How to Understand the SATs – and Why SAT Prep Companies Fail

Why do certain people do well on the SATs, and others always end up with lower scores? In this article, we cover three important parts of this riddle. First, what is actually tested on the SAT? Second, how do most test prep companies go about preparing their customers for the SAT? Third, based on what’s actually tested on the SAT, what is the best way to succeed on the SAT?

Part I: What is tested on the SAT?

When preparing for an exam, what is the question that students always ask? “What’s on the test?” Even though this question might annoy teachers in every classroom, it’s a perfectly valid one. How can you study for a test if you don’t know what’s on it?

The same is true for the SAT. How can someone possibly prepare for the SAT if he doesn’t know what’s actually tested on the SAT? What’s on the test?

History exams test you on history. English literature exams test you on the novels and poems you’ve read for class. Math exams see if you understand math concepts. Biology exams test for your knowledge and understanding of biology. But the SAT is different. It doesn’t test you on your knowledge or understanding of the SAT.

The strange thing about the SAT is that it doesn’t seem to test for anything. But it does. The SAT just doesn’t test for any body of knowledge.

What the SAT does test you on, however, is your skills. Not knowledge, but skills. In that way, it is different from almost any test you’ve taken in school (which almost exclusively tests you on knowledge). The SAT has more in common with an IQ test, or even a musical performance, than any of the finals you’ve ever taken.

What skills are tested on the SAT? The scholastic skills are tested on the SAT. From the very beginning of its history, the SAT stood for “scholastic aptitude test.” Scholastic aptitude is another way of saying, “does this person have the ability to be a scholar?”

The SAT tests for scholastic ability. At Seowon Academy, we break down scholastic ability into two major skills. The first we call higher literacy skills. Can you read, write, and think in a subtle, yet profound, way? This is beyond basic literacy, which is required only for reading manuals and newspaper articles. Higher literacy skills encompass critical reading, inferences, word choice, and many other skills you’ve probably heard of.

The second major skill we call logical abstraction problem-solving. Can a student go from concept to quantitative analysis? Can he solve problems conceptually, coming up a quick and efficient method?

The Writing and Essays sections of the SAT assess a student’s higher literacy skills and logical abstraction skills. The Math sections assess a student’s logical abstraction problem-solving skills. The Reading section, the most difficult part of the SAT, assess for both higher literacy skills and logical abstraction.

According to the College Board, which administers the SATs, the SAT tests for “college-readiness.” Is the student ready to succeed in college? This, of course, is another way to determine scholastic aptitude, which again is the question “does this person have the ability to be a scholar?” And that is exactly why students at Seowon Academy are taught to develop their scholastic abilities, and develop their higher literacy skills and logical abstraction problem-solving skills.

Part II: How do most test prep companies prepare their customers for the SAT?

I have never encountered a test prep program that actually developed scholastic abilities. Not once. Every test prep company I’ve looked into teaches “SAT strategy,” and nothing else.

SAT strategy is fundamentally all the same. These programs will have students learn methods and techniques for each section of the test. This includes process-of-elimination, annotation, memorization of vocabulary words (which is very misleading, for reasons explored in a future article), and plugging in the answer choices. These are all techniques, with limited usefulness.

These techniques are not totally useless, though. Let me use an analogy. Imagine a child who has taken martial arts for a few years. He knows how to chop through boards, do a roundhouse kick, etc. But could he beat an adult? No way. Of course not. The adult is much stronger than him, regardless of the fact that he’s never taken a martial arts class in his life.

These SAT strategy techniques are like the martial arts techniques. They are effective only if we presume that the competitor has power. Power is primary. Even martial arts competitions have weight classes – not just boxing and wrestling.

So what’s the raw power for the SAT? It’s the scholastic ability. It’s higher literacy. It’s logical abstraction.

Of course, Seowon Academy teaches its students SAT strategy techniques in addition to higher literacy and logical abstraction. We want our students to have every advantage in this national competition called the SAT.

Why do these test prep companies not directly teach higher literacy and logical abstraction? The simple answer is that it is far more profitable to teach SAT strategy techniques only. But that will be explored more in-depth in future articles. The takeaway here is that SAT strategy and techniques alone won’t increase scores drastically, and they certainly won’t get you a score in the top 1% of test takers.

Part III: What’s the best way to succeed on the SAT?

The answer is obvious by now. Develop that scholastic ability. Develop the higher literacy skills. Develop the logical abstraction problem-solving skills. And start now – this takes time!

Seowon Academy guides its students through specially-chosen philosophical and literary classics that are selected on their ability to develop the higher literacy skills. These classics ground our students in their understanding of human nature, different moral perspectives, and the rich usage of literary devices, logical structure, subtlety and word choice. All of this provides tremendous advantages for scoring highly on the SATs. There is no better way to truly strengthen the higher literacy skills than the classics.

Seowon Academy develops the logical abstraction problem-solving skills by guiding its students through modern research. There is no better way to accustom students to thinking conceptually, solving logical problems, and fluidly going back-and-forth from concept to quantitative analysis. There is no better way to help students understand the scientific passages on the Reading section of the SAT.

The key word is “guide.” We guide our students, because simply having students read is fruitless. Students reading alone is unproductive and a waste of time. Many people read these classics (or modern research) by themselves, and believe that they understand it, when in fact they do not. Many readers remain confused, and most have not picked up on all the subtleties, nuance, and richness of the text. Understandably, many even flat-out misunderstand the ideas in the text! Feedback is an essential part of the process of building the higher literacy skills and logical abstraction skills.

Students should also write arguments based on what they have read. Students either respond to the texts they have read via criticism, or they analyze other issues using the ideas of the texts. This ensures that they develop their own logical reasoning and abstraction ability, their own formal academic writing skills, and can use their own choice of words and logical structure to persuade readers of subtle, but profound, ideas of their own.

Reading, thinking, and writing. All these three fundamental skills must be brought up to the college level for ultimate success on the SAT.

Once again, the SAT wants to know:

Can you read, write, and think in a subtle, yet profound, way?

Can you go from concept to quantitative analysis? Can you solve problems conceptually, coming up a quick and efficient method?

If you can do all these things, you will overwhelm the competition when you take the SAT.

Interested in working with Seowon Academy to use the best approach to the SAT? Please contact Seowon Academy for more details at or (669) 254-8696. Or visit