The SAT makes people do some strange things. I think it’s safe to say that in everyday life, most people don’t pick up a book, open to a random page, start reading in the middle of a sentence, and then wonder why they don’t fully understand what’s going on. Barring some sort of bizarre circumstances, it just doesn’t happen. But it happens constantly on the SAT.

Now, I fully admit there are some aspects of SAT Reading that are different from the types of reading most test-takers have been asked to thus far, but contrary to conventional test-prep wisdom, SAT Reading is not completely detached from the normal act of reading. That means that you need to read words and phrases within the larger context of the sentences where they appear. Always.

I realize that this is one of those pieces of advice that might sound pretty obvious, but please just hear me out. One of the biggest mistakes that I see my students consistently make when they answer Critical Reading questions is to focus only on the word/phrase/line references given and ignore the surrounding information — which is what they actually need to read in order to answer the question correctly. Not backing up and starting from a sentence or two above is bad enough, but actually starting in the middle of the sentence has the potential to cause a lot of problems.

For example (passage excerpt):

…Now that I am passionately involved with thinking critically about Black people and representation, I can confess that those walls of photographs empowered me, and that I feel their absence in my life. Right now I long for those walls, those curatorial spaces in the home that express our will to make and display images.


In line 26, “absence” refers metaphorically to a lack of a

(A) constraining force
(B) cluttered space
(C) negative influence
(D) sustaining tradition
(E) joyful occasion

By SAT standards, the question is right in the middle of the road difficulty-wise. In fact, it’s a level 3. The reason that people tend to get into trouble with questions like it, however, is as follows: the question refers specifically to the word “absence,” then tells us that the word appears in line 26 — a piece of information that leads most people to begin reading at the word “absence” in line 26, then continue down to the rest of the paragraph (and often, when they can’t find the answer, to the paragraph below it).

In other words, they start reading halfway through the sentence, but they’re so focused on the word “absence” that it never even occurs to them that they might be missing something important. And once they hit the phrase “curatorial spaces,” they so hung up on the fact that they don’t quite understand what it means that it never occurs to them that they might be missing something a lot more straightforward.

The problem is that the answer is found in the first part of the sentence: the photographs were absent, and they empowered the narrator. Empowered = sustaining (more or less), hence (D). (The beginning of the passage also makes quite clear that those photographs were an important tradition in her family.) But if you don’t read the beginning of the sentence, you miss the context and end up going in the completely wrong direction. In addition, the word “absence” usually has negative connotations, which means that in the absence of context, you’re a lot more likely to pick (A), (B), or (C). If you go back and see that the photographs were “empowering,” however,” you won’t fall into that trap.