One of the things that continually amazes me is the following situation: a student is working carefully through a reading question and begins to cross off answers. First one, then another, then a third. And then…nothing. The student continues to stare at the two answer choices. “Is there anything in the passage that clearly points to one of the answers?” I ask. The student scrunches up his or her face in concentration, staring off into space, trying, trying to remember….
At which point I oh-so-politely suggest that perhaps the student might want to consult the passage…because, you know, there’s an off chance the answer might be in there. As opposed to somewhere on the wall across the room. To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a standardized testing strategy universally acknowledged that if you are down to two answer choices, you should guess. (One answer is just as likely to be right as the other, right?)
Except that you really shouldn’t.
As a matter of fact, there are a couple of very specific things you should do instead. First, you should reiterate your main point (which, ideally, you should have written down as soon as you finished reading the passage), or at least the point of the lines in question. Is there an answer that rephrases it? If there is, chances are it’s right. If that doesn’t work, you should go back to the passage and read it very, very carefully, making sure to start a couple of lines above and read to a couple of lines below.
With the exception of questions that ask about the passage as whole, the information you need to answer the question will always be located in the immediate vicinity of the lines you’ve been given. It might not be in the lines themselves, but it’ll almost always be very close by.
In addition, when you do go back and read (instead of, say, waiting for the heavens to open and an angel to descend and inform you of the correct answer), you need to pay particular attention to any important transitions or explanations that appear in the text. Chances are they’ll give you the information you need. Usually when students go back to the passage, they’re astonished to discover that the answer was right there all along.
Amazing, isn’t it?
Bonus question (scroll down for the answer):
Throughout this article, my tone could best be characterized as