A couple of times recently, I’ve been working with students when the following scenario has occurred:

-Student encounters question asking them to determine the purpose of the information in, say, lines 47-53.

-Student glances briefly at lines 47-53, can’t figure out the answer immediately, and then proceeds to jump to the beginning of the passage and reads somewhere around line 20. Or, worse yet, ignores lines 47-53 entirely and starts reading around line 20. Or keeps going until s/he hits line 65.

Student: Is it (C)?

Me: Ok, why do you think that?

Student: Well, in line 20 the author is kind of like talking about-

Me: Whoa, wait a second. Why are you looking over there? The question asked you to look at lines 47-53.

Student: But isn’t the guy like basically saying the same thing here?

Me: Number one, no he actually isn’t, and number two, what on earth possessed you to look in line 20 when the question told you exactly where to look?

Student looks mystified.

Me: I know I told you to look at the end of the first paragraph for number 14, but that was a primary purpose question. It was asking you for the big picture, and the author is usually going to give you that in the intro (that’s the point of an introduction!) But if it’s not a “big picture” question, you need to stick to the lines they give you because the question isn’t asking you to consider the context of the whole passage, just that immediate area of the passage. You might be able to get the answer by knowing the point, but it also might have nothing to do with the point. So you have to check those lines out first and work from there.

This is inevitably one of those I-don’t know-whether-I-should-laugh-or-bang-my-head-against-the-wall moments. These are smart kids, yet these conversations drive home to me just how much mental gymnastics the SAT requires. Think about the main point. Now don’t think about the main point. Think about where key information in the passage is likely to be located. No, only worry about the lines you’re given in the question. Think about the “point of view” in context of the passage. No, think about it in isolation. There’s so much flipping back and forth that it’s a wonder anyone can keep it straight.

But let me try to make it simple. Unless you’re dealing with a “big picture” question (main point, primary purpose, one that doesn’t include a line reference), start by assuming that the answer is located somewhere in the close vicinity of the lines you’re given. That doesn’t mean the answer will always be in the lines referenced; it might be a little bit before or a little bit after. But it’ll almost certainly be close by. And even though it might true that information from the other end of the passage might be related, you won’t need to look all the way over there to find the answer.

So if you find yourself looking all over the passage when the question tells you (approximately) where the information you need to answer the question is located, know that you’re probably costing yourself a lot of time. And even if you’re getting the questions right, you’re probably making the process a lot more complicated that it needs to be.