PowerScore is a test prep company with fingers in many pies, including the SAT prep pie (the most standardized of pies?). They have published a trilogy of SAT Prep books: SAT Math Bible, SAT Writing Bible, and SAT Reading Bible (which is what I'll be reviewing today). Like most prep books, the SAT Reading Bible has some positive and some negative aspects. Read on to figure out whether or not this book is appropriate for you and if you should add it into your own test prep.
Why trust this review?
When you're evaluating advice (both in life in general and on the Internet in particular), it’s v. important to know why that advice is trustworthy and believable. And as you probably already know if you're reading this blog, your SAT score is important (we even have an infographic to that effect), and following the wrong advice might lead to a bad score and loss of chance to improve it.
So why is this review worthy of your trust? Because I know what I’m talking about. I took the (current) SAT twice in high school and scored a perfect 800 on the Critical Reading section both times. I've also been doing in-depth analysis of the SAT questions by skill set and writing articles on each skill. Other reviewers don’t necessarily have the expertise to be able to differentiate between books, so they end up recommending books as a sort of afterthought (and it’s pretty obvious).
In addition, I'm not getting paid for this recommendation, and don’t get paid if you end up buying the book (unlike other sites like about.com and reviews.com, which get paid for featuring books and if you click on their link to buy it). I do have one disclaimer, however.
I work at PrepScholar, an education company that produces online SAT and ACT prep programs. PrepScholar diagnoses your strengths and weaknesses and customizes a test prep program to suit your needs. My primary job consists of writing and editing articles (like this one) for the associated blog and grading the essays of students taking practice tests through the program.
While I think that PrepScholar provides the best prep platform currently available, you don’t necessarily need a prep program to do well on the SAT. Writing this review might actually lost us some customers, since you might decide you don’t need a program after all. But if you decide you don’t want to have to deal with 5 different books and want an integrated program that customizes to your learning, however, you should give PrepScholar a test run (that was a totally unintentional "test" pun, but now I noticed it and there is no going back).
PowerScore SAT Reading Bible Book Review
When thinking about any (test prep) book with a review in mind, I tend to focus in on the following three points: tend to go with three important questions to evaluate it
- Who’s the author and what’s her experience/background?
- How effective is this book overall?
- What are the pros and what are the cons of this book?
About the author
Victoria, or Vicki, Wood specializes in GMAT, GRE, and SAT prep. She is the Senior Curriculum Developer (according to her book bio) slash Director of SAT Development (according to her LinkedIn page) at PowerScore, a test prep company that’s been around since 1997. She attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate education, has experience as an educator as well as a test prep specialist, and currently writes for PowerScore's SAT blog.
How effective is this book?
As I know from my own experience tutoring, SAT Reading is the most difficult score to improve, because the skills you need to master it (logical/critical reasoning skills) are not as easily taught as the content on the Writing and Math sections. To prepare for SAT Reading, you have to focus in on different question types and the skills they’re asking for in order to approach the questions in a systematic way. While the PowerScore SAT Reading Bible does divide up question types, but I didn’t find their approach to learning how to deal with them all that helpful.
On the other hand, the PowerScore Reading Bible was the #1 about.com best SAT prep book of 2014, and is also a top-ranking test prep book on amazon.com, which means some people find it useful.
Screen shot taken 2015-07-02 at 2.37.20 PM by Laura Staffaroni. All rights reserved.
It’s so popular that it ranks higher for ACT prep than for SAT prep on Amazon, despite being an SAT prep book. Wait, what? Amazon, what are you doing.
Pros and Cons of PowerScore SAT Reading Bible
1. Accurate categorization of sentence types. For sentence completion, the general categories (contrast, similarity, definition, and cause and effect) seem at least somewhat accurate and useful. After all, knowing what kind of sentence a sentence completion question is might make it easier for you to figure out how the missing word relates to the rest of the words in the sentence.
2. Novel and useful suggestions for studying vocab. On page 150, there is an interesting list of strategies for studying vocab words that I think might be helpful (even if some of the items are awkwardly worded) because it addresses non-verbal learners, with strategies for visual learners and audio (sic; I think they meant aural) learners. For example, instead of just reading a vocabulary word in a sentence, Wood suggests reading it aloud (for aural learners) and drawing a picture to represent the word (for visual learners).
If learning vocab (and knowing how to use it) is the main area in which you are struggling, I think this particular list of strategies would be very useful - it might even stimulate you to come up with new ways to learn vocab that work well for you!
3. Accessible. There are fun quotes, tips, vocabulary, and more in the margins of this book. The layout also has a little variety, with even the occasional picture thrown in!
4. Key words for passage based questions. Starting on page 178, Wood lists a variety of key words that are helpful to page attention to when reading the passage. These include change-of-direction words and phrases like "however" and "rather than" as well as comparison words and phrases like "similarly" and "just as." If you struggle with extracting meaning from passages, learning to spot these words is extremely helpful.
That being said, there are some serious downsides to the SAT Reading Bible.
1. There can only be one...way to approach the passage. Wood claims there is only one way to attack the passages, which is to read the entire passage. She is quite adamant that you must read the entire passage to score in the 95th percentile or higher, which I have an issue with because
- what if that's not what you're aiming for and
- where is she getting those numbers? (I was doing some critical reading of my own there)
Saying that there's only way to take the test and that you must follow these steps is unnecessarily restrictive. I find that the best way to read the passage is to be flexible - sometimes skimming is the right answer, sometimes looking at the question first helps, and sometimes you just want to power through the passage and answer the questions after. To figure out which strategy is right for you, click here.
2. Way too much focus on sentence completion questions. This tends to be a problem with a lot of prep (books and otherwise), because vocab is easier to pinpoint as an area of weakness, and you get an (artificial) feeling of satisfaction from learning lists and roots and suffixes.
Even taking that into consideration, however, the proportions are way off for the SAT Reading Bible: pages 36-154, 395-455 (190 pages, give or take) are all on sentence completion or vocab; out of a 458 page book, that seems a huge proportion, particularly considering only pages 162-385 (234 pages, give or take) are devoted to passage-based questions. The relative amount of pages/time spent on vocab in this book is not proportional to the amount of space the questions take up on even the current SAT (190:234 ≠ 19:48. For those of you really wishing there was some bonus math in this book review: you're welcome). Unless your ONLY weakness is vocab, you are wasting your time spending it as this book suggests.
3. The sentence completion advice isn’t relevant to most students. All the strategies given seem like they would be pointless if you didn't know the vocab word, and pointless if you did; basically, the advice is only relevant to a certain subset of students.
For example, take "The PowerScore Four-Step Solution" (starting with the strategies on p. 41).
- If you don’t know any of the answer choices/don’t know the vocab, going through the trouble to cross out irrelevant info, rephrase the sentence, read only parts of the sentence, and then try to relate the sentence to your own life is way more time than this question is worth. Sentence completion questions are not worth any more than other SAT Reading questions – why spend so much time?
- If you do know the word, then adding on extra strategy is extraneous and will just take away time from the passage-based questions.
Perhaps these strategies are aimed at those students who "sort of" know what the word means, or can guess by process of elimination, yet do this all really quickly so as not to lose too much time. This not only seems to be a very narrow group of people, but the fact that the strategies are targeted at that demographic is never explicitly stated (at least not as far as I saw).
4. Explanations are convoluted, and the vocabulary used in explanations is unnecessarily complicated. For instance, Wood consistently uses the phrase "question stem" to refer to questions on the SAT. I suppose I can kind of see where she's coming from (if you just call the question part "questions," then what do you call the question + answer? My answer: the question and its answer choices, but I guess that could get clunk), but that's not the only instance of overly complicate vocabulary in this book.
Take this quotation from page 55 regarding sentence completion questions:
"For example, subordinating conjunctions are often the first word of a Contrast Sentence containing a dependent clause and independent clause." (p. 55)
My immediate response: what.
If someone needs help with these questions, she probably won't appreciate phrases like "subordinating conjunctions" being thrown into the explanations. Yes, it’s correct terminology, but that is NOT something you will be tested on – why take up extra time learning grammar terms that aren’t even tested on SAT Writing when you could be using that time better elsewhere? You're studying for the SAT, not for your own personal grammar education. See my recommendations for the best way to approach sentence completion questions for an alterative approach.
5. Breakdown of question type is too broad for passage-based reading. While Wood does break down types of passage based questions, the categories (except for vocab in context) are so big as to be meaningless (literal comprehension and extended reasoning). The types of questions are not necessarily grouped by skill – main idea questions are lumped in with facts and details. There are also some unnecessary categories, like cause and effect (the skills you use to answer these questions are not meaningfully different from those you use to answer "facts and details" questions).
I know from experience what a pain it is to categorize SAT questions by skill type, so I do understand why Wood chose to emphasize the categories she did; I, however, believe that the most useful way to study passage-based questions is by taking into account both the skill being tested AND the way it is tested. Yes, main point questions and detail questions require core literal comprehension skills, but the way you go about answering main point questions is likely going to be different than the way you answer little picture/detail questions. This mindset also underlies the SAT Reading skills articles on the PrepScholar blog.
6. Questions and examples are of...questionable quality. While no material other than the Official SAT Study Guide (and free official SATs) will have actual SAT questions on them, it's important that any supplemental questions/examples you use to prepare for the SAT are of comparable quality. Frankly, I did not find that to be the case with the SAT Reading Bible. Here's an example of a sentence completion question I found fishy:
"Carmine was proud of his ____, intelligent daughter whose sound judgement was admired by her teachers and peers alike. A. irritable B. brave c. sensible D. artistic E. pampered." (p. 60)
First of all, the vocab is way too easy. Here's the easiest official single-blank sentence completion question I've been able to find, for comparison:
Unable to discover how the fire started, the inspectors filed a tentative report stating that the cause was ______.
I think that the difference in the level of vocab is probably very slight, but it is there. For a look into the words most often found on the SAT, check out this free resource.
Second of all, I feel like an alternate answer could be argued for that practice question: if you take the meaning of "sound" to be "relating to things you hear," rather than "reliable," and think that musicians are artistic, then I feel like "Carmine was proud of his artistic, intelligent daughter whose sound judgement was admired by her teachers and peers alike" is totally arguable (sound judgement sounds like it's something musicians would have to me, and I have a master's degree in music!).
If it were just the sentence completion questions that had quality lapses, I wouldn't be so concerned (since those are going away in Spring 2016 anyway), but the passages used for passage-based reading questions in this book also struck me as problematic. There are no references in the intro or at the back of the book to reprints or licensing that would indicate the passages are taken from works of literature, which makes me think that they were written by Wood herself (or others at PowerScore). This is in no way meant as a slam at Wood's writing - I quite enjoyed her passage warning residents of Naples about the dangers of volcanic activity - but it does make me wonder how comparable the passages in this book are to passages that appear on the SAT. It's the classic "more practice isn't better when the questions aren't what you'll encounter on the actual test" problem.
So...I don't know that I would really recommend using this book for prep. Aside from the fact that it’s not particularly recent (published in 2012), and that (this edition) will be obsolete by Spring 2016, its cons outweigh its pros. My general sense is that it has good strategies for learning vocab and for reading in general…but not great strategies for SAT Reading.
If you’re being extremely thorough and want to make sure you leave no stone unturned in prep, this could be helpful. As I said, it does present some concepts in ways I hadn’t seen (like ways to learn vocab or read passages). If you’re trying to improve a very low score, this book also might be able to help you with improving some core strengths (not the actual strength of your core, that would require doing sit-ups while doing test prep).
When it comes to SAT strategies, however, I think that this book goes into way too much (unhelpful) detail, and if you’re scoring at a 500 or above, I don’t see this really boosting your score that much.
Overall rating: 51/100
Other Options For SAT Reading Prep?
If the words "free online resources for SAT Reading prep" are music to your ears, then I have got some good news for you! In addition to general strategy articles for low and high scorers, the PrepScholar blog also breaks down questions by skill type with focused suggestions. Most of the articles (on sentence completion, vocab in context, analogy, author technique, and paired passage questions) are live; the others will be posted in the next week or so.
Aiming for a high score? Read our guide to scoring a perfect 800 on SAT Reading or a perfect 1600 on the SAT, written by our resident perfect scorer (and PrepScholar co-founder) Allen Cheng. And don’t forget to check out our top-of-the-class SAT prep program!
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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.