My secret advice to raising SAT scores is to read the New Yorker magazine weekly -- or another magazine that is a reach to read because it's written for adults, not teens. There are other good reasons to read the New Yorker, but if you are trying to get your scores -- or more likely, your child's scores -- up, this is one magazine I strongly recommend.
If your high school senior can read and explain to you a long piece of non-fiction -- a piece that might require some slogging through due to unfamiliarity with the topic -- that's a good indicator that plunking down thousands of dollars for college is a wise investment. College reading is hard non-fiction reading.
The new Common Core of State Standards in English Language Arts underscores the importance of reading difficult non-fiction text at every grade level. This is a huge cultural and pedagogical shift and it will take time to take root fully in classrooms (and textbooks) across the country. We have been awash in personal essays and fiction for decades. It's going to be a new day for challenging non-fiction. Technical, scientific non-fiction. Non-fiction that you need to have a dictionary by your side. Non-fiction that you have to reread to understand.
Why the New Yorker? The New Yorker is not only for residents of New York City or East Coast intellectuals. My high school English teacher in California, Sherry Owens from The Bishop's School, introduced us to the New Yorker during the height of the Vietnam war by reading aloud to us during class. In the 1980's, I taught an English course at Chelsea High School using the New Yorker as the main text. The writing has versatility and breadth. It's well-written, long, challenging non-fiction and that is precisely the kind of writing that builds background knowledge and vocabulary. Becoming a New Yorker reader builds advantage, as in having an advantaged education. It requires engagement of the mind for comprehension.
Initially, for most adolescents, it's a daunting undertaking to become a confident New Yorker reader. I suggest starting with the cartoons and just seeing if you can learn to "read" them. (Roz Chast is my favorite). Then move on to movie reviews at the back of the magazine. Check out the shorter pieces in Talk of the Town and Shouts and Murmurs. Build up stamina in reading. The covers offer a running commentary on contemporary issues. You don't have to agree with them, but it's illuminating to see how much your child can make sense of them.
The SAT is not an aptitude test. If it were strictly aptitude, the hugely profitable testing and tutoring industry which has sprung up around it wouldn't have a market. Students can be taught how to improve their scores with effective coaching. Most of that coaching, though, is unconnected from a student's intrinsic interests and does little to excite learning for its own sake. SAT prep is a world away from education in the richest sense. And why not also give students the fuller version which a magazine like the New Yorker can provide?
Other magazines with challenging, well-written non-fiction include The Atlantic Monthly and Scientific American. But those come out monthly, and one of the strengths of the New Yorker for this home-based educational improvement project is that it keeps landing in your mailbox every week. It comes steady as waves breaking on shore.
No one reads every word of The New Yorker! You do the best you can, you find pieces that interest you, and if you are in high school, you dive in and start swimming in a pretty cool ocean. Reading The New Yorker puts teenagers in a conversation with thoughtful writers. It takes them and their minds seriously as adults-to-be. It's a very reliable, and challenging teacher. And it's a much cheaper than SAT test prep!