Summer Reading


When I was in high school, the honors English program that I was in had a lot of advantages. The teachers were better, the discussions were better and the kids in the class generally wanted to be there. The program had one major disadvantage though: summer reading.


In high school I viewed summer as a time to sleep in, make a little bit of money and generally relax. The three books we were assigned to read and write about didn’t fit in the easy-reading category, and trying to get my fifteen year-old self to dig into Great Expectations or Jane Eyre on a perfect summer day was never an easy task. As a result, the typical summer consisted of two and a half months of slowly working through one of the books, followed by a frantic rush through everything else in the two weeks before school started.  It was less than ideal.


Looking back now, I miss those summer reading assignments a little bit. Sure, I still read during the summers, but I typically pick up things I know I’ll enjoy without straining too hard. Being challenged with good writing and tough topics with the freedom to figure it out on my own over the summer was a good thing.


It’s early August now so depending on your school’s schedule you probably have a few more weeks of freedom before school starts. Try using that freedom on a book. Even if it isn’t assigned, your brain will be thankful for something more challenging and stimulating than video games or Duck Dynasty reruns. Many college seniors taking their last shots at the SAT and ACT in the fall find it surprising that they haven’t raised their scores much since the spring, but that’s often because the mental muscles needed to succeed on those tests have atrophied during a summer of leisure.


Pick up a book. Sure you’ll need to brush up on your geometry and grammar before test day comes, but for now just get those mental muscles moving. Great scores in the fall often start with a productive summer.

 Tips for Success on the Reading Section

All standardized tests have reading passages and questions. Often these passages do not look like the ones that students regularly read. They tend to be a bit dense, at a higher reading level, about esoteric topics, and sometimes, they are downright boring. But this has been done for a reason. For one, this is what you can expect from the next level of academia. Obfuscation tends to be the name of the game for university professors. Two, the test makers want to really test you and see what you can do under rigorous circumstances. They pull you out of your comfort zone and see if you can perform.

To avoid the pitfalls that they hope you fall into, follow the tips below and you will be on track for success.


Be active—not passive

Most of the reading you do now is passive. Don’t feel bad. I do it to. Passive reading is casual and relaxing—the type of reading you do Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in hand, perusing articles in the newspaper, reading the first couple paragraphs of an article, skipping over ones that don’t appeal to your interests, maybe remembering parts of the article, not too focused on getting information out of the text. Although pleasurable, this type of reading will be your doom on the SAT or GRE.

When reading on the test, you need to attack the passage. Actively engage with the words in front of you. Read with focus and purpose. All other recommendations flow from this one; every tip below is aimed at engaging your mind and making you an active reader. So no sitting around passively—you are an attack dog devouring information.


Don’t get bogged down in details

Students often think they need to understand everything in the passage to answer the questions. But this ignores the fact that writers value information differently. Some of the sentences they write are of primary importance and others are of secondary or tertiary importance.

So stay out of details. Make note of where certain details are in the passage, but don’t stop to understand them all. This will be a waste of your time. Only focus on details when a question directs you to one. Ultimately, you should be looking at the big picture, determining what the whole passage is about when you first start reading.


Take notes

The easiest way to become an active reader is to pick up a pencil and jot down notes. This gives your reading purpose. With pencil in hand, you have something to do besides read. You are trying to extract meaning, synthesize it in your mind, and then shorten and summarize it on paper. Nothing could be better for reading comprehension.

Do not get caught up in writing long notes, though. Note taking can easily hinder your ability to be efficient on test day. So practice writing short symbolic notes: up arrows, plus and equal signs, abbreviations and single letters to represent ideas in the passage, and bullet points and numbers for passage structure.


Identify the main idea and author’s purpose

Not only will there be questions about the main idea and the author’s purpose on the test, making these important to identify when you first read through a passage, but also these are two crucial aspects to understanding anything that you read. Without knowing the main idea, you will not understand the examples, the connection of ideas, or the point of the passage. Without knowing the author’s purpose, you won’t be able to judge the authenticity of the information in the passage, what to do with the information presented, or to know whether or not it is trustworthy.

Take notes on the main idea and author’s purpose. For the author’s purpose, try to determine if she is trying to persuade you of something or merely describing or informing you about something. This is usually all that you need for answering questions about the author’s purpose.


Understand the structure

The structure tells you about the connection of ideas. You will understand the flow of the passage, know when an example is presented to support a point or a counterpoint. You won’t know where the passage is going without paying attention to the structure. The structure holds the passage together and tells you how one paragraph relates to another paragraph. Crucially, knowing the structure of the passage will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when answering a question.

Determine the purpose of each paragraph. Pay attention to structure words. And the structure will reveal itself to you.


 Living in Uncertainty: How to Understand What You Don’t Know



a picture Richard Feynman

By Fermilab (, via Wikimedia Commons

“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing…If I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things…”[1] –Richard Feynman

Time to face facts. You will read passages on the GMAT, GRE, SAT, and ACT that you won’t understand. Complex passages on topics that you aren’t familiar with, new and foreign terminology, jargon and more jargon, astronomy, physics, history, economics, written at a level that you are aspiring to reach–all these impediments liter your path to success. For some, this is crippling. Students will become frustrated, lose focus, and stop digging into the passage if they encounter something they don’t know.

But, not us!

The wonderful, inquisitive Richard Feynman has the perfect attitude for you to adopt: embrace the unknown! Don’t be frightened by a foreign word or new concept. Embrace what you do know and move forward to find a correct answer. Remember that your task is not to fully understand everything written in the passage, but to choose a correct answer from a collection of wrong answers.

So, what does this mean for your test?

First, focus on what you do know, not on what you don’t. Your goal should be to understand the relationship between the words you do know and the words you don’t. To do this, look at the structure words in the passage. Aim to understand the flow and structure of a passage through words like also, however, therefore, first, second, and but. Let’s review.

The English language has three basic ways to relate ideas–continue, contrast, or cause-and-effect. Either an idea or topic continues along, the way it has been going (and, also, in addition, furthermore), or a contrasting idea or topic is introduced, something that changes the “direction” of the passage (yet, howeversurprisingly, but), or finally, an idea or topic is the result of something, a concluding statement, a cause that leads to an effect (thusbecauseergo, so, since). These words tell you how things in a passage connect, how things in a sentence connect. Pay attention to them.

Second, if you find a word you don’t know, abbreviate it. Either in your mind or in your notes, use an abbreviation. This is especially helpful when a passage is salted with terms describing biochemical reactions within algae, the strata of weather patterns in the Andes mountains, or astrological phenomenon that seem more like online passwords than the name of stars. Don’t worry about a strange new word. Give it a new name. A name you like. A name you can understand. If the passage says, “Averaging of incompressible flows on two-dimensional surfaces”[2], I say, “Avg. the flow!” Ultimately, try to understand the function of the abbreviation in the passage. Look at how the author uses the words and ideas–the author’s purpose. Remember, “Why is more important than what.”

Finally, ask yourself some questions about the word you don’t know:

  1. Is it person, place, thing, or idea?
  2. Is it an action?
  3. Is it an event?
  4. Is it something in the past, present, or future?
  5. Is it a description of something?
  6. Is it how to do something?
  7. Is it a fact or opinion?
  8. Is it a category, a relationship, or a type?

Alright, enough talking about it, let’s illustrate this with an example. I found a passage similar to something you might read on the test titled, “Evolution of gene neighborhoods within reconciled phylogenies.” The title alone is a intimidating. Here is an excerpt:

Here, we propose a method that takes a species tree and a set of gene trees as inputs, and models the gain and breakage of gene adjacencies along a pair of trees, taking duplications and losses into account. We consider two genes to be ‘adjacent’ if they are on the same chromosome in the same genome and no other gene is located between the two. We give an exact polynomial algorithm which minimizes the number of gains and breakages of adjacencies, or more generally, the gain/breakage cost of an evolutionary scenario for gene adjacencies. The result consists of sets of ‘adjacency trees,’ which are phylogenetic trees describing the evolution of a family of homologous adjacencies (adjacencies that share a common ancestor and derived from it).”[3]

Overwhelming? What if you had one minute to read and answer a question? Well, you should abbreviate and focus on the relationship of ideas:

  1. They took two types of GT, “gene trees.”
  2. Put GT into model–wanted to see where there was gainB, “gain and breakage.”
  3. gainB was at ADGE, “adjacent genes.”
  4. definition of ADGE.
  5. Something to minimize gainB–something to account for evolution.
  6. gainB related to evolutionary event.
  7. The result: another GT, which describes the evolution of similar ADGE.

Notice that this is not a complete summation of the passage, but merely a rough sketch of what is there, an outline of the passage’s flow from one idea to next. I may not really know what they mean by “gain breakage,” but I do know how it is used in the passage.

So next time you encounter something foreign, new, and potentially scary in a reading passage, think, “What Would Richard Feynman Do?” WWRFD? Abbreviate, ask questions about the words, look at the relationship of ideas, and embrace not knowing. You might even enjoy it.

[1] The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman, edited by Jeffery Robbins ISBN 0-14-029034-6


[3] Bioinformatics. 2012 September 15; 28(18): i382–i388. Published online 2012 September 3. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/bts374