SAT Literature Subject Test

Part II

Cracking the SAT Literature Subject Test

Chapter 4

Test Strategies

In this chapter, you’ll learn some general test strategies, from determining how many and which passages to attack—and in what order—to the power of Process of Elimination, eliminating careless errors, knowing how and when to guess, and getting your answers onto the score sheet.


The Princeton Review has developed effective and time-saving strategies to optimize your study time and improve your score. Some of the strategies will be unfamiliar at first, or you may not be convinced that they’ll work. But give them a try—our methods have improved thousands of scores.

Don’t Rush

Some students think they need to finish every question to get a good score on the SAT Literature Subject Test. Not at all. Don’t be afraid to skip a few questions as you go along. You don’t get any more points for answering hard questions than you do for answering easy ones, so there’s no reason to bust your, well, you know. If you race through the test, you run the risk of making careless errors, misreading questions, or not choosing the right answers, when spending just a little more time on the questions would have gotten you those crucial extra points instead of those quarter-points off.

No Loitering

Don’t linger too long on 
any one question—it’s 
worth only one point!

On the flipside, you don’t want to linger on any one question for too long. Don’t get bogged down by one complicated or difficult question. It only takes away from time you can use to answer easier questions. If you come across a stumper, eliminate obviously wrong answers and take an educated guess. If you really can’t eliminate anything, skip it completely. Move on to a question that you know you can get right.

Since the questions are not in order of difficulty, it is up to you to decide which questions look hard and which look easy. Go ahead and judge a book by its cover. If the question looks hard to you, reminds you of an unpleasant childhood experience, or nauseates you, skip it. You can always return to it if you have time.

In other words, pace yourself. Don’t go too fast or too slow. Consult this handy chart to see how many questions you can leave blank and still get the score you want.

Scoring Chart


Now that you see that you don’t need to answer every question to get a good score, let’s discuss how to choose your battles wisely.

You are taking the test—the test is not taking you. You have 60 minutes to take this exam. So don’t waste time on a passage you hate and then never get to a really great passage you would have loved tackling (love, of course, being a relative term—we understand it’s a standardized test). Think about the types of passages you like and those on which you tend to score highest. If poetry is the first passage on the test, and poetry is your weak area, move on to a selection you feel more comfortable with and come back to the poetry passage later. You’ll get that all-important boost of confidence right away. Sixty minutes is not a long time (although it’s the entire life span of some insects). It’s a sprint, not a marathon. Try to hit your stride in the first five minutes, not halfway through.

Decide in which order you want to tackle the passages. Is prose, poetry, or drama your strong suit? Are you more comfortable with contemporary passages, or do you like older themes? Do you appreciate the sparseness of poetry? The flow of prose? Poems about nature? Excerpts from stories? Knowing what you’re good at will help you choose which questions to do as you come to them and which questions to shelve until later. For example, if you’re a slow reader, get shorter passages out of the way first.

At this point, decide what kind of question you want to do. There’s no law that says you have to go in order. Skip Roman numeral questions until later (more on these in Chapter 5). If you come across a word you’re not familiar with, save that question for later; do something that’s easy instead. There’s bound to be something that looks a little better. Nothing feels better than getting questions right at the start. If you meet more challenging questions later in the test, who cares? You’re allowed to leave some blank anyway.

Once you’ve decided which questions to do, how do you go about getting the answers right? The following is a discussion of general strategies for multiple-choice tests. Feel free to apply these techniques to other standardized tests you may take.

Eliminate and Guess

You may have heard that you get penalized for guessing on the New SAT and the SAT Subject Tests. This is only partly true. The test administrators dock you 1/4 of a point for wrong answers, but that doesn’t mean you should leave an answer blank if you absolutely aren’t 100 percent sure it’s correct. If this worries you, let’s say you must take “educated guesses.” That sounds like an intelligent plan. How does this benefit you?

You may be tempted to leave blanks when you don’t know the answers, but a little examination of ETS’s scoring system should convince you to blacken those ovals a bit more frequently than you have in the past.

Let’s say that when the test begins, you have the overwhelming urge to take a nap. You put your head down on the desk and close your eyes, only to awaken when the proctor announces that there are five minutes remaining in the test. Wiping the drool from the side of your mouth, you decide to take your chances and fill in the same letter all the way down. In a statistically perfect world, you would probably get about one in five questions correct (and the Chicago Cubs would occasionally win the World Series).

Here’s why.

12 right = 12 points 
48 wrong =  point off for every wrong answer =  = 12
Number right – number wrong = 12 - 12 = 0
0 works out to a scaled score of 300.

So ETS has achieved its goal—a monkey (or a nap-prone student) trained to fill in choice (C) all the way down the page gets a score of 300. The point is: You’re not penalized for making random guesses. In fact, nothing happens when you guess.

Now let’s say you wake up from your nap and have enough time to eliminate one obviously wrong answer to each question (never mind logistics, we’re doing statistics here). With one sucky answer gone, you now have a one-in-four chance of getting the answer right.

So out of 60 questions you get:

15 right = 15 points
45 wrong =  point off for every wrong answer =  = 11.25
Number right – number wrong = 15 - 11.25 = 3.75
3.75 works out to a scaled score of 340.

This score will not get you to the Ivy League, but remember, every extra point earns you approximately 10 points on the scaled score. In other words, if you get one right and then three wrong, you’re still up a quarter of a point. Four of those earns you one whole extra point.

Did we lose you on the math stuff? After all, we’re supposed to be studying for the SAT Literature Subject Test, right? It all boils down to this:

Any time you can eliminate even one wrong answer, you must guess,

even if the other answers don’t make any sense to you at all. It’s mathematically proven.


Process of Elimination (POE) is your weapon of mass destruction, if you will. If you’re good at POE, you never have to know the right answer to a question. You just have to be able to identify the wrong answers. For example:

   3. Lines 47 of the poem are a good example of

(A)   French cheese

(B)    tap-dancing shoes

(C)    prize-winning barbecue technology

(D)    clean socks

(E)    synecdochical symbolism

Although slightly silly, the question illustrates the idea: If you know what the answer can’t be, you are left with the correct answer by default. (Don’t worry; you don’t have to know what “synecdochical” is.)

Cross Out Wrong Answers

This may seem too obvious for words, but it’s extremely important. A lot of students get lazy and just read down the list until they get to an answer they like. Don’t be this student. In your test booklet (not your answer sheet!), put a line through the letter of each answer you eliminate. Get into this habit early, so it will be second nature to you by the time the test date rolls around. Imagine yourself at the end of this test. It is your third test today. You’re very tired. Your brain is reeling. It would be easy to make a mistake and pick an answer you’ve already eliminated or fall for a trick answer in the same way that vulnerable kids get persuaded to join the wrong crowd. So put lines through the letters of the answer choices you’ve eliminated, and don’t give in to peer pressure.

If an answer is clearly wrong, cross it out. If you have no clue what is meant by an answer choice, put a question mark (?) next to the letter. If you like an answer, put a check mark (✓) next to it. If you really like it, put two check marks (✓✓).

Thus, a sample answer set might look like this:

✓    (A) I like this answer.

       (B) This answer is wrong.

?     (C) I don’t understand this answer.

       (D) This answer is wrong.

✓✓    (E) I really love this answer.

Once you’ve cleared the proverbial air of bad answers, you can make an educated guess among the choices that are left.


Trap answers are those that ETS puts into the answer choices to try to trick you. They look like great answers because ETS thinks it knows how you think and teases you with an answer that off the top of your head might look right. On hard questions, be suspicious of easy answers. Look for a trick. Here’s an example:

24. As it is used in the passage, the word “rare” 
(line 22) means

(A)   uncommon

(B)   rude

(C)   exaggerated

(D)   undercooked

(E)   irrelevant

The average test taker would see the word “rare” and, knowing it means “undercooked,” pick (D). But think: The question begins with the words “As it is used in this passage …” This is not a vocabulary test; it’s a test of reading and interpreting literature. Even if you’ve never seen the word “rare” before, you will probably be able to tell its meaning from the context. Without the passage in front of you now it’ll be hard to figure out, but the correct answer is (A), “uncommon,” a secondary definition of “rare.”


Unlike sections of the SAT or the Math SAT Subject Tests, the SAT Literature Subject Test does not have an order of difficulty. Some passages are more challenging than others, and within each passage, some questions are more challenging than others. If you feel uncertain about the answer to a question, circle the question number and return later. Sometimes after you’ve answered simpler questions on a passage, the difficult ones make more sense. If you’re still uncertain after you’ve finished the passage, move on. Return when you’ve completed the other passages. Nothing is worse than struggling with a difficult passage early in the test, only to discover that the most accessible passage was lurking at the end.

Skip to Your Lou

Be ready to skip 

On the second pass, do the questions you skipped the first time. If you want, you can do three or four passes, but don’t spend too much time deciding on the difficulty level of a question. You should be able to tell within a second or two.

Shirk Work

Each test has at least ten questions that 60 percent of students get wrong. Don’t bother with these questions unless you have extra time—they’re not worth it.

You can also do multiple passes within a passage. Sometimes doing the fifth or sixth question in a passage gives you a better idea of what the second question in the passage is asking. We’ll talk more about this in Chapter 5.

Don’t neglect to keep track of your time. Look at how many questions there are for each passage. If you’re trying to decide between two passages at the end, you might want to opt for the one with more questions so you don’t have to read two passages. Or you may opt for the passage that has easier questions (usually specific or line-reference questions, not general or reasoning questions).


Bubbling is the art of transferring your answers onto the score sheet. When you bubble, be sure to fill in the oval completely so that the computer can give you the credit you deserve. When skipping around, pay special attention to where you bubble. It is a horrible feeling to get to question 55 and realize you’ve just bubbled the answer for 54. It’s like misbuttoning your shirt, only worse.

Circle the letter of your 
answer in the test book.

There are two methods you can use to ensure you’re bubbling in the right place. Pick one, and stick with it, and you’ll never get lost bubbling again.

Method 1: The Rat Pack

Bubble the answers to each passage. Answer all the questions for one passage in the test booklet by circling the letter. Save up your answers, and every time you get to the end of a passage, transfer your answers to the bubbles on the score sheet.

Method 2: The Worry Wart

Answer questions directly on the bubble sheet. Every time you do a multiple of ten, check back to make sure that your answers correspond to the questions you did. Then you’ll never be more than ten questions out of whack. This method takes more of your precious time, but if you’re prone to misbuttoning your shirt, or making bubbling mistakes, use this.

It doesn’t matter which method you use, as long as you pick one and stay with it. It’s important to have a reliable system in place BEFORE test day.


Did you get all that?

•   Slow down.

•   Order the passages.

•   Make educated guesses.

•   Use Process of Elimination (POE).

•   Avoid trap answers.

•   Skip challenging passages and/or questions.

•   Bubble wisely.