Reading comprehension, compared to math and grammar, is much more resistant to strategy attacks. Reading comp questions are like the cockroaches of the SAT world—nearly immune to pesticide (our tactics and strategies). The only way to truly and effectively conquer these pesky questions is the old fashion way: stomping them dead. By that I mean actually understanding what you’re reading—the fundamentals!
There is one glimmer of hope though, one saving grace, one strategy that I find pretty effective. It’s called “reading in chunks” rather than reading the passage all at once. I’ll talk more about that in a later post. However, that strategy alone without strong reading fundamentals will not help you much. Sad.
Anyways, never justify your answer (AKA try to convince yourself a particular answer is right). Instead, identify the wrong answers and…here’s the important part…WHY they are wrong. There are generally only a few reasons why something is wrong. Get rid of the notion right now that the SAT reading test is subjective. I’ve heard too often that the test is unfair because there can be two or three right answers depending on how you interpret or analyze the passage.
Here’s the thing. This ain’t English AP. This ain’t Ms. Holden’s British Literature class. This is the goddamn SAT, which isn’t about analysis or interpretation. It’s about understanding exactly what was said (in other words, reading comprehension). You aren’t going to be doing interpretation or analysis. (Okay, there might be ONE or TWO questions where you sorta, but not really, have to interpret, but that’s it.) Treat the reading test as one giant open book test where the answers are right in front of you, hidden in plain sight.
Don’t overthink things (AKA confuse yourself with impressive analysis). Don’t try to overreach with your analytical connections and impose your own thoughts, even if they are logical thoughts.
There can only be ONE right answer, otherwise the SAT would be sued up the wazoo, and the trick to getting the right answer is recognizing the wrong answers. Counterintuitive, no? Follow me here.
You must be able to explain WHY the four other choices are wrong. Explaining why the remaining choice is right is cool and oftentimes helpful but never as helpful as explaining why the other guys are wrong. The reason trying to find the right answer is the wrong method for the reading part of the SAT is that if you’re down to, say, two choices, they’re both still in the running because something looks right about each of them. Otherwise they wouldn’t still be up for debate. You could easily convince yourself one way or the other why one is right. But once you find something that is wrong, it’s game over for that choice.
- Not stated in the passage. Duh. The trap here is that some answer choices actually feel really logical and make sense to any smart-thinking student like yourself. But if it doesn’t say it directly in the passage, it’s wrong no matter how much that choice makes sense.
- Opposite of what’s stated in the passage. Duh again. But they will try to trick you by mentioning something you remember reading about, and then contradicting what the passage said. Even small discrepancies can mess up the whole game and meaning of an answer choice.
- Too extreme. Good writing is about grey areas, nuances, and subtleties. So the SAT probably isn’t going to make the right answer so black and white. Things like “extremely” or “absolutely” or “undoubtedly” or stuff along those lines are probably wrong. “Always” or “never” are usually bad too. The SAT is also part of the PC (politically correct) police, so controversial stuff probably isn’t right either.
- Too broad. Good writing is about being specific. So if one of the choices feels too general or vague, it’s probably wrong (unless the question is asking for the main idea). This answer choice might feel true in a general sense, but it’s just too broad.
- Too narrow. This choice might actually be true and stated in the passage. But it’s not the full reason, so it doesn’t completely answer the question.
- True, but unrelated. This choice might actually be true again and stated in the passage. Unfortunately, it’s unrelated to the question, so again, it’s wrong. This one is a killer because if you read the entire passage at once, you’ll have all these thoughts about various parts of the passage in your head jumbled up. The SAT loves to ask something about paragraph 3 but have an answer choice reminding you of something you read about in paragraph 5. This is why you reading the passage all at once can be detrimental.
- Only half true (or partially true). Remember, even if the rest of the choice is perfect, if there’s even ONE word that’s wrong, then the entire choice is wrong.
The answer choices themselves are not the only things to pay special attention to though. The question itself is quite deserving of your attention. Be wary of key words such as “primarily.” A choice might say “because Bobby was a smart guy.” There might actually be a specific incident in the passage where Bobby did something incredibly stupid like microwaving a metal fork. Many test takers would then say the choice is wrong because Bobby did that one stupid thing. But if the rest of the passage shows how smart Bobby was, then Bobby was “primarily” or “mostly” smart. You can’t cross this choice off as wrong anymore.
Again, don’t justify why something’s right…identify what’s wrong. It sucks that the SAT isn’t testing what you’ve been trained to do at school in English class (which is to analyze and interpret), so when you try to do what you’ve been trained to do, you actually get stuff wrong. But that’s why it’s important that we UNTRAIN you…and then retrain you for the SAT.
What I suggest (and this will take a lot longer in the beginning…by like tenfold) is to create a Word document with the following:
Have A, B, C, D, and E for each and every reading passage question. You’re going to need a lot of paper. When you answer a question, write down the reason why the four answers are wrong. Print out the list of wrong answer reasons and refer to it every question. Just leave the right answer’s slot blank.
It’ll end up looking something like this:
Getting the right answer is good, but it’s not enough. To become a master, you have to know why ALL the other choices are wrong. It’s not hard to get the right answer by looking for it in the easy questions, but my method is going to train you for those tough questions.
Parting thoughts on the right answer: the correct answer should feel right easily and effortlessly. You shouldn’t have to force it to feel right. You shouldn’t have to say, “Well, if I think about it from this angle, I can see how it’d work.” No. If you have to look at it crookedly for it to make sense, it’s probably wrong.
The right answer MUST BE SUPPORTED by the passage itself. That means you must be able to point to a specific word, phrase, or sentence(s) that led you to your answer. Don’t let yourself off the hook with “Oh, I got the overall sense that she was feeling scornful.” Instead, be able to point to a sentence that says, “Those theories are all hogwash. The pioneers of those schools of thoughts knew nothing.”
No matter how attractive or logical an answer choice sounds, if you can’t support it with the contents of the passage, then you can’t pick it.
Peter Peng is an SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at email@example.com.