Are You Ready for the SAT & ACT?

Conquering Hard Passages

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

On a standardized test, we usually have a whole passage to read, not just single paragraphs. Moreover, we have to answer questions about the passage, not just summarize it. Let’s look at how we can put all the tools we’ve learned so far together to make sense of a tough passage and answer the questions that go with it.

A passage is made of paragraphs, so let’s use the first tool we used on paragraphs to help make sense of a whole passage: Look at the topic sentence first. In the following passage, we’ll read just the topic sentences and see how much we can learn from them:

[1]

Until a few decades ago, lunar geologists generally believed that the craters on the moon were the product of volcanic activity. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah. Blah, blah blah, blah blah.

[2]

But further study suggests that craters on the moon cannot be explained the same way. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah, blah. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

[3]

Despite these differences, there is a remarkable similarity between these lunar craters and a particular crater in Arizona, which is unusual in that it originated not from volcanic activity, but rather from the impact of a meteorite. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah, blah. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah.

[4]

The moon is host to legions of craters parallel to the one in Arizona, and researchers now believe that they were produced by similar collisions. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah. Blah, blah blah, blah blah.

[5]

The largest lunar craters originate from impacts with meteorites much larger than the one that struck Arizona. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah, blah. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.

[6]

The collision of an object of this size with Earth would have dramatic consequences for the entire planet and all life on it. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah, blah. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah. Blabbety blah blah blah.

[7]

Even after the immediate effects of the strike had subsided, smoke and dust in the atmosphere would have blotted out the Sun and dramatically lowered temperatures over the following weeks. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah, blah. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.

You can learn a lot about a passage just by reading its topic sentences. Let’s look at the first sentence of the first paragraph.

Until a few decades ago, lunar geologists generally believed that the craters on the moon were the product of volcanic activity.

It starts out with a time transition: Until a few decades ago. Just by reading those first five words, we know that we’re going to read about a change. The rest of the sentence tells us what the old idea was: Geologists thought craters on the moon were made by volcanoes. But because the time transition indicated that there’s a change coming, we know that volcanoes didn’t make the craters. When we continue reading, we should be on the lookout for what the new idea is.

Now let’s look at the beginning of the second paragraph.

But further study suggests that craters on the moon cannot be explained the same way.

Just as we suspected—the old idea was wrong.

But that’s not all this sentence tells us! It both confirms what we already knew about the first paragraph, that it was about the old idea, and lets us know that this paragraph will be about the new idea.

Now we’re ready to tackle the third paragraph.

Despite these differences, there is a remarkable similarity between these lunar craters and a particular crater in Arizona, which is unusual in that it originated not from volcanic activity, but rather from the impact of a meteorite.

Again, this paragraph starts with a transition: despite these differences. That lets us know that the previous paragraph must have told us about some differences. And we already know what the differences have to do with: the old, wrong, idea about the craters and the new idea. More specifically, because we know what the old, wrong idea is, the differences are probably between volcanic craters and moon craters. But the word despite tells us that we are about to read about something that is not different.

Sure enough, the next part of the sentence mentions a similarity. The similarity is between the craters on the moon and a crater in Arizona. The last part of the sentence, the phrase starting with which, gives us more information about this one crater in Arizona. First, it tells us that it’s unusual. That goes along with everything else we’ve read so far, which has indicated change and difference. Second, we find out that this crater in Arizona was made by a meteorite, not a volcano.

Do you have any thoughts yet about where the moon craters came from? Remember, they were not made by volcanoes, so perhaps they were made by meteorites.

Here is the first sentence of the fourth paragraph.

The moon is host to legions of craters congruent to the one in Arizona, and researchers now believe that they were produced by similar collisions.

This sentence is harder to follow than the previous three, but remember your tools, focus on what you can understand, and let’s see what sense we can make of it. The second part, after the and, has easier vocabulary than the first part. Because and tells us that the two parts agree with each other, let’s start with the second part of the sentence. It says researchers now believe, so we are finally going to hear what that new idea is! The new idea is that they were produced by similar collisions. What are they? If we look back at the first part of the sentence, focusing on what we can understand, we see that they are moon craters.

Remember the prediction we made about the new idea that the moon craters were made by meteorites? Here is our confirmation of that prediction—the moon craters were made by similar collisions. Similar to what? Similar to the impact of a meteorite mentioned in the third paragraph.

Before moving on to the fifth paragraph, let’s take a moment to recap what we know so far.

• Geologists used to think craters on the moon were made by volcanoes.

• But they don’t think that anymore.

• There’s one crater in Arizona that was made by a meteorite that is similar to the moon craters.

• The new idea about the moon craters is that they were also made by meteorites.

Now let’s examine the first sentence of the fifth paragraph.

The largest lunar craters originated from impacts with meteorites much larger than the one that struck Arizona.

Unlike all the rest of the topic sentences we have looked at so far, there is no transition in this one. No transitions indicate that there’s no change in direction; in other words, this paragraph continues on in the same vein as the last paragraph, which was about how collisions with meteorites made the moon craters. This paragraph goes into more detail, telling us about the largest of the craters and the size of the meteorites that made them.

Moving on to the beginning of the sixth paragraph.

The collision of an object of this size with Earth would have monumental consequences for the entire planet and all life on it.

Again, there are no transitions in this sentence. It mentions an object of this size, which lets us know that the previous paragraph probably went on to talk in more detail about the large meteorites. This sentence introduces a new idea about impacts with meteorites, which is the possibility of a large meteorite hitting Earth. The topic sentence here tells us there would be big consequences for life on Earth if that were to happen, so what do you think the rest of the paragraph will discuss? It will probably address what those consequences would be.

Now let’s look at the topic sentence of the final paragraph.

Even after the immediate effects of the strike had subsided, smoke and dust in the atmosphere would have blotted out the Sun and dramatically lowered temperatures over the following weeks.

Finally, we have another transition: even after, which is a same direction transition; it tells us that there is no change here. We thought the previous paragraph was going to describe the consequences of a large meteorite hitting Earth, and this sentence confirms that idea because it refers to after the immediate effects. And when we read the second part of the sentence, it matches what the transition led us to expect: More bad stuff would happen as time went on.

Here’s our final summary of the passage, just based on what we learned from the topic sentences.

• Geologists used to think craters on the moon were made by volcanoes.

• But they don’t think that anymore, because moon craters are different from volcanic craters.

• There’s one crater in Arizona similar to the moon craters that was made by a meteorite.

• The new idea bout the moon craters is that they were also made by meteorites.

• Big craters on the moon were made by really big meteorites.

• If a really big meteorite hit Earth, it would have a big effect on all life.

• Both the immediate and the long-term effects would be bad.

Now that we have an introduction to this passage based on the topic sentences, let’s see how that can help us answer questions. Here’s the whole passage, plus five questions about it like you would see on a standardized test. There’s no need to read the whole passage before attacking the questions; we already have a pretty good idea of what it’s about. Go straight to the first question, and we’ll refer back to the passage as necessary to answer the questions.

This passage is adapted from the article “Who Moved My Cheese?: The Real Story of Lunar Craters” by John Spencer (© 2005 Astronomy Today).

1. In terms of the effect it would have on life on Earth, the impact of a large meteorite is described by the author as:

a)    instantaneously flattening Europe.

b)    as massive as an earthquake and a tsunami.

c)    similar to a rock splashing in a pond.

d)    producing cataclysmic results including earthquakes, wildfires, and acid rain.

Step 1: Find the relevant part of the passage. From our initial read-through of the topic sentences, we know that the discussion of a large meteorite hitting Earth occurs briefly in the third paragraph—in relation to the crater in Arizona—and then in more detail in the last two paragraphs. If we look more closely at exactly what the question is asking, it specifies the effect on life on Earth, which is what the sixth paragraph is about, and the seventh paragraph continues the discussion.

Step 2: Read the relevant part of the passage. Read the whole sixth and seventh paragraphs, using your cutting, simplifying, and detail-adding skills as necessary, then see which answer choice best matches what you read.

Step 3: Use Process of Elimination (POE).

Choice (a) uses words from the passage that you probably remember reading, and that you’re especially likely to remember reading if you’re not trying to figure out what the passage is actually saying. But the answer takes those words, instantaneouslyflatten, and Europe, and puts them together in the wrong way. The passage says “an area the size of Europe would have been almost instantaneously flatted,” not that Europe itself was flattened. This kind of answer appears frequently on standardized tests, so let’s call it “recycled language.” Eliminate choice (a).

Choice (b) is also recycled language; the passage tells us that “massive earthquakes and tsunamis would have quickly followed,” but the answer says that the impact would be “as massive as an earthquake and a tsunami.” Eliminate choice (b).

Choice (c) does not appear anywhere in the sixth paragraph (in fact, it refers to something in the third paragraph, but as long as you know it’s not in the part of the passage relevant to the question, you can still get rid of it). Eliminate choice (c).

Choice (d) tells us that the meteorite would produce earthquakes, wildfires, and acid rain, which matches the passage—earthquakes are mentioned in the sixth paragraph, and forest fires and acid rain in the seventh. We can use our simplifying tool with the answer choice to ignore the adjective “cataclysmic” at first if it’s confusing. It’s a good idea to double-check that it matches the passage. It appears toward the end of the seventh paragraph in the phrase this cataclysmic event. That refers to the large meteorite hitting Earth, so it also makes sense to use it to describe the effects of the event. Choice (d) is correct.

2. Based on the passage, what relationship does the divergence described in the second paragraph (lines 8–16) have to the possibility that lunar craters are volcanic?

a)    It proves that Craters of the Moon National Monument is made of pieces of moon rock that collided with Earth.

b)    It suggests that lunar craters are formed a different way than volcanic craters are.

c)    It indicates that the plateau-like volcanic landforms found on Earth approximate lunar craters.

d)    It calls into question the theory that the sharply conoidal craters on the moon were formed by volcanoes.

Step 1: Find the relevant part of the passage. This question tells us exactly where to go—the second paragraph.

Step 2: Read the relevant part of the passage. Read the second paragraph, paying particular attention to the divergence, because that’s what the question asks about. Remember what we already know about this paragraph: It tells us craters on the moon are not volcanic because they’re different from craters on Earth. There’s a description of craters on Earth in this paragraph, then a sentence that starts with conversely, which tells us that it’s going to say something different. This sentence and the next describe what craters on the moon usually look like.

Step 3: POE

Choice (a) is recycled language, but not even language recycled from this paragraph. Craters of the Moon National Monument is in the first paragraph, and collisions with Earth are discussed later. Eliminate choice (a).

Choice (b) seems pretty good. Volcanic craters, we know from reading the topic sentences, are not what the lunar craters are. Be sure to check all four answer choices before making a final decision, though! Don’t eliminate choice (b).

Choice (c) has some recycled language: plateau-like appears in this paragraph, but it describes craters on the moon, not “volcanic landforms on Earth.” If something in an answer choice obviously contradicts the passage, you don’t need to look at the rest of it. Eliminate choice (c).

Choice (d) tries the same trick that choice (c) does. This time, the phrases conoidal craters and formed by volcanoes are used to describe craters on the moon, but we know those are actually characteristics of craters on Earth. Eliminate choice (d).

Choice (b) is correct.

3. The main point of the first paragraph (lines 1–7) is that:

a)    scientists’ theories about lunar craters have changed.

b)    Craters of the Moon National Monument was named for its similarity to the moon.

c)    lunar craters are a different shape than most terrestrial craters.

d)    the name of Craters of the Moon National Monument should be changed because its craters do not actually look like those on the moon.

Step 1: Find the relevant part of the passage. Again, this question tells you where to go in the passage—the first paragraph.

Step 2: Read the relevant part of the passage. Remember what we already know about the first paragraph: Geologists used to think that craters on the moon were formed by volcanoes, but they were wrong. The rest of the paragraph has some hard vocabulary, but the word exemplarindicates that Craters of the Moon National Monument is an example of the old idea. Therefore, the idea expressed in the topic sentence is the main point of the paragraph.

Step 3: POE

Choice (a) matches what we know about the first paragraph: Geologists’ ideas about lunar craters have changed. Don’t eliminate choice (a), but we should still read all the other choices, just to be sure this one is the best choice.

Choice (b) matches what the passage says. According to the old idea described in the first paragraph, craters on the moon were similar to volcanic craters on Earth, and that’s what gave the monument its name. But even if you didn’t understand much of the paragraph, you know that the main point of the paragraph is that the old idea was that craters on the moon were formed by volcanoes, and the National Monument is an example of that. This choice is a detail of the paragraph, not its main point. Eliminate choice (b).

Choice (c) refers to the second paragraph, not the first. Eliminate choice (c).

Choice (d) is somewhat similar to choice (b), and also contains words out of context. Craters of the Moon National Monument is mentioned in the first paragraph, but is not the main point. The paragraph also doesn’t say anything about changing its name. Eliminate choice (d).

Choice (a) is correct.

4. Lines 23–27 mainly emphasize what quality?

a)    The effect of a stone striking the surface of a pond

b)    The temperature of a meteorite as it enters Earth’s atmosphere

c)    The immediate physical results of a large meteorite colliding with the surface of Earth.

d)    The characteristic shape of a crater formed by the impact of a meteorite on the surface of Earth.

Step 1: Find the relevant part of the passage. Once again, the question directs you to a specific spot—part of the third paragraph.

Step 2: Read the relevant part of the passage. Read the whole third paragraph. We already know that it discusses a crater in Arizona that’s similar to craters on the moon. The lines specified in the question tell us that a meteorite hitting Earth would be hot, and would act like a stone hitting the surface of a pond.

Step 3: POE

Choice (a) is in the passage. But the word like before the stone is mentioned indicates that it’s a simile for the meteorite. The phrase such an object at the beginning of line 22 refers back to the meteorite. The description of the stone is there to illustrate what happened when the meteorite hit Earth. The impact of the meteorite is the main focus here, not the stone. Eliminate choice (a).

Choice (b) is also not the main focus. The passage tells us that the meteorite would be hot, but it’s only part of a larger description. Eliminate choice (b).

Choice (c) is okay. Immediate physical results—this paragraph talks about “catapulting liquid material upward and outward.” That seems pretty physical. Don’t eliminate choice (c), but be sure to check choice (d) before making a final decision.

Choice (d) refers to the wrong paragraph; characteristic shape refers to the second paragraph, not the third. The third paragraph talks about dimensions, but not shape. Eliminate choice (d).

Choice (c) is correct.

5. The author characterizes the similarity between lunar craters and sports stadiums as:

a)    proof that lunar craters are not volcanic and terrestrial craters are not formed by meteorites.

b)    evidence that a theory may be incorrect.

c)    a reason to start a football league on the moon.

d)    an indication that lunar craters are formed by meteorites.

Step 1: Find the relevant part of the passage. We know from answering question 2 that sports stadiums are part of the description of craters on the moon in the second paragraph.

Step 2: Read the relevant part of the passage. Review the second paragraph. Even if you don’t understand all the words, use what you do know to understand what it says about sports stadiums. The third sentence describes the shape of craters on Earth and says that they are formed by volcanoes. The fourth sentence talks about lunar craters. We know from the transition conversely at the beginning of this sentence that the lunar craters are a different shape than craters on Earth. The words more closely approximates might be hard to understand, but we can reasonably assume that they describe the shape of craters on the moon, and the sports stadium is part of that description.

Step 3: POE

We know that this paragraph talks about the new idea, which is that craters on the moon are not formed by volcanoes.

Choice (a) matches that, but we haven’t read anything about meteorites yet. The word proof is also very strong, and this paragraph tells us that further study suggests, which is not quite proofEliminate choice (a).

Choice (b) is closer: evidence better matches the sense of further study suggests. While the rest of the answer, a theory may be incorrect, is vague, there’s nothing about it that contradicts what the second paragraph discusses. Don’t eliminate choice (b).

Choice (c) comes out of nowhere. Sure, the passage mentions a sports stadium, but there’s nothing about football, and especially nothing about football on the moon. Eliminate choice (c).

Choice (d) is similar to part of choice (a); we haven’t read about meteorites yet. This paragraph tells us that the old idea is wrong, but hasn’t yet told us what the new idea is. Eliminate choice (d).

Choice (b) is correct.