One of the questions I get asked most frequently about Critical Reading is, “What’s your strategy?” A couple of things tend to be assumed in this question:

1) I will provide a straightforward response such as, “always read the questions first so you don’t lose time reading the passage” or “bracket all the line references as you go through the passage so that you’ll know where to read carefully” (two things I would, incidentally, not ever advise).

2) There is such thing as a single strategy that is applicable to every question.

This second part is the really dangerous one. One of the things that makes obtaining a very high Critical Reading score so difficult is the fact that it demands a certain degree of flexibility — while there are plenty of strategies that will allow someone to answer many questions correctly, there is no strategy I know of that is both efficient and effective for trying to answer every question correctly. Students¬†who insist on sticking to one strategy generally top out at about 700; the ones who score higher tend to be using multiple strategies, even if they’re not aware of it. (As a rule, people who obtain very high CR scores tend to take a whole lot of things for granted when explaining how to achieve a high CR score).

The more time I spend teaching Critical Reading, the more I become aware of this: a couple of times recently, I’ve given a student a lengthy explanation about why he or she *must* approach certain kinds of questions in a particular way, then promptly gone on to completely contradict myself because I happened to spot a shortcut that got me the answer in five seconds instead of forty-five. It’s not that the first way couldn’t have worked. It’s just that it would have been a lot more trouble and left some room for second-guessing.

I’ve also become aware of this because of a debate I’ve been having with Debbie Stier over the importance of focusing on the “implied author” of the SAT (i.e. the people at ETS who actually write the test) vs. the author of the passage. It’s probably true that I spend a bit less time focusing on the latter than do some SAT tutors. Yes, I spout the standard “the College Board is always politically correct, avoid the extreme answers, etc.,” and I’ve even been known to play that old favorite, “guess the answer without looking at the question” (I’m actually quite good at it), but that’s not the main focus of my tutoring. When I go over CR questions with my students, I tend to discuss both the long way AND the shortcut, but I always stress that picking the shortcut answer without checking it in the passage can get you into trouble.

I don’t argue that reading the test this way can be very effective — on *some* questions. But when tutors (i.e. grownups) use these tricks, they tend to assume that teenagers are generally capable of reading with the same level of nuance that they are, and that’s simply not true. Weak 16-year old readers do not always know what a politically correct answer — or, for that matter, an extreme answer, or a general answer — looks like: getting rid of answers that include words like “always” and “never” is one thing, but how many kids scoring around 500 (remember, the CR average is 501) know what “vitriolic” means?

For a somewhat stronger reader, using these kinds of tricks can in fact propel someone into the low 600s, but rarely beyond. They’re useful, but only to a point. And that’s why I tend not to insist on them excessively: they’re part of knowing how to take the SAT, and they can get you close to the answer — sometimes very, very fast — but they’re not the whole thing, and they won’t always get you to the point where you can pick an answer and know unhesitatingly that it’s correct. They might help you get it down to two answers, but usually when that happens, you need to be able to read closely in order to decide between them. They also might get you the right answer if you’re down to two and can’t choose, but then again, they might not.

The College Board isn’t stupid; they deviate from their own patterns from time to time just to throw people off. That’s why I spend so much time teaching people to answer the questions for real: the other way helps, but it’s not a guarantee. For someone trying to boost their CR score 100+ points, understanding that there really is a relationship between the question and the answer — and that it can be determined through a careful process of logical reasoning — is often the key to understanding the test.

So for someone attempting to score close to 800, it’s not a question of focusing on the author of the test OR the author of the passage. You have to do both, flipping back and forth between using the answer choices to make educated guesses about what’s *likely* to be correct and actually reading the text closely to make sure that it is in fact correct. In other words, you have to read on two levels at once.

Practically speaking, it means that sometimes you have to start by going back to the passage and putting the answer in your own words; sometimes you can skip the passage and just reiterate the main point/tone before looking at the answers; sometimes you can start by looking at the answers and making an educated guess about which one(s) are likely to be correct, then go back to the passage and check them out; and sometimes you might have no idea about the answer and have to go back and forth between the passage and the questions five or six or ten times, eliminating answers as you go. It’s up to you to be flexible enough to figure out what approach works best on any given question.

If you think this sounds hard, you’re right: it is. But that’s why a high CR score actually means something.

If you can manage it, though, looking at the test this way can allow you to pinpoint the likely answer very fast so you don’t waste time, then check it out for real so that you’re not tempted to second-guess yourself. That way, you’re far less likely to create a backlog of tiredness and frustration that accumulates until you can no longer focus properly.

Let me give you an example.

On one “attitude” question I went over with a student recently, the following five answer choices appeared:

(A) fascination (B) approval (C) ambivalence (D) skepticism (E) hostility

Now, I could have gone back to the passage first and come up with an answer on my own; however, answers to tone questions tend to be highly formulaic, so I made a decision to start by looking at the answers and trying to use the test against itself.

Knowing that (C) and is pretty much always wrong and that (A) and (E) were too extreme, I immediately narrowed it down to (B) and (D), which are frequently used as correct answers. That meant all I had to figure out was whether the author’s attitude in that portion of the passage was positive or negative, or whether there were any other textual clues that indicated one of those answers.

Sure enough, I looked at the passage, and not only was there a question mark, but the sentence preceding it started out “But how exactly…?” which is phrasing that pretty much screams skepticism, and the author was clearly talking about something he didn’t like, so the answer had to be (D). The answer choices told me what was likely to be right, but a close reading of the text gave me the answer for real.

The other reason that knowing how to read the test properly is that very occasionally, ETS screws up the wording of a question just very slightly and doesn’t ask precisely what it means to ask, OR it provides more than one answer that could be reasonably justified (before you get all excited, know that I’ve only seen maybe five questions period that fell into this category — ETS usually does a very good job, and oversights like this are exceedingly rare). In order to answer the question correctly, it is actually necessary to consider the answers independently of the question, and to understand 1) what ETS intended to ask rather than what it actually asked, and 2) which answer choice is most likely to be correct based on the kinds of answers that ETS usually deems correct.

If you know that the right answer will always go along with the main point rather than a supporting detail, for example, you can get still often get the right answer on imprecisely worded questions — but to do that, you have to read intention rather than what’s actually there. Is that fair? No, of course not. Should the College Board have stop these questions from appearing? Yes, of course. But sometimes things slip through. (No, for the record, I’m not trying to make excuses.)

The good news is that it’s possible to get an 800 CR without getting every single question right. But if you’re really serious about trying to ace that section, you need to approach it pragmatically: not every question requires the same approach, and while it is important to understand each passage, it’s just as important to understand how the exam is constructed. The SAT is, after all, a standardized test, and approaching each question as a unique creation is frankly unnecessary — knowing the patterns will make you a more effective test-taker, just as long as you treat them as an added benefit and not as a replacement for understanding what’s going on in the passage itself.