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TEST PREP | The SAT | May 2012

Five things Family Guy can teach you about the SAT Critical Reading Section

By Rory Hatfield | For StudentAdvisor.com

A lot of people don’t think Peter Griffin, the main character of the Fox animated sitcom Family Guy, can offer any practical advice for taking a college SAT admissions test. (These people would include my parents, my girlfriend and, well, anyone with a passing familiarity of the show.) Even my old college roommate, a huge Family Guy fan, remarked, “I could see Peter scoring points on the SAT. After all, he’d probably get some right answers as he marked his test grid to look like the Batman logo.”

Despite Peter’s glaring lack of intelligence, his escapades demonstrate quite a few strategies that will serve students well on the SAT Critical Reading section!

The SAT Critical Reading Passage Topics are Totally Random

Just as you probably didn’t expect to see a squid pop up in the Griffin’s kitchen, there’s no telling what the passage topics will be on Test Day. While students are guaranteed to see passages about humanities, literature, and science, the specific topics could be anything: the Gold Rush of 1849, the early works of P.G. Wodehouse, even marine science! Such unpredictability seems to be yet another Test Day obstacle, but I see it as a blessing in disguise. Since students can’t possibly know the passages’ topics beforehand, they’ll have to be ready to attack any passage they see on the SAT or ACT. Their primary strategy, in fact, should be to:

Stick to the Facts on the SAT Critical Reading Section

Even though Peter’s gibe was pretty mean – Mrs. Damon actually seems like a very nice lady – he didn’t just call Matt a silly name or reference a random TV show. Peter backed up his opinion with actual facts, making his insult more credible.

Likewise, students would be well served by adopting that “These are facts!” attitude on the SAT Critical Reading section. Their questions can only be answered by using the information presented on Test Day. By sticking to the author’s text to justify their answers –particularly the thesis, main ideas of each paragraph, and the author’s opinion - students set themselves up to rack up points!

This method is useful regardless of how well students understand the topic and even the details themselves. Interestingly enough, students don’t have to explain the facts to get questions right; they just have to determinate how the author uses them! In other words:

Read for Purpose instead of Definition:

Even though the bulk of Family Guy’s humor derives from recognizing their countless references to pop culture, this bit works because Seth MacFarlane doesn’t expect his audience to recognize Mr. Disraeli. Just as someone can laugh at the joke without knowing that he was a 19th century British prime minister, students can get answers right on the test without fully understanding the passage.

If the script of this scene made it into an SAT Reading Comp passage – how awesome would that be? - no student would have to answer, “Who was Benjamin Disraeli?” That information wasn’t given in the episode, so it gives an advantage to students who happened to take European History over those who didn’t. Not only is it unfair, but it also doesn’t test reading comprehension.

However, students should expect to see questions that ask for the reasons behind the author’s examples, like, “Why does Peter mention Benjamin Disraeli?” It doesn’t take any prior knowledge to discover the right answer - “to disprove Lois’ opinion of British men!” – just a careful reading of the passage!

How can students efficiently root out this information on Test Day? They should skim past details when attacking Passages; in other words, they should: Get the Big Picture

As Brian and Stewie humorously break “the Fourth Wall” while discussing how to approach Cleveland’s wife, they actually demonstrate how students should approach passages on Test Day – get the jist of it!

This strategy is not only faster but also more efficient – when the test wants students to locate a detail, they’ll give them the line numbers, location, and even the detail itself to help them find it. If students focus on minutiae, they’re searching for information the test either already gives them, or doesn’t need them to find.

Conversely, Reading questions never give away the author’s thesis or the main ideas of each body paragraph. That information can only be gleaned by skimming the passage for the big picture!

Getting a general sense of a block of text also helps students solve Sentence Completion questions: Study Vocabulary and Read for Context

Had Peter analyzed the word “degenerate”, he would have determined that it is an actual word, based on the Latin roots “de-” (removal, descent) and “genus” (a class of people, a group). From there, he could have predicted a general definition of “degenerate”, something like “diminished in social standing” or “a lowly regarded person”. Students can also figure out difficult, multi-syllable answers to Sentence Completion questions by teasing out common roots, prefixes and suffixes from Latin and other Romance languages.

Even if students can’t recognize any familiar roots, they can still get a sense of whether words have a positive or negative connotation. While such skills are likely beyond Peter’s grasp, students can infer from the doctor’s disgust to figure out that “degenerate” probably means something bad! A general prediction like that is quick to make, and allows students to eliminate answers that have positive or neutral connotations – quite a useful skill, especially when you have to find right answers under the timed pressure of the SAT or ACT!

Just because Peter Griffin has the mental capacity of a goldfish doesn’t mean students do – if you’re taking the SAT and ACT soon, follow Peter’s unintentional advice and get a “wicked sweet” score on Test Day!

Next Steps: Read other SAT Prep tips by Rory:

• How to Use Angry Birds to Improve Your SAT Score

• How to Overcome SAT Test Prep Anxiety