book are largely simple and direct, like the acronym "Embrace Your POOD!" for "Embrace your Personal Order of Difficulty". From "POOD" to "LOTD" to "POE," there are acronyms aplenty. It even offers the borderline-clunky "MADSPM" to help us remember exponent rules.
It may seem obnoxious to have to remember all that alphabet soup, but it's actually a huge perk to have these mnemonics offered. It's a whole lot easier to remember "Embrace Your POOD" (and what it means) than it is to remember the exact wording of the expanded form.
In fact, take the order of operations. Which is easier to remember?
- Parentheses first, then exponents, then multiplication and/or division, then addition and/or subtraction
- Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally
Whichever one you chose, it was likely not the first one, right? But if that first one is tied down to one of the other two, you have a much better chance of retaining the material by using that simple word or phrase as a reminder.
Our brains love connections. Have you ever talked to someone for a really long time? Most likely, you didn't talk about just one topic the whole time; you probably found yourselves going from subjec to subject based on related memories and other associations until you asked yourself, "How did we even get on this toic?"
Yeah. That's how are brains tend to think.
That's why mnemmonics are so important, and why it's so great that the book provides some.
Why is mnemonic such a hard word to remember?
The book stays largely straightforward and concrete. This may not be everyone's thing, but, overall, it's a safer bet to err on the side of real-world examples than to wander into an abstract realm where nothing seems to have any practical application.
Lofty philosophy can be rewarding, but pure theory is often less memorable because there are no mental connections to be made. Examples and applications help us remember what the bigger idea is; discussing communism abstractly is all well and good, but reading Animal Farm or studying the Russian Revolution will ground it a lot faster.
The book is designed so readers can use it start-to-finish or jump around as needs arise.
Do you have all the time in the world? Work through everything, one page at a time. You'll get a lot out of it.
Do you have a week to cram? Start with a practice test, then drill into the most serious liabilities you identify.
The authors of the book take a balanced view when it comes to the false dichotomy of test prep and self-care. Readers are asked to commit to the work required by the process, but they're also encouraged not to wander into the realm of obsession, excessive stress, or extraordinary anxiety.
There are online resources that accompany the print features. This includes two additional full-length practice tests to accompany the four in the book itself, as well resources on the latest news about the SAT and ways to organize your college search. This adds another layer to the interactivity of the book as a whole, and, significantly, it's also a chance to get more practice material to readers than can be reasonably printed in one volume.
Not everything is so charming when it comes to this book.
What kind of rain would come out of this "deficiency" cloud, do you think?
Lapses in Tone or Style
Frequently, a personable tone turns patronizing. It seems that the authors of this book are working off of a thinly veiled superiority complex; they treat us (their readers) like we're simpletons at regular intervals throughout the book.
It's not obvious. It's not even consistent. But it's there. Sometimes it's a matter of over-explaining a simple concept, like when they define what a variable is. Sometimes it's a matter of writing in an excessively basic, simple manner, leaving readers feeling like they've just been metaphorically pat on the head.
Things get a little cutesy—almost saccharine—from time to time. It's like Princeton Review is trying too hard to connect with teenagers. They forget that teenagers are young adults. The jokes are quite basic ("Why did math folks come up with functions? To graph them of course!"), and the approach is sometimes too young.
Not All Advice Is Top-Notch
Some of the advice I simply disagree with. For example, the authors stress that test-takers should not, on the Reading test, read the entire passage. This strikes me as odd. It's advice I might give certain students, under certain circumstances, but it's not something I would ever say as a blanket piece of advice. I know I, for one, would flounder if I didn't read the whole passage.
For a book that gives so much lip-service to personalizaing the ostenibly standardized SAT, it's pretty one-size-fits-all. Readers are told to personalize their approach, but they're not given much opportunity to do so. The methods are presented very prescriptively: "Do this just like we say," which is just one of the ways in which the book is inconsistent.
A cookie-cutter snowflake seems pretty antithetical.
The pacing dawdles at times and seems hasty at others.
Some topics are discussed extensively, to the point of overkill. For instance, the discussion of fractions is on the excessive side. Meanwhile, other topics are minimal at best. The discussion of punctuation, for instance, is pretty wanting.
Similarly, some explanations are followed by demonstrations without much verbal support. Readers might be walked through a problem, but only shown the numerical steps taken without any words to explain what's going on. On the other hand, other such demonstrations are accompanied by plenty of verbal backup.
Sometimes, when the fact the multiple approaches exist is even acknowledged, both the "easy" and "hard" tactics are explained. Other times, there's no such luck, and it's assumed that all readers will align with the one method shown.
The level of what we as readers are expected to know is arbitrary. As I mentioned, the term variable is defined, but no explanation of the FOIL method of binomial multiplication is given until after FOIL has already been in use in the book.
This book has a lot of solid advice and good methods to try.
It's important to bear in mind that it has an agenda—it's an advertisement; that it's not the be-all and end-all—you can take what works for you and ditch the rest; and that it's got a target audience in mind—not everyone falls into that category.
Overall, this book earns 3.5 out of 5 stars from me.
If you're studying for the SAT, you might also want to check out some of our free SAT study guides. We have great study strategies for improving a low SAT score and getting a perfect 1600 for starters.
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Vero is a firsthand expert at standardized testing and the college application process. Though neither parent had graduated high school, and test prep was out of the question, she scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, taking each test only once. She attended Dartmouth, graduating as salutatorian of 2013. She later worked as a professional tutor. She has a great passion for the arts, especially theater.