SAT Literature Subject Test

Part II

Cracking the SAT Literature Subject Test

Chapter 5

Test Strategies for the SAT Literature Subject Test

This chapter familiarizes you with each type of question that appears on the test and with the 
best strategies to answer specific, general, and trap questions correctly.


You may have noticed that the SAT Literature Subject Test bears a startling resemblance to the Critical Reading section of the SAT. This is a good thing—it means you may already be familiar with the test format. The main difference between the SAT Critical Reading section and the SAT Literature Subject Test is that the latter does not contain sentence completion questions and does contain poetry. There’s less of an emphasis on vocabulary (except for literary terms—we’ll get to those in Chapter 6) and more of an emphasis on inference and interpretation questions on the SAT Literature Subject Test. This means that the answers you need are in the passages. They may be buried or confusingly worded, but they are in there. So the SAT Literature Subject Test is like an open-book exam.

It’s important to remember that often you won’t see an answer you love. That’s okay. You’re not necessarily looking for the “right” answer; the interpretation of literature is subjective. What you are looking for is the answer that stinks the least. The “least worst” answer is the one you want. If you remember this, you’ll find yourself a lot less frustrated. There’s bound to be one answer choice that’s better than the others, and that will be the correct response to the question. We’ll discuss the approach for how to READ the passages when we get to the specific chapters for each type of passage (Prose, Poetry, Drama).

There’s No Right
or Wrong

Look for the best answer, 
not the right answer.


1.   Look at the date. Is the passage modern or old? If you recognize the passage, try to recall what you know about the author. For instance, you may recognize the passage as part of a Dickens novel. Even if you don’t remember what the novel was about, you remember that Dickens wrote a lot about the plight of the urban poor in nineteenth-century England. Any answer that talks about overseas trade or farming is not going to be correct. Similarly, classical literature usually explores themes of love, love lost, beauty, or death. Modern passages are more likely to be about racism, coming of age, individual rights, or technology.

2.   Read the passage. You don’t have to study it carefully, just read enough to know what is basically going on in the passage. Remember: You can (and must) go back to the passage when you answer the questions, so you’re just reading to get a sense of where to find the answer when it comes time to search for it. You should read just closely enough so that you can summarize the main theme and tone.

Theme and Tone

Theme is a unifying idea that is a recurrent element in a literary or artistic work. One of Shakespeare’s favorite themes is unrequited love.

Tone is the manner of expression, the quality or sound of a person’s voice or writing. For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is written in a very humorous and informal tone.

3.   Select a question. Questions come in three types: specific questions (line-reference, almost-line-reference, and vocabulary-in-context questions), general questions, and trap questions. Questions are usually worded in ETS-speak. That means they have extra words or a complicated structure to confuse you. Get rid of this verbiage by translating the question into your own words. Simplify things by rephrasing the question so that it begins with who, what, where, when, why, or how.

4.   Return to the passage. Always go back to the passage to find the answer to the question. Don’t rely on your memory of the passage; make sure you can point to the answer in the text.

5.   Answer in your own words. If you don’t use your own words, you won’t know exactly what you’re looking for in the answer choices. When you’ve got the answer in your own words, turn to the answer choices and look for a match.

You’re the Man/Woman

Use your own words to 
answer the question.

6.   Use Process of Elimination (POE). Get rid of bad answers— answers that don’t match YOUR answer. Once you’ve eliminated the wrong answers, you’re left with the right one!

Specific Questions

Line-Reference Questions

Specific questions generally take the least time. They usually give a specific line reference for you to find. Read a few lines above and below the reference in the passage, and answer the question IN YOUR OWN WORDS.

Drill #1

Here are some examples of line-reference questions. Try putting the questions in your own words.

  1.    Which of the following best restates the meaning of lines 3-4?

  2.    The second quoted sentence (lines 7-10) is characterized chiefly by

  3.    The speaker’s tone in lines 11-15 is

  4.    The simile of the distant shadow (line 29) suggests

  5.    In lines 27-30, the narrator can be best described as

  6.    In describing the response of the “careless birds” (line 30) to the “venerable hunter” (line 34), the author suggests that they

Answers can be found on this page.

The reason that these questions often take less time to answer than others is that they tell you exactly where to look for the answer. Generally, specific questions are in chronological order, so that a question about line 4 will come before a question about line 17.

Vocabulary-in-Context Questions

Vocabulary-in-context questions ask you what a word means. This will almost always test a secondary or tertiary (third) meaning of a word or a word that has changed meaning since the original text was written.

If you come across one of these questions, go back to the text and cross out the word. Then write in your own word for the word on which you’re being tested. Go through the answer choices, and pick the one that best matches your word.

Don’t carelessly go directly to the answer choices and choose a synonym for the word in the question. That will most likely generate the wrong answer.

       In context, the meaning of the word “favored” (line 20) is closest to

First, translate the question: What does “favored” mean?

Return to the passage. Line 20 says, “Clearly Amahl favored his father; it was almost as though his mother was not involved in his birth.” Read a few lines above and below to make sure you get the context. Cross out the word “favor.” Replace it with something like “looked like.” Now go through the answer choices:

(A)   resembled

(B)   presented

(C)   was partial to

(D)   prioritized

(E)   supported

Choice (A) best matches the words we supplied, so it is the correct answer. (Note that the word “favored” usually means “privileged”—a wrong answer!)

Almost-Line-Reference Questions

Sometimes questions are line-reference questions in disguise. They don’t mention a specific line number, but nonetheless offer clues as to where you can find the answer. Usually there’s one word or phrase that will help:

       13.    The author mentions Vanity Fair in order to

Here, just scan the text for the words Vanity Fair (conveniently italicized). Then reread the passage—five lines above and five lines below—for the context.

       58.    Sue Anne considers the Bali tariffs unfair because

Now you’ll have to scan the text for the word “Sue Anne” or “Bali” or “tariffs.” Other than the fact that no line number is given, this question is still a line-reference question, and the answer should be relatively easy to locate in the passage.

General Questions

General questions ask about the theme or structure, tone, or style of the piece as a whole. They may or may not ask a question about the attitude of a character, the author, or the author’s intentions. Pick an answer only if you can point to the specific place in the text that supports your answer. (If your justification is “I don’t know where, but I feel like it’s in there,” you’re probably not choosing the right answer, or you need to look harder in the text.)

Point It Out

Make sure you can point 
to the answer in the text.

If you answer these questions after you answer specific questions, you should have a good idea of what the passage is about—you may not even have to go back to the text. Don’t worry if you need to consult the passage, however. That’s what it’s there for.

One trick to watch out for is the old theme-versus-structure question. Theme questions ask about what the passage is trying to say. Structure questions ask about how it’s being said.

Kissing Cousins

Watch out for the 
difference between theme and 

Some theme questions:

         2.    The primary theme of the poem is

       16.    The passage is primarily concerned with

       34.    Mr. Beetlegeuse’s attitude in the passage can best be described as

Some structure questions:

       12.    The structure of the narrative can best be described as

       55.    The author uses incomplete sentences most likely to

       60.    The two stanzas are most different in that they

Don’t try to answer a structure question with a theme answer.

The procedure for approaching general questions is the same as for specific ones: Translate the question, find the answer in the passage, put the answer in your own words, and use POE.

Trap Questions

Trap questions come in two flavors: NOT/LEAST/EXCEPT and Roman numeral. They are usually (although not always) harder than other types of questions. They are also considered time suckers, and are best skipped. Glance at them to see if they are easy or hard, and don’t be afraid to come back to them at the end or to leave them blank.


Whenever you see a NOT/LEAST/EXCEPT question, circle the word that is capitalized so you don’t forget that this question is inside out. Instead of finding one right answer, you are looking for the one wrong answer. Avoid careless errors by writing a “T” for “True” next to each answer choice that is correct or true, and an “F” for “False” next to the ones that are incorrect or untrue. You should end up with four of one letter and one of the other. That one is the right answer.

For example:

22.  All of the following are true of bunny rabbits EXCEPT

T   (A)  They have four legs

T   (B)  They are soft

T   (C)  They eat carrots

F   (D)  They have wings

T   (E)  They have long ears

Because answer choice (D) is the only “F,” it is the correct answer.

Roman Numeral Questions

Roman numeral questions are three questions rolled into one. Here’s an example:

23.  The author suggests that bunny rabbits are

  I.   Good pets

 II.   Yxzmkls

III.   Smaller than most dogs

(A)   I only

(B)   II only

(C)   III only

(D)   I and III only

(E)   II and III only

Go through your options one by one. It’s not a bad idea to begin with the Roman numeral that appears most frequently or with the one you know is true. In this case, you know that rabbits are good pets because you’ve read the passage. So Roman numeral I has to be in the answer. Right away you can get rid of (B), (C), and (E) because they don’t contain “I.” Now, be smart. The only choices that are left involve I and III. All you have to do is see if III is true. Don’t even worry about II (good news, because you don’t know what Yxzmkls means). So go back to the passage and see if bunnies are smaller than most dogs. They are. Choice (D) is the correct answer.

If you do this carefully, you can avoid doing extra work. You may not need to try every Roman numeral, just a couple of them. This will save you time and effort.

Drill #2

Make sure you can answer the following questions before you move on.

What are the eight steps for tackling questions?









What are the three kinds of questions on the SAT Literature Subject Test?




What are the two kinds of trap questions on the SAT Literature Subject Test?



Answers can be found on this page.


Make sure you can

•   differentiate between specific and general questions

•   identify the type of question: line reference, almost line reference, vocabulary in context, general, NOT/LEAST/EXCEPT, and Roman numeral questions

•   quickly decide which questions to do first

•   handle trap questions