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Mastering the SAT and ACT: 5 Must-Have Critical Thinking Tools

The SAT and ACT are not just assessments of academic knowledge but also of a student's ability to reason and think critically. Success on these tests requires more than rote memorization; it demands the application of higher-order cognitive skills.

In this article, we explore five key ways in which reasoning and critical thinking play a pivotal role in achieving success on the SAT and ACT.

1) Problem Solving in Math

A significant portion of both the SAT and ACT is dedicated to testing mathematical proficiency. However, it's not merely about memorizing formulas and executing calculations. Rather, these tests assess the ability to analyze and solve complex problems using critical thinking skills. Test-takers are often presented with real-world scenarios that require not only a strong grasp of mathematical concepts but also the ability to reason through the problem, identify relevant information, and choose the most effective problem-solving strategy.

When attacking questions on the Math sections of the SAT and ACT, don’t reflexively just start doing Math!  Instead, give yourself a chance to think first about how to approach the questions effectively, since this is what the tests are designed to reward!  Be a problem-solver, not a Math doer!

2) Author’s Purpose in Reading Comprehension

The verbal sections of the SAT and ACT, particularly the reading comprehension portions, assess a student's ability to understand complex texts, draw inferences, and evaluate arguments. Critical thinking is essential for navigating through dense passages, identifying the main ideas, and discerning the author's tone and purpose.

As you read, don't just get lost in the details. The key is to get an understanding of the big picture. Questions that ask about the details will be easy to answer by glancing back at the passage and rereading those details.  But questions that ask you to draw inferences based on your understanding of the main point of the passage or of the function of a part of the passage will be difficult to answer if you don't have a good understanding of the author's purpose and tone as you read.

3) “Grammar” Questions are Not Just About Grammar

On the grammar-based questions on the SAT and ACT, reasoning and critical thinking skills take center stage, playing a pivotal role in distinguishing high-performing test-takers. Beyond a mere test of grammatical rules, these sections assess a student's ability to apply logic and reasoning to written language. Questions often deal with issues of meaning, such as logical comparisons and misplaced modifiers, and test takers who are merely focused on grammar rules will often miss questions like this.

Similar to reading comprehension, it's important to read for meaning and for the author's intention.  On the ACT, just jumping from one blank to the next without considering the text that comes between all of the blanks is a recipe for making unforced errors. Often that text contains key clues that are needed to answer the questions that follow.

4) Data Interpretation, Analysis, and Drawing Inferences

The SAT Math section and ACT Science section also include questions that require students to interpret and analyze data presented in various formats, such as charts, graphs, and tables. The ability to reason through data sets, identify trends, and draw meaningful conclusions is a vital skill assessed in both of these sections.

For example, a science question might present a set of experimental data, and test-takers are tasked with drawing conclusions or making predictions based on that data. This process involves more than just recalling scientific facts; it demands the application of critical thinking to analyze the experimental design, identify variables, and draw inferences about the results.

5) Executive Function:  Time Management and Decision Making

The SAT and ACT are timed tests, adding an extra layer of complexity. Effective time management is crucial, and the ability to make strategic decisions about which questions to tackle first is a reflection of sound critical thinking skills.

All too often test takers foolishly squander time on questions that they are unlikely to get right, particularly on the Math sections of the test. It is critical to “play the long game” and realize that it’s better to focus on the questions that you know you can get right (and in a reasonable amount of time) and come back to questions that you are less sure about. The above is easier said than done, but effective time management is crucial to success on the tests, especially the ACT where timing is so tight on most of the sections.

Wrapping Up

Success on the SAT and ACT is not solely dependent on academic knowledge but equally on the application of reasoning and critical thinking skills. Whether solving math problems, comprehending complex texts, breaking down sentence structure, analyzing data, or managing time effectively, students need to engage in higher-order cognitive processes. Recognizing the importance of these skills and actively cultivating them can significantly increase your score on the SAT and ACT!

Reason Test Prep (RTP) offers elite online prep for the SAT and ACT.  The team at RTP has more than two decades of experience helping test-takers achieve top scores on the SAT and ACT and has helped students gain access to nearly all of the top universities in the U.S.  Having done online tutoring since 2011, the tutors at RTP have worked with students in over 40 countries around the world, including those at international schools and top boarding schools in the U.S. and abroad.  RTP’s focus is on the reasoning, critical thinking, and problem-solving aspects of the test, the very skills that the SAT and ACT aim to measure and reward.

Here’s where you can find out more about Reason Test Prep

Brian Prestia, a Yale graduate and esteemed test-prep veteran, founded Reason Test Prep with 20+ years of experience in SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE coaching. With perfect SAT and near-perfect ACT, GMAT, and GRE scores, he has tutored nearly 1,000 students globally, guiding them into top universities and graduate schools. Holding History degrees and prior experience as a college professor, Brian's passion for teaching extends to instilling critical thinking and lifelong learning in students and educators at Reason Test Prep.



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