Making things look more complicated than they are is one of the SAT’s specialties, and nowhere is this more apparent than on questions that look like the following:

Unlike the author of Passage 1, the author of Passage 2

(A) criticizes a practice
(B) offers an example
(C) proposes a solution
(D) states an opinion
(E) quotes an expert

When confronted with something like this, most people react in one of two highly inefficient ways:

1) They stare at the answers, convinced that if they just think about it long enough, they’ll remember just what Passage 2 contained that Passage 1 didn’t.

Needless to say (I hope), this is not the most effective way of working. Most people’s memories are not nearly as reliable as they’d like to think, and furthermore, most people’s memories are considerably less reliable than normal when they’ve been up since 6 a.m. and are taking a test that has the potential to impact the rest of their lives.

2) They start checking out all of the answers in order, reading first through one passage and then the other for each option and trying to decide just what constitutes, say, “offering an example”

While this a considerably more reliable strategy than #1 — given enough time, a good number of people will actually come up with the correct answer this way — it’s also very time consuming and tends to leave open the possibility of reading too much into the answer choices. And just to reiterate: the SAT is not asking whether maybe possibly you might be able to understand a particular line as “offering an example.” It is asking you to identify a straightforward, concrete, indisputable distinction between the two texts. (As a side note, it’s actually an important skill: how an author chooses to argue his or her point is often crucial to the validity of his or her argument. But unfortunately, you don’t get to care about that on the SAT.) The keyword here is straightforward.

Typically, the College Board will include answer choices that range from the highly concrete (quotes an expert) to the relatively abstract (criticizes a practice). The more abstract the option, the more it is open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation, and the more crucial it is that you be capable of making precise distinctions between ideas (e.g. example vs. criticism vs. solution).

The trick, however, is to save yourself the trouble of worrying about the more abstract options by focusing on the more concrete ones first. More often than not, the correct answer will actually among them. And the beauty (?) of it is that checking them out requires you to neither read nor think! Usually, the more concrete options include quotes (quoting an expert), question marks (asking rhetorical questions), and the word “I” (personal anecdote). To check them out, all you have to have to do is scan — not read! — the passage or passages for these visual cues. You don’t need to read anything, just look. If you see quotes in one passage but not the other, that’s almost certainly the answer. The whole thing takes about ten seconds. No going back and forth, no deliberating, no angst, just right to the answer.

By the way, your ability to use this kind of logical shortcut is a big part of what the SAT tests. Yes, there are other ways to get the right answer, but working this way leaves you clearheaded to deal with the questions that require a lot more thinking. You don’t get tired and distracted, and consequently you’re less likely to to make silly mistakes or overlook obvious things on other parts of the test. Because that’s what gets most people: lots of small errors that accumulate just enough to really hurt. The real trick is to prevent yourself from being in a position to make them.