18 June 2011

Make sure you understand what the questions are actually asking

This post was inspired by Akil Bello’s Best SAT Prep Tip Ever on the Bellcurves blog. While I agree 100% that reading the full question (along with reading full answers) is indeed one of the most important things you can do on the SAT, I also think that advice takes a bit too much for granted because it assumes that most test-takers will understand what a question is asking, provided that they read it carefully enough. In my experience, however, that’s simply not the case.

I think there’s a tendency to forget that vocabulary issues can crop in passage-based¬†questions themselves as well as in passages and answer choices. If you don’t understand precisely what a question is requiring you to do when it asks you which of the following would most undermine a given theory, it’s very hard to answer that question correctly!

Take inference questions. When a question asks you make an inference about what a particular person mentioned in a passage would believe, it is generally asking you to make a reasonable assumption about that person’s beliefs based on specific information that the author says about that person. It is not simply asking you to summarize what that person says or believes. It is asking you to form a general, often more abstract idea that will not be found word-for-word in the text. But if you don’t make that distinction, if you just try to summarize what the person says or thinks, you’ll be lost when you look at the answer choices.

Or, to give a slightly more concrete example, it will be very hard for you to answer a question that uses the word “analogous” if you don’t really know what that means.

So I’m going to suggest two things.

First, treat any unfamiliar vocabulary you find in the actual questions the exact same way you would treat any other SAT vocabulary — write it down and learn it.

Second, try rephrasing the questions in your own words to make sure you actually understand what you need to do. For example, if a question asks you what “transition is marked” in a particular line, you can rephrase it as “what change happens in the passage here?” Define, sum up, simplify. Whatever you have to do to make sure you understand.

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