Be careful with familiar subjects

Thanks to Mike from PWN the SAT for pointing this out to me after my post about why prep books aren’t enough if you want to kick butt on Reading. While it does come in handy to have a context for what you’re reading, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Even if you’ve heard this before, you can stand to hear it again: when it comes to Reading, the correct answer can always be determined based on the information in the passage and the passage alone.

Do not ever pick an answer unless it is directly supported by the passage itself; it doesn’t matter how much it appeals to you otherwise. If it’s not in the passage, it’s wrong, end of story.

That said, I’m also going to suggest something mildly heretical in the land of test-prep: if you do have prior knowledge of a topic and an answer happens to fit both with that knowledge and with the general point of the passage itself (that second one is really key), I’d suggest you check that answer first. In my experience, it often will be correct. The SAT and the ACT reward smart guessing, and making a logical conjecture often pays off. But I emphasize that this is just a strategy for potentially getting to the correct answer faster. You should never pick an answer based strictly on your knowledge of a subject.

The only time I would ever even maybe suggest you try this without going back to the passage would be if you had five seconds left to finish the section, thought the answer could work based on your knowledge of the passage, and felt like taking a walk on the wild side (relatively speaking). But even then, you might want to play it safe.

Save time-consuming questions for last

If you are not, under any circumstances, willing to jump around within sections, then please skip this article. If you are willing to do so, however, this is a strategy you might want to try. It’s based on the principle that since (1) you have a limited amount of time, and that (2) every question, easy or hard, is worth exactly the same number of points, your goal should be to obtain as many points as quickly as possible.

However: since reading questions are presented in no particular order of difficulty, you need to do a little bit of work upfront to identify questions likely to take you a while to answer before you get caught up in them and waste a couple of minutes better spent answering two or three other questions quickly.

While I do understand that different questions are hard for different people, the following types of questions generally tend to be more time-consuming than others because it is very difficult to answer them based on a general knowledge of the passage; you must almost always go back and read carefully.

-Which of the following? I, II, and III

These tend to take the most time, so they should be the last questions you do. Especially on the ACT, where you can go crazy trying to locate the necessary information.

-Paired passage relationship questions 

Usually these require multiple steps of logic. The good news is that they come after individual-passage questions, so you don’t have to hunt for them.

-ACT questions that ask about dates or years.

Although these questions may seem straightforward, the exact information rarely appears directly in the passage, and it is often necessary to perform some basic calculations in order to determine the answer.

-All of the following EXCEPT 

While you can often eliminate a couple of answers based on your memory of the passage, there’s often no way to be certain unless you go back and hunt for the others.

-Graphic/passage questions on the SAT

Particularly if you’re not ask comfortable with graph-based questions as you are with text-based questions, it’s a good idea to leave these questions until after you’ve answered all of the other questions in a set.

Why you should only use the official guides for SAT & ACT Reading

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you probably know that I’m not a big fan of the big-name test-prep guides (e.g. Kaplan, Princeton Review, Barron’s, etc.). But while I admit that they might have some merit for Math, the one section that you should absolutely and incontrovertibly not compromise on, at least in terms of taking practice tests, is Reading.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

1) The answer choices are problematic

The answers are either 1) improperly reasoned, 2) go outside the bounds of the passage — that is, they actually require you to have some outside knowledge of a subject in order to infer the answer to a question — or 3) force you to make irrelevant distinctions. What ultimately happens is that people walk away with the impression that the answers to questions are arbitrary, that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with the readings themselves. It also makes it impossible to apply any sort of rigorous reasoning process to the test, when in fact it is precisely the refinement of that reasoning process that often leads to higher scores. SAT and ACT questions may feel tricky at times, but the right answer is still the only right answer, not something completely arbitrary cooked up by the test-makers.

2) The passages are wrong

This usually comes down to one issue: copyright. Most of the passages that show up on the SAT and ACT are taken from books published in the last couple of decades — that is, books still under copyright. In order to accurately mimic the test, therefore, it is necessary to use texts from recent works. The College Board and the ACT are able to gain permission for the works from the publishers; for whatever reason (money?), the major test-prep companies usually are not. As a result, those companies are forced to use either texts no longer under copyright (from books more than 70 years old) or have passages written specifically for them. Both of these have major issues.

First, texts more than 70 years old, while difficult, are not difficult in the precise way that real SAT/ACT texts are difficult. Their language, style, and subject matter are often old-fashioned, and they give the impression that the reading portions of both tests loftier and more overtly literary than they are.

On the other hand, passages written specifically for test-prep guides tend to be overly straightforward and factual, whereas real test passages are usually somewhat more complex both in terms of topic and organization.

So please, do yourself a favor: if you haven’t been using the College Board book or the ACT Official Guide for Reading, go out and get it. And if you’ve finished all the tests in it and want to study some more, sign up for the online program. And if you’re done with that, well, go on the Scientific American or Smithsonian magazine website and, and start reading.

The official list of things to circle on SAT & ACT reading passages

Warning: while this may look like an awfully long list of things to circle, chances are that only a handful of these words/phrases will show up on any given passage. This is also not intended to be a exercise in memorization; rather, it is to get you thinking about the kinds of ways in which authors indicate to their readers the most important aspects of what they’re trying to say.

Furthermore, the point of looking out for these things is not to turn your reading into a transition hunt at the expense of actually absorbing what you’re reading. Just circling transitions mechanically and not thinking about what role they play in the passage at large will not get you very far and may in fact make things harder for you. However, if you actively consider them in relation to the point of the passage once you’ve established it, they will help you establish a general “map” of the key places in the argument.

Major Transitions:





In fact


Of course



As a result

In addition










(Al)though/Even though







In comparison

In contrast

Just as…so





The answer is

Giving you the point:

The point is

The goal/aim is

To sum up

In other words

After all

In the end

The (main) idea

Important Information:






It is true/not true

It is clear/unclear

Strong Language:












“Unusual” Punctuation:

Question Marks – Indicate rhetorical questions. Questions are prime targets for inference questions because information is often implied but not stated.

Colons – Explanations Dashes – Explanations or supplementary (qualifying) information

Semicolons – Imply a relationship between two thoughts that is not necessarily spelled out — likely spot for inference questions to deal with

Words in quotes – Used figuratively. The answer to at least one question will depend on your understanding of how a word in quotes is being used, even if the question doesn’t ask about it directly. Often indicates skepticism.

Italicized words – Used to emphasize, underscore, call attention to, highlight

Could be true ? definitely true

One of the hardest things for many test-takers to adjust to on the SAT and ACT is the idea that English questions have answers that are both objectively correct and objectively incorrect. The truth, however, is that if you really want to improve your score, you need to approach each question with the attitude that there is only one answer. It might not be phrased in the way you would say it, or even be the answer that you would expect to see, but that doesn’t make it any less right.

Your English teacher might give you points for the creativity of your interpretations; ETS and the ACT will not. These tests are in no way, shape or form asking for your own personal interpretation or for speculation about what might be going on in a given passage; they are asking for what an author indicates is definitely going on in the passage. That means you need to base your answer exclusively on the exact wording that appears in the text and nothing else. If you have to twist the passage in any way to make the answer work, the answer is wrong.

In other words, match the question to the passage, not the passage to the question.

Let’s look at an example:

Newspaper editor and political commentator Henry Louis Mencken was a force of nature, brushing aside all objects animal and mineral in his headlong rush to the publicity that surely awaited him. He seized each day, shook it to within an inch of its life, and then gaily went on to the next. No matter where his writing appeared, it was quoted widely, his pungently outspoken opinions debated hotly. Nobody else could make so many people so angry, or make so many others laugh so hard.

9. In lines 4-5, the words “seized” and “shook” help establish which aspect of Mencken’s personality?

(A) His code of honor
(B) His sense of humor
(C) His vindictiveness
(D) His intensity
(E) His petulance

What words does the author use to describe Louis Mencken?

He was “a force of nature.” He “brushed aside objects…in his headlong rush.” He “seized each day and shook it…then went gaily onto the next.”

So Louis Mencken was like a whirlwind. He threw himself into things and did them as fully as possible. All this clearly points to (D) because someone who behaves like this is pretty intense.

If you were to read the question first and then just glance through the passage, however, you might just pick up on words/phrases like “brushed aside,” “seized,” and “hotly debated,” all of which are pretty negative, you might go for (C) or (E) instead. Now, Louis Mencken could have also been vindictive in his life. He could have also been petulant (irritable or ill-tempered).

But if you read carefully, this particular author is not actually saying either of those things about Mencken in this particular passage.