A couple of days ago, I posted about how reading the blurb before the passage can in some cases allow you to quickly eliminate multiple answer choices to a question — even before you’ve read the passage(s). (If you haven’t read that post, you should consider doing so before you going any further).

To refresh you, this blurb establishes that the Cold War is the topic of this Passage 1/Passage 2 pair:

The term “Cold War” refers to a period of confrontation from about 1945 to 1990 between the two global superpowers of that era, the United States and the Soviet Union (a collection of republics led by Russia). These passages are adapted from a book published in 1998.

Because the topic must almost certainly appear in the correct answer choice to the question below, you can start by eliminating (C) – (E), even in the absence of any additional information.

Both passages are concerned chiefly with

(A) the causes of the Cold War
(B) the aftermath of the Cold War
(C) European political ideologies
(D) Soviet leaders and policies
(E) the devastation of World War II

Since (A) and (B) mention the Cold War, they can stay.

Now, however, I want to talk about how to go about choosing between those two answers by reading only the beginning of Passage 1.

The blurb states that the book was from 1998, which was 18 years after the end of the Cold War. So the book could talk about the aftermath of the Cold War (post 1990) as well as its origins (1940s), although it’s worth keeping in mind that the SAT usually doesn’t like to get into history that’s too recent — there’s just too much potential for controversy.

So now we need to develop a slightly more nuanced (more specific) understanding of the topic.

At this point, you might think, “I can’t possibly answer that question now. I need to read both passages. By the time I finish reading them, I should have a pretty good idea what they’re about. Then I can go back and answer it.”

You could of course save the question until the end, reading though both passages first, but that would leave you an awful lot of room for confusion. If you have a tendency to get caught up in the details, you could mistake “mentions” for “is about.”

This reasoning also overlooks one important fact. Critical Reading questions are listed in chronological order of the passages. If a question appears first, you can probably answer it by reading the beginning of the first passage. Yes, the first passage only, even though the question appears to ask about both passage.

Here’s why: the question is telling you that both passages have the same focus. By definition, then, the focus of the first passage must be the focus of the second passage. Therefore, all you need to determine is the focus of the first passage.

Here again, you might think, “Ok, now I have to read the whole first passage. By the time I’m done, I should have a pretty good idea of what it’s talking about.” In which case you might again be right, but you’re also likely to make things a lot harder than necessary.

Remember: the point of an introduction is to tell you what the passage is going to be about, i.e. the topic. In most cases, including this one, you can determine the topic of the first passage just by reading the first few sentences.

The traditionalist school of historians dominated the American scholarly discussion of the Cold War during the late 1940s and the 1950s. Traditionalist scholars generally supported the basic thrust of American policy toward Russia, which was known as containment. These scholars blamed the Cold War on Soviet expansionism in Europe, which they saw as motivated by either communist ideology, traditional Russian great-power foreign policy goals, or, most often, a combination of the two.

There are two major things to notice here: first, it talks about the 1940s and ’50s. This is when the Cold War began, not when it ended. Second, the statement that scholars blamed the Cold War on Soviet Expansion directly implies that he is talking about its causes. That in turn points to (A), which is in fact correct.

If you want to check it out, you can scan — not read — both passages for dates. It just so happens that the only dates that appear in the passage involve the 1940s and ’50s, effectively eliminating (B). The Cold War ended in 1990, and any discussion of its aftermath would include dates from 1990 and after.

This is, incidentally, where the knowledge component comes into play: much as contemporary educational theory might malign the importance of “mere facts,” they are really quite useful in a case like this. If you have no actual idea of when the Cold War began or ended, it probably won’t occur to you to use dates in this way. Sure they’re staring you in the face, but they won’t really mean anything to you. It’s the equivalent of staring at a math formula while simultaneously trying to figure out when and how to apply it. It’s profoundly irrelevant that the information is given to you if you don’t have the tools to use it. The same is true here: a person who knows the basic chronology of the Cold War can glance over the passages and instantaneously comprehend that they’re focusing on its origins.

It’s also not a bad idea to know when some of the most important events of the 20th century occurred — events whose repercussions continue to exert an enormous influence on events today.

It’s called, you know, like, being educated.