If you’ve looked at any SAT prep books or taken a class, you’ve probably been advised to always read the blurb before the passage. As I was discussing with Debbie Stier yesterday, however, those couple of lines can seem like a throwaway. People keep on reading them because they know they should, but they don’t really know how to use the information they provide. Truth be told, I never thought all that hard about those little blurbs until recently, when I was explaining to someone to how incredibly important it is for students to be be able to identify passage topics. Forget main point, tone, and all those, uh, “higher order thinking skills” like inferences. If a student cannot figure out what the topic of a passage is… well, they’re not necessarily screwed, but let’s just say that things won’t be easy.

As I was saying this, I started thinking about the fact that students have difficulty identifying topics because they get so caught up in worrying about unfamiliar vocabulary and trying to puzzle out confusing syntax that they can’t figure out the basics. Then it occurred to me that there’s one place where the topic is likely to be stated clearly and with minimal room for misinterpretation: the italicized blurb.

Think of it this way:

The point of the italicized blurb is to tell you what the passage is about. In other words, it tells you the topic.

Many correct answers to Critical Reading questions mention the topic, either by name or rephrased in more general form.

In contrast, incorrect answers to Critical Reading questions are often wrong because they are off-topic.

In order to recognize when an answer is off-topic, you must know what the topic is. If you do not know what the topic is, you will not be able to recognize when answers are off-topic. That does not mean you sorta kinda have a general idea what the passage is talking about. It means you must be able to state the topic clearly, precisely, and accurately in no more than a couple of words. (I don’t take that last one as a given; I have had students who could state topics clearly and precisely, but also totally inaccurately.)

Since the italicized blurb often identifies the topic clearly and precisely in no more than a couple of words, it is therefore logical to read the blurb carefully.

To be sure, the blurb will not always provide this information, but it will do so often enough that it is worth spending a few seconds reading. This is especially true for Passage 1/Passage 2. The point of the blurb is to tell you what both passages are about — information that can allow you to answer seemingly complicated questions in no more than a few seconds.

Let’s look at an example:


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.

What does the blurb tell us? That the passages will be about the Cold War, defined as the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union between 1945-1990. That is the topic.

The topic is not “the United States” or “the Soviet Union” or “Russia” or “global superpowers” or “the period between 1945-1990.” Those things are only mentioned in order to explain the topic. Any answer choice that implies that one of those things is the main focus of the passage will be incorrect.

Now consider this question:

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

This question is really asking us what the topic of both passages is. According to the blurb, the topic is the Cold War. Only (A) and (B) specifically mention the Cold War.

“European political ideologies,” “Soviet leaders and policies,” and “the devastation of World War II” make no mention of the Cold War, so (C), (D), and (E) can be eliminated for being off-topic.

So just by reading the blurb, you can eliminate three answers without even reading the passage.

But how to decide between the remaining two? Stay tuned…