As I’ve said before, I’m generally suspicious when people claim to have timing issues on Critical Reading. While I certainly appreciate that some people read much faster than others and do work on timing when necessary, the time itself is almost never the real root of the problem. Upon doing a bit of probing, I typically discover one of two things:

1) The student has genuine comprehension issues, weak vocabulary skills, and rereads portions of a passage three or four times just trying to understand what’s literally being said. Ditto for the answer choices.

2) The student has solid comprehension skills but an incomplete understanding of what they’re looking for when they read the passages. Like the students in the first category, they tend to waste a lot of time staring at answer choices and trying to distinguish between them without really understanding how to relate them back to the passage. Equipped with some tools for understanding just what to look out for, however, they tend to get rid of their timing issues very quickly.

If you fall into category #2, this post is for you.

Part of the problem for people in this category often comes from not fully understanding what line references mean: if a question refers to “the historians in line 18,” that only means that the word “historians” appears in line 18 — not that the answer to the question is in line 18. The answer could be anywhere.

Usually, this type of misunderstanding plays out in the following way:

You encounter a question that says something like, “In lines 25-37, the author’s description of photo albums serves primarily to,” and so of course you go and read lines 25-37 because those are the lines that the question gave you.

 But when you read lines 25-37 and then look at the answers, nothing seems to work. At that point, you start to wonder whether you were missing something.

There are a couple of answers that just totally don’t make sense, so you cross those off, but out of the two or three answers you have left, it seems any of them could work. So you go back and read lines 25-37 again, trying to match them to one of the answers. But it still seems terribly ambiguous.

At that point, you go back and start to read the lines again, only now you realize that you’re wasting an awful lot of time on the question and start to skim through without really knowing what you’re looking for.

Then you start to think, “well maybe if I interpret it this way, it could be (B).” The author must be trying to suggest it without really saying so directly. Yeah, that must be it. So you pick B and move on but still really aren’t sure. Your mind keeps going back to it as you work through the rest of the questions in for that passage, so your concentration is compromised, and you end up missing other things that you could have gotten right.

When this happens, there’s a really good chance that the answer was actually spelled out for you somewhere around line 23. Why? Because the question was asking you what purpose the lines served (i.e. what point did they support?), not what the lines themselves said, and usually the information necessary to determine that purpose is found before the lines themselves. In these cases, the lines are only important insofar as they relate to that point — for the purposes of answering the question, they’re virtually irrelevant.

Plenty of times, of course, it doesn’t work that way, and the answer can in fact be found in the given lines. The problems is that just as often they can’t, and you really have no way of knowing in advance which category a particular question will fall into before you actually look at the passage.

So if you’re a slow-ish reader and don’t want to waste time by always backing up and reading a sentence or two before, try this: read the lines you’re given, and see whether you can definitely answer the question from what you’ve read. Not, “well if I interpret it this way, (C) might kind of work,” but “the answer must be A because this passage says xyz.” If you can’t answer the question from those lines you’ve been given, there’s a good chance the answer isn’t there. And if it isn’t there, it has has to be located someplace else. Your job is to locate that someplace else: if it isn’t right before, it’s probably right after. It doesn’t matter if it takes a little more time to go back and read that extra bit; there’s essentially no other way to determine the answer, and you’ll be far worse served if you just keep looking at the lines given in the question. Just keep in mind that if your comprehension skills really are good, the problem is most likely not that you’ve overlooked something or didn’t interpret the lines in the way the SAT wanted you to. It’s just that the answer was probably never there in the first place.