The SAT Prep Black Book
SAT PASSAGE-BASED READING
The Big Secret Of SAT Passage-Based Reading
In order for the College Board to develop Passage-Based Reading questions that would function properly on a multiple-choice test, it had to overcome a pretty big problem: it needed a way to ask questions about literature that weren’t subjective, so that each question would only have one legitimate, objective answer.
So the College Board had to find a way to eliminate interpretation from the process of answering questions about a text. That way, they could write questions that would ask students to talk about a text while still using the multiple choice format in a valid, meaningful way.
If you think about it, there’s only way you can possibly talk about a text without interpreting it—and this one way of talking about a text is the big secret of the SAT Critical Reading section. It applies to both the Passage-Based Reading questions and the Sentence Completion questions, as we’ll see later on.
The only way to talk about a text without interpreting it is to restate it without changing the meaning. (I put that in italics because it’s really important.)
In other words, believe it or not, we’ll find that the correct answer to every single question on the Critical Reading section of the SAT is spelled out somewhere on the page.
(At this point, if you’ve ever taken the SAT before, or ever had any kind of traditional SAT preparation, you’re probably shaking your head angrily and cursing me for lying to you about the test. But trust me on this: the correct answers to SAT Critical Reading questions always function by restating relevant ideas from the text, and the incorrect answers are always wrong because they fail to restate ideas from the text.)
This might sound a little ridiculous, but let’s think about this from the College Board’s standpoint:
1. The College Board needs the SAT to include multiple-choice questions about passages.
2. The College Board needs to avoid any ambiguity and interpretation in order for the SAT to fulfill its role as a legitimate, reliable standardized test. (See my blog article on the purpose of standardized tests for more on this, at www.TestingIsEasy.com)
3. The only way to discuss a text without interpreting it is to restate it.
All of this leads to one conclusion:
4. The College Board has designed the correct answer choices on the SAT Critical Reading section to restate the texts.
At this point, you might be wondering something very important: if it really is as simple as I say, how can it be that so many intelligent people take the test every year without ever noticing that the correct answer to each question says exactly the same thing as the text they’re reading?
This is a very good question. There are five reasons why most test-takers never notice how Passage-Based Reading questions work, and you need to know them are so you can prevent them from affecting you negatively:
1. Most students aren’t even looking for an answer choice to be stated directly in the text.
Most SAT-takers are used to analyzing everything they read the way an English teacher would want, so when they read the passages on the SAT they try to analyze them automatically. In other words, most test-takers wouldn’t even notice if an answer choice restated the text, because it never occurs to them to look for that. This is just one more way in which most test-takers are their own worst enemies.
2. The College Board deliberately phrases questions to make you think you should use subjective interpretation to find the answer.
If you’ve ever seen any real College Board reading questions, you’ve definitely seen that they use words like “primarily,” “probably,” “suggests,” and so on, like this: “The author’s use of the word ‘miscreant’ in line 14 primarily suggests which of the following?” The College Board deliberately phrases questions in this way to mislead you and get you to interpret the text. They want you to think that two or three answer choices might all be equally reasonable. So we have to learn to ignore words like “primarily” and “suggests.” That’s right: we ignore those words completely. When I read a question like “In line 10, the author primarily suggests which of the following?” I treat that question as though it said, “Which of the following ideas appears directly in the text somewhere close to line 10?”
3. We sometimes have to be extremely particular about the exact meanings of words, both in the text and in the answer choice.
The College Board can get very picky about the specific meanings of words. As a result, test-takers often conclude, incorrectly, that more than one answer choice restates the passage. One classic example of this from a real SAT involved a text that mentioned dolphins sharing certain abilities with “very few animals”—one of the wrong answers said dolphins had “unique” talents. But the answer with “unique” was wrong, because the word “unique” doesn’t just mean that something is rare: in the strictest sense of the word, “unique” means that something is literally “one-of-a-kind,” and unlike anything else. In a school setting, if you used the word “unique” in a loose way to mean “rare,” most teachers wouldn’t notice or care. But on the SAT, the difference between “unique” and “rare” can be the difference between right and wrong. So if you want to make a perfect score on the Reading section, you’ll have to learn to attack every single word that you read, and you’ll have to make sure you’re only considering exactly what the word means, instead of working from your generalized assumptions about what it might mean, or what you think it implies. The College Board splits hairs when it comes to these things, and if you want to score high you’ll have to learn to split them too.
4. Test-takers are sometimes mistaken about what words mean.
No matter how strong your vocabulary is, there are some words that you use incorrectly. I promise you this—it happens to all of us. Sometimes the differences are subtle. For example, I once had a student who mistakenly thought that “shrewd” had a strong negative connotation. He correctly understood that it involved being clever and intelligent, but incorrectly thought that it indicated a certain type of calculating evil. For this reason, he didn’t pick an answer choice with the word “shrewd” since he didn’t see anything in the text that reflected a negative connotation, and he missed the question. On the other hand, sometimes the differences are huge, and a little embarrassing—I always thought the word “pied” meant something like “renowned” or “famous,” because of the story of the Pied Piper. But it actually means that a person wears clothes made of patches and rags. Needless to say, I drew a complete blank when a test question mentioned the word “pied” and my understanding of that word didn’t match with anything on the page. Don’t think that memorizing vocabulary words will help correct these issues—for reasons I’ll discuss later, memorizing vocab might even contribute to making more of them. Just know that it’s something you might be confronted with at some point. If you’re looking at a question and none of the answer choices seems to restate the passage, the bottom line is that you’ve made a mistake somewhere.
5. The College Board has a special rule that it sometimes invokes.
On the Critical Reading section of the SAT, the College Board will treat two ideas expressed in quick succession as though they are perfectly synonymous; if there is a negating word between those two ideas, the College Board will treat those ideas as though they are perfect antonyms. This probably doesn’t make any sense right now, but we’ll explore it in more detail later on. I just wanted to mention this issue now to make you aware of it. (By the way, this issue only comes up a few times at most on any given test, so it’s not something you need to be tremendously concerned about.)
So those are the five major reasons that most test-takers never realize that the correct answers to Passage-Based Reading questions function by directly restating the relevant portion of the text. I’ll list them again briefly, for review:
1. Test-takers aren’t even looking for restatements in the first place.
2. The College Board deliberately misleads you by using subjective phrasing.
3. You have to be extremely particular about what words actually mean.
4. Sometimes your understanding of a word you think you know might be flawed.
5. The College Board treats two ideas as synonyms if they’re stated one right after another.
Now that we’ve covered the Big Secret Of SAT Reading, which is that the correct answers to all SAT Reading questions must be spelled out on the page, you might be wondering what the wrong answers do.
Well, simply put, the wrong answers are the ones that don’t restate the passage. And the ways that they fail to restate the passage are standardized, just like every other important detail of the test, so it can be very beneficial for us to know the various ways that wrong answers tend to relate back to the text on the SAT. Let’s take a look at those in the next section.
What Do Wrong Answers Do?
We’ve already seen that the right answer to a Passage-Based Reading question on the SAT will restate the ideas from the relevant portion of the passage. But what will wrong answers do?
Broadly speaking, wrong answers are wrong because they fail to restate the relevant portion of the passage. But there are a handful of ways that the College Board creates these wrong answers—that is, there are certain specific ways in which wrong answers fail to restate the passage exactly. And it can be very helpful for us to know what those ways are.
For the purposes of illustration, we’ll use a fake question and fake wrong answers. In other words, what you see below did NOT come from a real College Board source. It came from my head. But I constructed it in the same ways that the College Board constructs its wrong answers. And later on, I’ll demonstrate my methods in action against real questions from the College Board’s Blue Book (remember, you should only ever practice with real test questions from the College Board itself).
Okay, so let’s pretend our fake sample question reads like this:
According to the citation, research suggests that Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals because
And let’s pretend that the relevant citation is this part of the text:
. . . Researchers have shown that Benjamin Franklin’s sister was visually impaired, which might explain the amount of energy that Franklin invested in the invention of bifocals. . . .
(By the way, as far as I know, Benjamin Franklin’s sister had nothing to do with the invention of bifocals. In fact, I don’t even know if he had a sister at all. It’s an example—just go with it.)
Here are some of the various wrong answer types we might see for this kind of question.
Wrong Answer Type 1: Extra Information
In this wrong answer we find some information that was mentioned in the citation, and some information that was never mentioned in the citation at all.
his sister was having difficulty seeing the equipment that she used to run her dress shop.
In this example, the wrong answer adds information about the specific problems that the sister was having with her vision. The text never said that Franklin’s sister was specifically having trouble seeing equipment in a dress shop—just that she was having trouble seeing in general.
Wrong Answer Type 2: Direct Contradiction
This type of wrong answer directly contradicts something in the citation.
his sister’s perfect vision served as an inspiration.
Here, the wrong answer choice contradicts the cited fact that the sister has poor vision.
Wrong Answer Type 3: Complete Irrelevance
This type of wrong answer has absolutely nothing to do with the cited text. These wrong answers can actually be very tempting to a lot of test-takers. People can’t believe the SAT would offer them an answer choice that’s obviously wrong, but that’s exactly what the test does. Remember, too, that a lot of test-takers are interpreting the text as though it were a piece of literature in an English class, and most students are taught in school not to reject any interpretation completely. So the College Board exploits your natural tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to anything that doesn’t directly contradict the text by providing some wrong answers that have nothing to do with the text whatsoever.
he wanted to revolutionize the way society viewed glasses.
This wrong answer has nothing to do with anything mentioned in the citation. Once we know that the correct answer must be spelled out directly in the passage, it’s usually pretty easy to eliminate these irrelevant choices from consideration—but for the majority of test-takers, who have no idea how the SAT works, these kinds of irrelevant answer choices can often be quite tempting.
Wrong Answer Type 4: Confused Concepts
This type of wrong answer uses a lot of the ideas mentioned in the citation, but messes up the relationships between them. The College Board includes these types of wrong answers because they want to trap people who remember major concepts from the passage but who don’t bother to pay attention to the details—this is just one more example of the ways in which small details play a tremendously important role on the SAT.
his sister invested in a cure for his vision problems.
This made-up example mentions the ideas of the sister, the investing, the vision problems, and the idea that the bifocals would correct those problems, but it messes up the relationships among those ideas. Students who don’t read carefully often fall for these types of wrong answers.
Wrong Answer Type 5: Factual Accuracy
Sometimes the College Board will throw in a wrong answer that might be factually accurate, but that isn’t specifically reflected in the text. This type of wrong answer doesn’t appear too often, but if you do a few practice tests you’ll probably run into it at least once or twice.
he was tired of having to switch between different types of glasses.
Students who know why Franklin really invented bifocals, but who don’t know how the SAT actually works, might be tempted by such a factually accurate statement.
Wrong Answer Type 6: Off By One Word
This might be one of the most dangerous and insidious wrong answer types when it comes to trapping test-takers who know how the test works. For this type of wrong answer, the College Board provides a phrase that mirrors the text exactly—except for one or two words. Even when test-takers know they have to find answer choices that restate the passage, they can still fall for these kinds of wrong answers if they’re not in the habit of constantly attacking every single word they read.
his sister had a congenital vision problem.
In this wrong answer, the ideas of “sister” and “had a vision problem” directly restate the phrase “Franklin’s sister was visually impaired” from the fake citation. But the word “congenital” isn’t reflected at all in the citation, so this answer choice would be wrong if this were a real SAT question. Remember that you have to look for a textual justification for every concept in every answer choice.
Wrong Answer Type 7: Valid Interpretation
The College Board frequently creates wrong answers that would be valid, defensible interpretations of the text in a literature class. Students often fall for these types of wrong answers if they’re still mistakenly approaching the test in a subjective, interpretive way, instead of in thecorrect, objective way.
Franklin loved his sister and wanted to make her life easier.
In this imaginary example, the answer choice reflects the fact that the text mentions Franklin’s sister’s eye problems as a motivation for the invention. But the answer choice adds an interpretation when it speculates that Franklin was motivated by love and a desire to ease his sister’s suffering. While that would certainly be a plausible interpretation of the passage, any kind of interpretation—whether plausible or not—will be a wrong answer. Since the text didn’t mention Franklin loving his sister, we’re not allowed to assume that he did.
These wrong-answer types, or combinations of them, will account for most of the wrong answers you’ll encounter in SAT Passage-Based Reading questions. Basically, they all boil down to the idea that wrong answers provide information that differs from the information found in the relevant portion of the text, while the right answer for each question will restate concepts from the relevant portion of the text.
Now that we’ve explored the types of wrong answers we’re likely to encounter on Passage-Based Reading questions, you’re probably eager to see how we actually go about answering questions. But before we get into that stuff, there’s just one more thing we have to talk about: how to read passages on the SAT.