When it comes to Reading questions on the SAT and ACT, nothing induces fear — or at least groans — like inference questions. Some of this reaction is undoubtedly due to the fact that they often seem so fuzzy. Part of the problem, I suspect, stems from the fact that when people talk about inferences, they’re not always talking about the same thing.
One type of inference is more based on formal logic — that is, it involves the types of conclusions that can be drawn from various premises, and whether those conclusions can be considered valid. (more…)
From time to time, I get emails asking me to provide suggestions for SAT/ACT reading prep materials, and it finally occurred to me that I should create a formal SAT/ACT Reading Resources Page with all of my recommendations grouped in one place.
In the past, when I’ve received these types of requests, I’ve simply pointed people to Arts & Letters Daily; however, that site contains a huge number of links, some of which go to publications well beyond the scope of college-admissions exams. As a result, I’ve identified a smaller group of (online, free) magazines whose articles I find most reflective of SAT/ACT reading, and provided links to those.
I’ve also included a list of suggested authors, both fiction and non-fiction, classic and contemporary, in case you want to do some poking around on your own. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I’ve included links to a number of key historical documents.
If you’re not much of a reader, though, I’d recommend that you start by focusing on broadening your general knowledge and read shorter pieces about a variety of topics. I strongly suggest you start by picking one of the linked periodicals (magazines) such as Smithsonian or Scientific American and spending a good 15 minutes or so a day reading a couple of articles. That’s probably a better approach than getting bored and frustrated with a 350-page book you don’t really like. Besides, two out of four ACT passages involve natural or social science, as do three out of five SAT passages, so those are the areas you stand to benefit most directly from learning about.
Moreover, the more you know about a lot, the better a chance you’ll have of encountering a familiar topic when you take the test. Studies have actually found that weak readers with strong knowledge of a subject actually outperform ones who have stronger overall reading skills but weaker subject-specific knowledge.
Despite the usual cautions against injecting your outside knowledge into the test, in my experience the issue is usually too little knowledge of a subject rather than too much.
Also, despite the College Board’s insistence that the redesigned SAT reflects “what students are learning in school” (a nonsense statement if ever there was one, given the curricular inconsistency that characterizes the American educational system), the reality is that there continue to be plenty of passages that have, quite frankly, nothing in the least to do with what gets taught in the average high school classroom. As has always been the case, students who read on their own about a lot of different subjects will be at a significant advantage over those who don’t.
While going through all of my quizzes to make some edits/updates, I noticed that while there were an awful lot of grammar exercises, I was sorely lacking in the reading quizzes department — and that was really a major oversight (oops!) since for a lot of students, that’s the hardest part of the test. So I’ve decided to remedy the issue. (more…)
1) Start with your favorite passage(s)
You’re going to be sitting and reading for over an hour (well over an hour, if you count the Writing section), so you don’t want to blow all your energy on the first couple of passages. Take a few minutes at the start of the test, and see which passages seem easiest/most interesting, and which ones seem hardest/least interesting. Start with the easy ones, and end with the hard ones. This is not the ACT; you have plenty of time, and taking a few minutes to do this step can help you pace yourself more efficiently. You’ll get a confidence boost upfront, and you’ll be less likely to panic when you hit the harder stuff later on.
2) Be willing to skip questions
Unless you’re absolutely set on getting an 800 or close to it, you don’t need to answer every question — in fact, you probably shouldn’t (although you should always make sure to fill in answer for every question, since the quarter point wrong-answer penalty has been eliminated). If your first reaction when you look at a question is that you have no idea what it’s asking, that’s probably a sign you’re better off moving onto other things. That is particularly true on the Reading section because questions are not presented in order of difficulty. A challenging question can be followed by a very easy one, and there’s no sense getting hung up on the former if you can answer the latter quickly. And if you truly hate graph questions or Passage 1/Passage 2 relationship questions, for example, then by all means just skip them and be done with it.
3) Be willing to skip an entire passage
This might sound a little radical, but hear me out. It’s an adaptation of an ACT strategy that actually has the potential to work even better on the new SAT than it does on the ACT. This is especially true if you consistently do well on the Writing section; a strong score there can compensate if you are weaker in Reading, giving you a respectable overall Verbal score. Obviously this is not a good strategy if you are aiming for a score in the 700s; however, if you’re a slow but solid reader who is scoring in the high 500s and aiming for 600s, you might want to consider it.
Think of it this way: if four of the passages are pretty manageable for you but the fifth is very hard, or if you feel a little short on time trying to get through every passage and every question, this strategy allows you to focus on a smaller number of questions that you are more likely to answer correctly. In addition, you should pick one letter and fill it in for every question on the set you skip. Assuming that letters are distributed evenly as correct answers (that is, A, B, C, and D are correct approximately the same number of times on a given test, and in a given passage/question set), you will almost certainly grab an additional two or even three points.
If you’re not a strong reader, I highly recommend skipping either the Passage 1/Passage 2, or any fiction passages that include more antiquated language, since those are the passage types most likely to cause trouble.
4) Label the “supporting evidence” pairs before you start the questions
Although you may not always want to use the “plug in” strategy (plugging in the line references from the second question into the first question in order to answer both questions simultaneously), it’s nice to have the option of doing so. If you don’t know the “supporting evidence” question is coming, however, you can’t plug anything in. And if you don’t label the questions before you start, you might not remember to look ahead. This is particularly true when the first question is at the bottom of one page and the second question is at the top of the following page.
5) Don’t spend too much time reading the passages
You will never — never — remember every single bit of a passage after a single read-through, so there’s no point in trying to get every last detail. The most important thing is to avoid getting stuck in a reading “loop,” in which you re-read a confusing phrase or section of a passage multiple times, emerging with no clearer a sense of what it’s saying than when you began. This is a particular danger on historical documents passages, which are more likely to include confusing turns of phrase. Whatever you do, don’t fall into that trap! You will waste both time and energy, two things you cannot afford to squander upfront. Gently but firmly, force yourself to move on, focusing on the beginning and the end for the big picture. You can worry about the details when you go back.
Note: this article is part of a two-part series. See also this post, which covers the multiple-choice grammar section.
1) Take a moment to understand the question before you jump to eliminate any answers
This is especially true when a question is worded in a complex/confusing way. High scorers often lose points because they don’t take a few seconds to think about what complicated questions are really asking. As a result, they are either unsure of what they’re looking for, or thinking in the wrong “direction” when they go to look to look at the choices. Then they get confused.
Good rule of thumb: if you find yourself saying “Huh?” after you read a question or answer, you need to take a few moments and clarify.
2) Keep moving through the passages – and the questions
Reading and re-reading confusing sections of a passage is one of the biggest causes of time problems. If you find yourself starting to loop over the same section, you must resist the temptation to reread over and over again. That section might only be relevant to a single question – or no questions at all. If you spend a lot of time on it, you’re likely to end up rushing later in the section and losing easy points.
As you work through the questions, you should be doing something – anything – to work toward the answers at all times. If you’re so confused that you can’t even figure out how to start working through a question, leave it and move on. You won’t get the answer by sitting and staring. Very rarely do high scorers have time problems because they’re spending too much time on every question. More often it’s a couple of questions that drain all their time. If you’re spot-on everywhere else, you can afford to guess on a question or two; you cannot afford to rush and get two or three questions wrong per set. Figure out where your weak spots are, and learn to work around them.
As a general rule, you should spend the minimum amount of time possible on easy questions while still working carefully enough not to make any careless errors. Your goal is to leave yourself as much time as possible to work through the hardest questions.
3) Do not EVER eliminate an answer because it confuses you
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. There is absolutely no relationship between your understanding of an answer and whether that answer is right or wrong. If you’re not sure about an answer, leave it.
4) Be willing to go back and forth between the question and the passage multiple times
The answer will most likely not reveal itself to you if you just sit and look at the choices. You may need to go back and forth between the question and the passage four or five times, checking one specific thing out at each go. Do not – I repeat, do not – rely on your memory.
5) Read before/after the line references
A line reference tells you where a particular word or phrase is located – it does not tell you where the answer is. The answers could be in the lines cited, or it could be before/after. If you’ve understood the question and the section of the passage referenced, and still can’t find the answer, there’s a good chance you’re looking in the wrong spot.
If you’re dealing with a function/purpose question, there’s about a 50% chance the answer won’t be in the exact lines cited, but regardless of the question type, do not ever start or stop reading in the middle of a sentence.
Likewise, if you’re asked about something close the beginning/end of a paragraph, back up or read forward as necessary. Main ideas are usually at the beginnings/ends of paragraphs – when in doubt, focus on them.
6) Answer questions in your own words
If you’re a strong reader, spot an answer immediately, and are 100% certain it’s right, it’s fine to pick it and move on. When things are less clear-cut, however, it would strongly behoove you to get a general idea of what information the correct answer will contain, keeping in mind that it might be phrased in a very different way from the way you’d say it. Even doing something as simple as playing positive/negative can make the right answer virtually pop out at you.
To reiterate: you cannot rely on the answers already there 100% of the time. They are there to sound plausible, even if they’re no such thing. Defend yourself.
7) Practice keeping calm when you don’t know the answer right away
If you stand a serious chance of scoring an 800, there’s a good chance that you’re pretty good at recognizing correct answers. There’s also a pretty good chance that most of the questions you’re getting wrong are the ones you aren’t sure about in the first place. When this is the case, one of the biggest challenges tends to involve managing your reactions when you encounter questions you aren’t sure about right away. This might only happen three or four times throughout the test, but that’s enough to cost you.
From what I’ve observed, many students who fall into this category have a tendency to freeze, then panic, then guess. Learning to keep calm is a process; you have to practice it when you’re studying in order for the there to be any chance of your doing it during the actual test.
Stop, take a moment, re-read the question calmly, and make sure you’re crystal clear on what it’s asking. Once, you’ve fully processed what you’re being asked, you can probably get rid of an answer or two. As you work through the question, you might find yourself getting a clearer idea of what it’s asking for. If you don’t, pick one specific aspect of each remaining answer to check against the passage. If you’re stuck between a general and a specific answer, start with the more specific one.
When you go back to the passage, pay attention to strong language and major transitions and “interesting” punctuation (however, therefore, but, colons, questions marks) since key information tends to be located right around them. If you’re unsure about what you’re looking for, focusing on these elements can make you suddenly notice things you missed the first time around.
8) Be willing to reconsider your original assumption
Sometimes you’ll understand a question, answer it in your own words, look at the answer choices… and find absolutely nothing that fits. When this happens, you must be willing to accept that the answer is coming from an unexpected angle, back up a couple of steps, and re-work through it from a different standpoint.
Reread the question carefully, make sure you haven’t overlooked something, get rid of answers that are clearly way off, and look at the remaining options anew.
9) Ask yourself what you’re missing
When you can’t figure out the answer, you must be willing to turn things back on yourself and ask yourself what it is you’re not seeing. Thoughts that start with, “But I think that the author is saying xxx…” will not get you to the answer. If you’ve understood the question and the answers and can’t connect one to the other, the answer must be coming from an angle you haven’t considered. You might need to read more literally, or you might have to consider an alternate meaning of a word. Embrace that fact, because fighting the test won’t change it.
10) Remember that the SAT can break its own “rules”
It’s undoubtedly a good idea to know some of the more common patterns of the test, e.g. “extreme” answers are usually wrong. If you’re seriously shooting for an 800, though, you must be willing to consider that on very rare occasions, there are exceptions. Sometimes the correct answer may include a word like always or never. You must find a balance between using the patterns of the test to your advantage and not getting so stuck on them that you let them override what’s actually going on in the passage.
I recently came across an inquiry from someone using the The Critical Reader to study for the SAT. The student in question had been getting all the exercise questions right in the book itself, but when he took full practice tests, he started making mistakes. How should he proceed?
While I don’t know exactly what was happening when the student took those tests, I can wager a pretty good guess.
Because The Critical Reader is organized by question type, each set of exercises focuses on a particular concept and follows a chapter focusing on that same concept. Not only is the strategy information is still pretty fresh for most people when they look at the questions, but they already know what concept every question will be testing.
When they go to take a practice test, however, that scaffolding is suddenly taken away. All the question types are mixed up together, and there’s no predicting what will come next. In addition, it is necessary to recall many different strategies and nuances of the test in rapid sequence, without any prompting about which ones are necessary. That’s a big strain on working memory. Most likely, the student was simply reading the questions and choosing answers without really considering what category each question fell into and what sort of approach would be required to answer it most effectively.
So if you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s my advice: You essentially have to create a bridge between the book and the test. Choose a couple of Reading sections and don’t worry about time. Go through each question and label it with its category (function, tone, inference, etc.).
Now, before you do each question, stop and review the strategy you need for it, e.g. remind yourself to read before and after the line reference for function questions, play positive/negative, and remember to mark off all the “supporting evidence” pairs.
Work this way for a couple of sections, or even a full test — however long it takes for the process to become more automatic. The goal is to practice identifying which strategies are necessary and get used to applying them when no one (me) is holding up a sign telling you what to look for.
When the process feels more automatic, take a timed test and see what holds. Then repeat as necessary.