The dreaded SAT evokes trepidation in many high school students who are planning on continuing their education with a four-year stint at college. Although the SAT is not the end-all, tell-all indicator of which students will be the best additions to institutions of higher learning, the test is one for which students should be somewhat prepared. While the conventional SAT covers verbal and mathematical reasoning abilities, the SAT subject test is more specific. One such exam is the SAT subject test in literature. And to prepare test-takers is Christina Myers-Shaffer’s Barron’s SAT Subject Test in Literature. The 2007 3rd edition is available new for $16.99.
Probably the best feature of this 478-page soft cover book is the seven practice tests, which comprise the whole of Part V. Included with the answers are detailed explanations of why specific choices are right or wrong. This is in contrast to the College Board’s best-selling The Official SAT Study Guide, which only provides the correct answers to the eight practice tests included, not the rationale behind those answers. Like its forbear the SAT I, the subject test is multiple choice, A through E, but there are 60 questions which students are given one hour to complete. Also included in parts I and IV are diagnostic tests, whose questions are grouped into specific areas of study (see the seven literary elements below).
Myers-Shaffer covers basic test-taking tips in the first section, and advises students of the best methods of preparation. She does not resort to much psychological coaching, other than to advise students to be well-rested, on time for the test and in a positive frame of mind.
Students planning on taking the SAT subject test in literature may be relieved to know that the test does not force them to recall specific details of classics that they are supposed to have read in their academic careers. Although the passages on which the questions are based are culled from great novels and poems, no prior knowledge of them is required. The test focuses on critical thinking and analysis, not memorization.
The reading selections spotlighted in Barron’s Sat Subject Test in Literature are remarkably good ones, making the study and practice for the upcoming exam that much more enjoyable. Granted, this alone does not completely alleviate the cumulative monotony as readers plod through each of the seven literary elements, but helps a little. Myers-Shaffer lists those elements as Meaning, Form, Narrative Voice, Tone, Character, Use of Language and Meanings in Context. But in explaining these terms ad nauseam, Myers-Shaffer gives the impression that memorizing them will help performance on the test. Perhaps this is not her intention, but she places so much emphasis on this that readers may lose focus of the original goal. In the numerous examples, she dissects and picks apart some poems so badly that she ruins the enjoyment of them.
After an introductory paragraph or two on each of the seven literary elements, Myers-Shaffer further breaks them down (and confuses the reader), but listing numerous “important concepts,” interspersed with several “term alerts.” After literary element number one, Meaning, she lists the following “important concepts”: The Writer’s Purpose, The Effects of a Work, Levels of Meaning, The Parts Versus the Work as a Whole, The Subject and Main Idea, The Dramatic Hook, and finally, Conventional Motifs and Themes (47-58). Coupled with this are no less than seven term alerts. To her credit, Myers-Shaffer gives one or two practice questions after each important concept.
Probably the most excruciating part of the book are the explanations of poetic rhythm and rhyme scheme, detailed under literary element number two, Form, important concepts number seven and eight. Students should probably be familiar with iambic pentameter, the most common construction of traditional verse, but cramming their heads with anapestic, dactylic, and spondaic will likely overwhelm them. For linguists, form poets and hard-core literary fans, these explanations are important. Not to 99% of the population, though. Myers-Shaffer even admits that students do not need to remember all of this for the test.
As a bonus, Myers-Shaffer includes a 12-page chapter, Part III, about writing effective essays. The first three pages describe different types of essays, e.g. how-to, expository, persuasive, descriptive (288, 289). Afterwards, specific steps to creating an effective essay are outlined. The chapter concludes with three sample essays, followed by practice questions. As brief as it is, Part III is nonetheless one of the most valuable in this book, but in itself not sufficient to justify purchasing the book.