I find that it can sometimes help to think of the SAT as the standardized-testing equivalent of a parlor trick, a sleight of hand if you will. Questions that appear at first glance to be exceedingly complicated can often be solved quickly and simply, and answers that would initially seem to be located in a particular place may be located somewhere else entirely. One of the places where this gap is most striking involves the line references that accompany most Critical Reading questions.

On one hand, it’s rather generous of ETS to at least be willing to tell you where to look — unlike, for example, the writers of the ACT, who basically leave you to fend for yourself in terms of figuring out where information is located. On the other hand, however, line references are not always quite the gift that they appear to be. As a matter of fact, in some cases they can be downright misleading. In order to understand why, it helps to understand just what the SAT is and is not doing when a specific line reference appears.

Take, for example, the following question:

The author’s attitude toward the “subfield” (line 65) is best characterized as one of:

(A) approval
(B) curiosity
(C) uncertainty
(D) surprise
(E) dismay

A question that is phrased this way is giving us exactly one piece of information: that the word “subfield” appears in line 65. The question is not, however, telling us that the information necessary to answer the question — information that will reveal the author’s attitude about the subfield — is in line 65. Now, the answer will most likely be in the general vicinity of line 65, but we don’t know where. It might come before, but it also might come after. In other words, it may be in line 63. Or 61. Or 68. It might even be in line 59 or line 70.

This is because the question is not asking us about the subfield itself. It is only concerned with the subfield insofar as it relates to the author’s opinion of it. Establishing the author’s tone is what counts; without it, there is no effective way to answer the question.

What this means, practically speaking, is that if you’ve spent your time carefully marking line 65 and the answer comes five lines earlier, you’re out of luck. Especially if you start at a particular line and keep on reading without considering that the answer might precede the line in question.

I’m not suggesting that marking line references is completely worthless, just that it shouldn’t be overestimated as a strategy. Yes, it can very effective in terms of making you focus on the text, but used alone, it does have its limits. When people get 800s using it, they pull in other skills subconsciously as well. It’s fine to tell yourself to read carefully around a particular area, but if you’re just reading carefully without really knowing what you’re reading carefully for, you might end up wasting a huge amount of time.

Yes, many questions can be answered by looking only at the lines cited in the questions, but many others cannot. On the SAT, it’s the big picture — the relationship between detail and context — that generally counts. And assiduously marking line references just for the sake of marking line references will not give you that relationship; you still have to take the time to figure it out on your own.