One of my favorite things to say about the SAT is that it’s a moderately difficult test dressed up to appear much harder than it actually is. Many of the skills that the SAT covers are not outrageously advanced — it’s just that it tests those skills indirectly. The hard part is figuring out which piece of knowledge to apply, not the actual piece of knowledge itself

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of SAT questions have “back doors” that can lead you to the answer almost instantaneously. The people who do the best on the SAT are generally the ones who can spot those back doors immediately and who, as a result don’t get lost in the details or waste a lot of mental energy playing trial and error.

Rhetorical strategy questions almost always contain these back doors, and learning to recognize them can often help you to find the answer in a matter of seconds.

Let’s assume you encounter the following (real) question on a Passage 1/Passage 2 set:

Both passages make use of which of the following:

(A) Political allusion
(B) Direct quotation
(C) Rhetorical questioning
(D) Personal anecdote
(E) Extended metaphor

When most people see a question like this, they scramble frantically to remember just what their English teacher said about metaphors and allusions… And right about the time they realize that they’re not 100% sure what an anecdote is, panic inevitably starts to set in.

They race back to the passages and start to skim through them, not really sure what they’re looking for but thinking that just maybe the answer will leap out at them. And when it doesn’t, they decide to just pick C because hey, that sounds like it could be correct, and it’s more likely to be C than any other answer, right? (It’s not, and it isn’t.)

Sound familiar?

If not, you’re lucky, but for the rest of you, keep reading.

The most important things to know about tackling these kinds of questions is that some answers are much easier to check out than others, and that you should always start by working from the most concrete to the most abstract answer. More often than not, the answer will be one of the most straightforward options.

In this case, “direct quotation,” choice (B), is the easiest answer to look for. It’ll be an option on many rhetorical strategy questions, and you should always start with it. In this case, you can just skim through the passages to check for phrases in quotation marks. If you see them, there’s your answer. (It is actually the answer to this question). Over in about five seconds, and you didn’t need to really reread anything.

If that weren’t the answer, however, you’d move to the next easiest answers to check: (C) and (D).

(C) Just look for question marks. If you don’t find them in both passages, get rid of the answer. It’s virtually impossible that there will be questions in both passages, one of which is rhetorical and the other not. The SAT doesn’t really employ that level of trickiness.

(D) Even if you don’t know what an “anecdote” is (it’s a story), the word “personal” tells you to look for the words “I” or “my.” If it’s there, it’s the answer; if not, cross it off.

So that would leave you with (A) and (E). Which is easier to check? Well, even if you don’t know what an “allusion” is (it’s a reference), you can certainly check for stuff about politics. If you find it, pick (A). If not, pick (E).

As a side note, however, it is exceedingly unlikely that you’d get two passages with extended metaphors. P1/P2 passages tend to contain significant stylistic differences, and if one is based around a metaphor, the other is likely to be very straightforward.