Because of the nature of my job, I tend to get a lot of students with very significant imbalances between their math and verbal scores. Most people scoring a 760 in Math without much prep just don’t bother with math tutors, although the same people sometimes find themselves stuck in the 600s or even the 500s in Reading and Writing. What I look at the (full) tests of students like these, however, what often strikes me the most is the difference between the sheer amount of stuff they’ve written in the Math sections vs. the CR sections.

Even just glancing at the math, I can see that they’ve really worked those problems out. In fact, it probably wouldn’t occur to them to do otherwise. There are equations scribbled all over the place. Maybe not for every question, but often enough for it to be clear that they haven’t been approaching the SAT like some kind of glorified guessing game but rather solving the problems. They might use their knowledge of a particular rule to eliminate answers quickly, but at no point have they simply decided to abandon working things out in favor of making a guess they hope will be right.

The same, alas, cannot be said for the Reading. Sure, they’ve probably underlined and circled some things in the passages, maybe written the main point and perhaps the tone, but the spaces next to the questions are totally and completely blank. Even if they’ve made an attempt to reason their way through the problem, they haven’t bothered to write down all the steps. More likely, though, it hasn’t really occurred to them that they *can* approach CR in more or less the same way they would approach Math What seems like an obvious way to work through a math problem seems far less obvious when applied to reading — especially since they’ve never been asked to think about reading in quite that way before.

What really gets me, though, is that even after I demonstrate — in some cases, multiple times — how to work through a CR question step by step like a math problem, writing down each part of the process and moving systematically through the choices when the answer isn’t initially obvious, they still refuse to even attempt to replicate the process on their own. (Actually, after I demonstrate the first time, they usually give me a look that says approximately, “Oh s–t! That looks like a lot of work. No way, there has to be an easier way to do it.” Um, no, there isn’t.) It doesn’t matter how many times I tell them that this was how I got an 800, and that if they’re really serious about wanting one as well, they need to make themselves go through the entire process. They still want the magical shortcut that’ll get them a perfect score without having to work quite so hard. Guess what, folks: it doesn’t exist. The closest thing to a fail-safe technique I have for getting an 800 on CR is this, take or leave it.

So having said that, I want to work through what is quite possibly the hardest CR question I know of — one that absolutely demands to be worked out like an equation and that pretty much every student I’ve ever had, no matter how high they ultimately scored, screwed up on. (True confession: I actually had to look at the answer the first time I saw it. It was only when I went back that I was able to work out the reasoning behind it). It’s from the College Board Test 4, section 6, question 20, p. 592.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I would actually write all of my reasoning down. Note that I constantly, quasi-obsessively reiterate both what the question is asking and the point of the paragraph. It may seem excessive, but it’s necessary. It’s the only way to leave no room for error.

Paragraph 2

Things that live by night live outside the realm of “normal” time. Chauvinistic about our human need to wake by day and sleep by night, we come to associate night dwellers with people up to no good, people who have the jump on the rest of us and are defying nature, defying their circadian rhythms. Also night is when we dream, and so reality is warped. After all, we do not see very well at night, we do not need to. But that makes us nearly defenseless after dark. Although we are accustomed to mastering our world by day , in the night we become vulnerable as prey. Thinking of bats as masters of the night threatens the safety we daily take for granted. Though we are at the top of our food chain, if we had to live alone in the rain forest, say, and protect ourselves against roaming predators, we would live partly in terror, as our ancestors did. Our sense of safety depends on predictability, so anything living outside the usual rules we suspect to be an outlaw – a ghoul.

Which of the following assertions detracts LEAST from the author’s argument in the second paragraph (lines 25-42)?

(A) Many people work at night and sleep during the day
(B) Owls, which hunt at night, do not arouse our fear
(C) Most dangerous predators hunt during the day
(D) Some cultures associate bats with positive qualities
(E) Some dream imagery has its source in the dreamer’s personal life


1. Since the question is phrased in a somewhat convoluted manner, we need to make sure that we are absolutely clear about what is actually being asked before we do anything else. The question is asking us which option detracts LEAST.

That means that the four incorrect answers will detract from (go against) the argument and the correct answer will not detract from the argument.

It does not, however, mean that the correct option will SUPPORT the argument. Just because an idea does not explicitly go against an argument does not mean that it supports it; there might just be no relationship.

So we are simply looking for something that does not contradict the argument.

2. The next step is to determine what the argument actually is. While the question gives us a lot of lines to read, they can be pretty much summed up AND WRITTEN DOWN as follows:

-Humans sleep @ night and think it’s normal, get scared by stuff that’s awake @ night b/c = abnormal.

-Bats don’t sleep @ night, THUS: B/c bats assoc. w/dark = scary.

Notice that I’ve crammed down the paragraph into just the essential, disregarding the details entirely.

3. Before we look at the answers, we need to consider very clearly what we are looking for. The question asks us to find the answer that does NOT explicitly contradict the idea that bats & stuff @ night = scary. It might not support that idea, but it won’t go against it either. So now we consider the answers.

(A) Many people work at night and sleep during the day

If many people work at night and sleep during the day, they go against typical patterns. But that happens all the time and people don’t get scared. So that DOES detract from the idea that night is only for scary stuff, and we can eliminate the answer.

(B) Owls, which hunt at night, do not arouse our fear

Again, owls go against normal human patterns but NOT scary. So that also detracts from the idea that night = scary stuff. It can be eliminated.

(C) Most dangerous predators hunt during the day

But scary stuff is supposed to happen @ night, not during the day. So that detracts from the idea that scary stuff just comes out @ night. It can be eliminated.

(D) Some cultures associate bats with positive qualities

This is dealing with the other main point in the paragraph: bats = scary. But if bats are really so scary for everyone, then they shouldn’t be associated w/positive qualities. So this DOES detract from the idea that bats = scary. It can be eliminated as well.

(E) Some dream imagery has its source in the dreamer’s personal life

Since we’ve reasoned through the other options and have determined that they cannot be correct, this must be right. But before we pick it, we’re going to double check it against the original question to make sure that it works. This is part of the whole “not leaving yourself any room for error” thing, and if you want to certain, you can’t leave this step out.

We know that the right answer will not detract from the idea that bats/night = scary, and this option has nothing whatsoever to do with that idea. And if it has nothing to do with that idea, it can detract from it. It does, however, support the idea that bats/night = scary; it just does NOT detract from it. So it’s right.

Most of my students groan when I explain the logic to them; it seems so ridiculously convoluted. And such an outrageous amount of work. But there is no other way to figure it out. Even if some people can get the answer very fast, they’re still going through the entire process — they’re just doing it at warp speed.

Now to be fair, this question is very extreme. Most don’t have anywhere near this level of complexity. The problem is that there are always a couple of outliers that have something close to it, and those are the questions that separate the 800s from the mid-700s. I’ll admit that working like this does not initially feel natural. It can be time consuming (although in reality no more time consuming than staring blankly at the answers), but it’s also the sort of thing that gets faster the more you practice it. You have to be able to do it before you can do do it fast. Even if you screw it up the first few (or twenty) times you try to do it, practicing the approach is what counts. You’re dealing with the SAT in terms of what it’s actually testing — your ability to reason your way logically through complex material — and that’ll get you a lot further than looking at it just about any other way.