Acing the SAT with Magic

By Ricki Lee Silverman

Forget O.W.L.S. Forget N.E.W.T.S. In the Muggle world, the letters S-A-T are the ones that fill students with dread. I specialize in preparing American students for college entrance exams - mainly the English sections of the SAT - and I am pleased to see that students who love the Harry Potter books are among those who achieve the best scores on these nastily exhausting Muggle exams. (As an aside, please note that the letters S-A-T no longer stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test. No correlation could be proven between a high SAT score and success in college, so the periods after each letter were dropped. The letters SAT now stand for nothing at all.) A high score on the Critical Reading section of the test requires strong vocabulary and good reasoning skills. A high score on the essay portion of the Writing section requires the ability to use a wide variety of rhetorical modes. Harry's adventures, while not appearing to be the least bit pedagogical, allow readers to drink in all of this helpful information.

Many teachers recommend that students read The Scarlet Letter because it contains so many vocabulary words likely to appear on the SAT. True enough, but most students do not like or understand The Scarlet Letter. No offense to Nathaniel Hawthorne's outstanding morality classic, but most sixteen-year-olds won't be personally engaged by the tale of Hester Prynne's saga of single motherhood. Meanwhile, the Harry Potter books, set in a lively world of wizards and witches, feature philosophical and psychological considerations more in keeping with students' own lives, while including the same high-level vocabulary words and themes that help them learn. Crack open Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for instance, to the World Cup. Wizards "furtively" look around before illegally lighting campfires with their wands while others appear "dubious" that Muggle matches can accomplish the task;1 the Wronski "Feint" 2 distracts Quidditch players from seeing Krum's real move; and Harry feels "vulnerable" 3 when his wand turns up missing. Students are more likely to figure out the meaning of dubious, feint and vulnerable in these contexts than in most others. And when Mad-Eye Moody barks, "CONSTANT VIGILANCE" throughout the same book, it's clear the word has something to do with staying very, very alert.

Learning new words through pleasure reading is hands-down the most effective method of boosting vocabulary skill. However, when it's crunch time and SAT words must be memorized, I also have great success in teaching these words to Harry Potter fans by relating definitions to the plots they know so well. The brain retains new information far better when it has a store of old information on which to build. When the average student memorizes the definition for, say, "unprecedented" in preparation for a vocabulary test, the information is typically stored in the short-term memory and falls out of the brain moments after Friday's test. But a Harry Potter fan can connect the word to the fact that no one but Harry has ever survived the Avada Kedavra curse. It's unlikely that this student will ever forget that "unprecedented" means "never done before." Here are a few more examples:

indifferent not caring one way or another; having no opinion Most people are indifferent to flobberworms, not really caring whether the creatures live or die.
depraved having no morals (do not confuse with deprived) Half-Blood Prince traces the increasingly depraved acts of Lord Voldemort, from petty theft to cold-blooded murder.
austere (1) bare, unadorned
(2) strict and stern
Conditions in Azkaban are even more austere than in Muggle prisons.
franchise (2nd meaning) The right to vote It seems that in the wizarding world, you must be a member of the Wizengamot to have the franchise.
qualify (2nd meaning) to modify by limiting Harry said he wouldn't wish a Hungarian Horntail on his worst enemy, but qualified his statement to exclude Malfoy and Snape.
conciliatory intended to restore harmony or good will After Harry and Cho argue, she takes the conciliatory steps of kissing him on the cheek and calling him "brave" for giving the interview.
objective / subjective based on fact / based on opinion Most mirrors objectively show a person what is real, but the Mirror of Erised shows a person's subjective desire.

The Critical Reading section of the SAT also requires students to combine their vocabulary skills with reasoning skills. The questions alone pose difficulties for students unaccustomed to grappling with several ideas at once: An only slightly exaggerated example might look something like this: In the third paragraph, the author's reference to lines 3 through 7 of the first paragraph is meant to distinguish which qualities implied in the second paragraph? Confusing, eh? Well, maybe not so confusing to Harry Potter readers who are used to thinking along similarly convoluted paths: "Snape couldn't have meant that in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets because it contradicts what he told Bellatrix in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince about events in Goblet of Fire." Most Harry Potter fans have strong opinions about whether Snape is good or evil, whether a certain character is really dead or likely to die in Book 7. This interest in forming cogent, persuasive arguments based on textual evidence is a hugely important academic skill - one that Harry Potter fans are getting just for the fun of it!

Even when the chain of events is confined to one book, it's not always easy to follow J.K. Rowling's thinking. Take, for example, the effort it takes to unravel the sequence of events in the time turner portion of Prisoner of Azkaban.

"Did anyone see you?"

"Yes, haven't you been listening? I saw me but I thought I was my dad! It's okay!"

"Harry, I can't believe it¦.You conjured up a Patronus that drove away all those dementors! That's very, very advanced magic¦."

"I knew I could do it this time' said Harry, "because I'd already done it¦. Does that make sense?" 4

Yes, Harry, it does make sense because we read your books that carefully. And if we didn't get it the first time we read the book we got it the second or fourth or tenth time. Any book that inspires such close, careful readings and re-readings is building very strong intellectual habits.

The SAT test also requires students to demonstrate their writing skill. Where better to turn for a model than to J.K. Rowling? One of the keys to great writing is the ability to create pictures with words. No one does this better than J.K. Rowling. I am sure you will recognize each of these characters instantly from the written sketch we receive upon meeting them for the first time:

A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair.5

The lightning had thrown the man's face into sharp relief, and it was a face unlike any Harry had ever seen. It looked as though it had been carved out of weathered wood by someone who had only the vaguest idea of what human faces are supposed to look like, and was none too skilled with a chisel. Every inch of skin seemed to be scarred. The mouth looked like a diagonal gash, and a large chunk of nose was missing. But it was the man's eyes that made him frightening.6

He thought she looked just like a large, pale toad. She was rather squat with a broad, flabby face, as little neck as Uncle Vernon, and a very wide, slack mouth. Her eyes were large, round, and slightly bulging. Even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue.7

The SAT writing assignment usually requires students to explain their insights into human nature - that is, to share what they've learned about people. Students may write about a relative, friend, teacher, coach or even an enemy who taught them lessons about life. A Rowling-like description of that person will draw the reader into the writer's frame of mind just as Rowling draws us into hers. We are prepared to like Hagrid despite his girth, to respect Moody despite our fear, and to despise Umbridge for her slimy ways - all based on a brief descriptive paragraph.

The SAT essay also requires students to organize their ideas coherently. A variety of rhetorical strategies allows the writer to do this. A topic sentence, for example, introduces a paragraph's main idea. Cause-and-effect writing explains why things happen as they do. Process (or "how-to") writing indicates a step-by-step method for accomplishing something. Good writers also provide the reader with helpful background information without detracting from the main idea, and they signal upcoming changes with a transition word or phrase. We can see J.K. Rowling using these techniques in her analysis of Harry's predicament near the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Whichever way he looked at it, he had never been in a worse fix. [Topic sentence] He was stranded, quite alone, in the dark Muggle world, with absolutely nowhere to go. [statement of the problem] And the worst of it was, he had just done serious magic [cause], which meant that he was almost certainly expelled from Hogwarts [effect] ¦

He didn't have any Muggle money, either. There was a little wizard gold in the money bag at the bottom of his trunk, but he rest of the fortune his parents had left him was stored in a vault in Gringotts Wizarding Bank in London. He'd never be able to drag his trunk all the way to London. [statement of further problems and a deft bit of background information for readers unfamiliar with the first two books] Unless¦ [transition word that prepares us for the solution to the problem]

¦ what if he bewitched his trunk to make it feather-light, tied it to his broomstick, covered himself in the cloak, and flew to London? [step-by-step process for solving the problem] Then he could get the rest of his money out of his vault¦8

I don't think you will find a passage in, say, The Scarlet Letter or a scene in Julius Caesar, or in most other school-assigned texts, where a character's dilemma or plan of action is so clearly explained. Some would argue that great literature is not in the business of clearly explaining, that greatness lies partly in the subtlety and nuance. Nevertheless, the skills being built in the Harry Potter books - vocabulary, reasoning, and rhetoric - are skills that will eventually make Harry Potter fans the ones literate enough to master any book they choose - and to ace the SAT as well.

The students who don't read Harry Potter often tell me that they have too much schoolwork to find time for pleasure reading. These poor students are more likely to struggle through Julius Caesar, et al. - and hate it - than to tackle Harry Potter and love it. That's a shame because, on top of being superbly entertaining books, the Harry Potter series is educational in very practical ways. For those students who do read Harry Potter, the academic pay-offs can be very large indeed.


1. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 81-82.

2. Ibid., 109.

3. Ibid., 124.

4. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 412.

5. Ibid., Sorcerer's Stone, 46.

6. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 184.

7. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 146.

8. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 31-32.


Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.

’’’. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.

’’’. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.

’’’. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.

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The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.