06 February 2014

General vs. specific in Critical Reading answer choices

If you’re someone who consistently gets down to two answers but doesn’t know how to choose between them, this post is for you. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of you out there; the test is designed to force you into making subtle distinctions between answer choices, so what you’re struggling with is precisely what the test is designed to do. If nothing else, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.

When I watch students in this category work through a question on their own however, I almost invariably witness the following sequence of events:

-Student reads question.

-Student quickly rereads the necessary section of the passage.

-Student looks at answer choices.

-Student quickly and decisively crosses off three answers that are clearly wrong.

-Student stares at the remaining two answer choices.

-Student stares at the remaining two answer choices some more.

-Student’s eyes begin to take on a “deer in the headlights” cast.

-Student turns to me and croaks, “Help…?”

The reaction is entirely understandable. To be sure, there are plenty of answer choices that do seem very similar — so similar, in fact, that the difference(s) between them might not be obvious immediately, or even after you’ve read each answer through a few times. The danger, however, is to mistake perception for reality — that is, to assume that because you don’t happen to see any differences between the answers, such differences do not exist.

In reality, the more effective procedure is to turn the problem back on yourself and ask what distinction you personally have not yet noticed. SAT questions jump through a lot of hoops to make it onto the test — every couple of years, a question or two that’s a bit more ambiguous than usual might make it on, but that usually doesn’t happen. When dealing with a standardized test, it’s best to work from general rules and only consider the exceptions if the rules clearly don’t apply. So your assumption should be that the College Board probably didn’t mess up, and that there’s a good — if subtle — reason that the right answer is right and the wrong answer is wrong. In short, it’s not the test, it’s you.

If you can approach pairs of similar-seeming answers by looking for specific types of differences, however, your job becomes much simpler. Instead of having to worry about every word of each option, you only have to worry about a single aspect. And one common difference is that of scope — that is, how general or specific an answer choice is. Remember that correct answers tend to be relatively limited in scope, even if they’re phrased vaguely. They frequently restate the topic of the passage, either by name or in a more general way, e.g. Shakespeare becomes “a playwright”. That is only logical because SAT passages themselves tend to be relatively limited in scope: they are about specific topics, events, ideas, and individuals, not about all of human history or the meaning of life.

One very simple “trick” when you are deciding between two answer choices is to momentarily ignore the answers and simply restate the topic of the passage. (Granted, this strategy only works if you can correctly identify it, but let’s assume you can handle that part.) If one answer choice restates that topic — either explicitly or more generally — and the other goes “out of bounds,” the former will be correct.

For example, consider this pair of answers from a Passage 1/Passage 2 question. It’s fairly easy to determine from the passages that the correct answer must indicate a positive relationship, but that still leaves two possibilities.

How would the “many scholars” (line 70, passage 2) most likely react to the search or the “grand theory” (line 1, Passage 1)?

(A) With sympathy, because these scholars too are attempting to understand the overarching meaning of Paleolithic art

(D) With delight, because these scholars are convinced that Paleolithic art provides the key to comprehending natural history

They seem pretty similar, right?

Now consider the first sentence of the blurb above the passages:

The passages below discuss a type of Paleolithic art, cave paintings created between approximately 33,000 and 9000 B.C.E.

In this case, the test tells you what the topic of the passages is; don’t have to figure anything out. And since (A) refers only to “Paleolithic art” (specific), while (D) mentions “natural history” (way too broad), the former is correct. (As a side note, the extreme word “convinced” in (D) is also a hint that it’s probably wrong.) Out of two passages and 84 lines, that’s the only information you actually need.

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