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

One of things I’ve noticed recently is that when doing SAT Reading, a lot of 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 SAT 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. Likewise, you should never pick an answer just because you do understand what it’s saying. I cannot emphasize this enough: your ability to understand an answer has exactly zero impact on its likelihood of being either correct or incorrect. Zero.

Practically speaking, that means that if you 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.

A summary of my Critical Reading method

1. Read the passage slowly until you figure out the point. Usually that information will be contained somewhere close to the end of the introduction or in the first body paragraph. Once you figure out the point, focus on the first and last sentence of each body paragraph, then read the conclusion carefully. Underline the last sentence.

2. When you finish the passage, write the tone (positive/negative) and the point in 4-6 words. OR, if you see the point directly stated in the passage, underline it and draw a big arrow/star, etc. so you remember to keep referring back to it. 3.

When in doubt about the main point or purpose of a passage, consult 1) the last sentence of the first paragraph, 2) first sentence of the second paragraph, or 3) the last sentence of the passage. For short passages, focus on the last sentence.

4. Pay particular attention to major transitions, “interesting” punctuation, and strong wording in/around the lines given in the question — they usually signal the presence of the information necessary to answer the question. 5.

When you read a question, go back to the passage and try to sum up the answer quickly for yourself. If you can’t come up with anything in a few seconds, look at the answer choices and cross off everything that absolutely does not make sense. If there is any chance an answer could work, leave it. When you’re down to two or three answers, go back to the passage and check them out.

6. The correct answer will typically contain a synonym for a key word in the passage. Same idea, different words.

7. Just because they give you line numbers doesn’t mean that the answer is in them — it might be a few lines above or below. Always start from the sentence before the one given in the question and read to the sentence after if necessary. The answer to a question about the purpose of a given line (i.e. the point) will usually come in the sentence before OR at the beginning of a paragraph (topic sentence).

8. For tone questions, play positive/negative. Extreme answers are unlikely to be correct.

9. For vocab-in-context questions, look for context clues in the line. Very often the word in question will clearly be the synonym for another word in the line (as indicated by the transition “and”) or directly opposed to another word.

10. When you cross off answer choices, cross off the whole thing, not just the letter, but don’t let it slow you down. Just a quick line through it.

11. If you have no idea and feel like you would have to take a random guess, just skip the question. A couple of skipped questions are better than a couple of questions gotten wrong, and skipping questions can actually have a positive impact on your score.

12. For Passage 1/Passage 2 relationship questions, figure out whether the two authors would agree or disagree. before you look at the questions. If they agree, you can get rid of most negative answers; if they disagree, you can get rid of most positive ones. Try define each part of the question (lines given in a particular passage + main point of opposite passage) before you look at the answers.

13. Anything you know for sure will take a lot of time (e.g. “all of the following EXCEPT”questions), skip and come back to if you have time.

14. Be willing to revise your original assumption. If you understand what a question is saying, go back the passage, formulate your own answer, and nothing seems to work when you look at the answers, you’ve been thinking in the wrong direction. Ask yourself what you’re missing, go back to the passage, and see if you can approach the question from another angle. Don’t just guess.

15. Whatever happens, don’t just stop and ponder things over! That wastes more time than anything else. At all times, you should be actively trying to figure out the answer. The test is set up so that you can reason your way to the answer. If you don’t know, get rid of what you can get rid of and then keep flipping between the passage and the question. If you get stuck, leave it and move on.