24 January 2013

Just because an answer is confusing doesn’t mean it’s wrong

One of things I’ve noticed recently is that when doing SAT Critical Reading, a lot of my students are very quick to cross out answers that sound excessively abstract or complicated without trying to understand them fully. I do understand the impulse: if you think you pretty much understand what a passage is saying and an answer does not, at first glance, seem obviously related to anything directly stated by the author, it would stand to reason that it’s probably not the answer. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t always work that way.

One of the things I try make as explicit as possible when I start working with someone is the fact that Critical Reading questions often require you to first determine information very, very literally, then take a step back and re-cast that same information in much more general or abstract terms. That’s why the answers are often worded in ways that are 1) completely unexpected, and that 2) often seem to bear little relationship to what’s actually being stated in the passage.

In general, a good rule of thumb is that you should never eliminate an answer simply because you find it confusing or don’t really understand what it means; and likewise, you should never pick an answer just because you do understand what it’s saying. Whether or not you understand an answer has exactly zero impact on its likelihood of being either correct or incorrect.

Practically speaking, that means that if you’ve eliminated three choices and are stuck between an answer you do understand and an answer you don’t, the latter must be correct — regardless of how little sense it makes to you — if the former doesn’t work.

So when you come across an answer that seems to be worded in a highly abstract manner, the first thing you need to do is try to figure out what it’s actually saying. Ideally, you should have already gone back to the passage and formulated an answer in your own words, in which case you need to think hard about whether the answer on the page might simply be a more general version of what you came up with. If you haven’t gone back to the passage…well, you might have to do it by process of elimination. But if you’re willing to entertain all the possibilities and resist jumping to conclusions, that can be very effective as well.

Leave a Reply