One of the hardest things for many test-takers to adjust to on the SAT and ACT is the idea that English questions have answers that are both objectively correct and objectively incorrect. The truth, however, is that if you really want to improve your score, you need to approach each question with the attitude that there is only one answer. It might not be phrased in the way you would say it, or even be the answer that you would expect to see, but that doesn’t make it any less right.

Your English teacher might give you points for the creativity of your interpretations; ETS and the ACT will not. These tests are in no way, shape or form asking for your own personal interpretation or for speculation about what might be going on in a given passage; they are asking for what an author indicates is definitely going on in the passage. That means you need to base your answer exclusively on the exact wording that appears in the text and nothing else. If you have to twist the passage in any way to make the answer work, the answer is wrong.

In other words, match the question to the passage, not the passage to the question.

Let’s look at an example:

Newspaper editor and political commentator Henry Louis Mencken was a force of nature, brushing aside all objects animal and mineral in his headlong rush to the publicity that surely awaited him. He seized each day, shook it to within an inch of its life, and then gaily went on to the next. No matter where his writing appeared, it was quoted widely, his pungently outspoken opinions debated hotly. Nobody else could make so many people so angry, or make so many others laugh so hard.

9. In lines 4-5, the words “seized” and “shook” help establish which aspect of Mencken’s personality?

(A) His code of honor
(B) His sense of humor
(C) His vindictiveness
(D) His intensity
(E) His petulance

What words does the author use to describe Louis Mencken?

He was “a force of nature.” He “brushed aside objects…in his headlong rush.” He “seized each day and shook it…then went gaily onto the next.”

So Louis Mencken was like a whirlwind. He threw himself into things and did them as fully as possible. All this clearly points to (D) because someone who behaves like this is pretty intense.

If you were to read the question first and then just glance through the passage, however, you might just pick up on words/phrases like “brushed aside,” “seized,” and “hotly debated,” all of which are pretty negative, you might go for (C) or (E) instead. Now, Louis Mencken could have also been vindictive in his life. He could have also been petulant (irritable or ill-tempered).

But if you read carefully, this particular author is not actually saying either of those things about Mencken in this particular passage.