Among critics of the SAT, “shortcut” is often viewed as a bad word. Doing well on the SAT, they claim dismissively, is only a matter of learning the right shortcuts (like reading the questions before the passage), which of course have nothing to do with any sort of understanding beyond the SAT.

While I disagree with part two of that statement (the skills tested on the SAT extend far beyond the test itself), I actually agree completely with part one — I’ll even take it a step further. Not only is doing well on the SAT a matter of learning the right tricks, but the right tricks — the real ones, the ones that allow you get the answer to what appear to be incredibly complex questions at warp speed — *are* the test.

But unlike the SAT’s critics, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Here’s why: there’s almost no way to answer those types of questions efficiently and with certainty unless you have an absolutely, totally, crystal clear understanding of what they are in fact asking you to do and of what skills or concepts are required to solve them. The ability to apply a shortcut is thus a reflection of the ability to instantaneously pinpoint the requisite knowledge and to apply it in ways that might not seem immediately obvious to the majority of test takers, who will plod obligingly through each answer, weighing its pros and cons and pondering whether it’s some kind of trick.

In other words, your ability to answer questions is actually a reflection of your knowledge (shocking, I know). And if test-prep teaches you something about the ways in which arguments are put together, so be it.

Let me give an example from Critical Reading. Consider the following question:

The author does which of the following in lines 25-27?

Lines 25-27 read as follows: “They were saying that pulling on the rope need not make the bell ring. The bell itself — the mind — could stop it.”

(A) Employs a previously used comparison to explain a newly introduced idea
(B) Cites an aforementioned study to disprove a recently published claim
(C) Signals a digression from the main line of the argument
(D) Invokes figurative language to note the drawbacks of an approach
(E) Uses personification to explain the intricacies of a theory

Seems like you have absolutely nothing to go on, right? No context, no information, zip, zilch, nada.

Think again.

This is actually a rhetorical strategy question, which means that you don’t actually need any context to answer it — you don’t even really have to understand precisely what it’s saying. You just need to get a sense of where it might fit into a larger argument, and what role it might play in either developing or refuting that argument.

The key phrase here is, “They were saying.” Pretty much the only time someone would use the phrase “they were saying” would be if they wanted to clarify or to explain another idea — that is by definition the function of that phrase, the only reason it would be used in the first place.

So it is necessary to look for an answer that contains one of those words. The only option that suggest that function is (A) because it includes the word “explain.”

Now, is it necessary to go back and double check that the comparison in question has already been used? Yes, of course, but that one word, “explain,” is almost enough to nail it. You might think that one phrase is just too little to go on to get the right answer, that you couldn’t really be sure unless you read everything else in those lines plus all the answer choices carefully, but in fact that would be unnecessary. The question is testing whether you recognize the function of the information presented, and that phrase is the only thing that gives away its function. If you can recognize that, you can answer the question in a couple of seconds. A shortcut? Yes. But easy… well, if you can do that without too much trouble, that’s a pretty good sign that you can ace the test.