The General Process For Answering Passage-Based Reading Questions - SAT PASSAGE-BASED READING - The SAT Prep Black Book

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The General Process For Answering Passage-Based Reading Questions

Most Passage-Based Reading questions can be answered with a fairly simple process, which we”ll discuss now. Later, I”ll show you how to answer other types of questions that might seem a bit odd. (Actually, the process we”ll use for all Passage-Based Reading questions is basically the same process with a few very minor, very occasional modifications, but I”ll present them as unique scenarios because most students have already been taught to see them that way by other tutors or books.)

Don”t worry if this process feels uncomfortable or strange when you first read it. In later sections, we”ll go through a lot of Blue Book questions together, and you can see the process in action for yourself. You could also watch the videos at to get a feel for the process.

For the moment, we”re only going to talk about questions with line citations. Then we”ll cover the modifications for questions without them.

1. Read or skim the passage if you want to.

There are a lot of ways to approach reading the actual passage, as we discussed in the earlier section. Pick whichever approach works for you, whether it”s one of the ones I explained above or your own approach.

2. Read the question, noting the citation. Then read the citation.

If the citation is a line citation and the cited line picks up in the middle of a sentence, go back up to the beginning of that sentence and start there. (It may also help to read the sentence before or after the sentences in the citation, but this often isn”t necessary.)

3. Find four wrong answers.

It”s generally easiest to find wrong answers first. For one thing, there are four times as many of them; for another, it”s usually easier to identify ways that answer choices differ from the text than it is to feel confident that a choice says exactly the same thing as the text. Expect to find that most (and very possibly all) of the wrong answers you find will fit into one of the types I talked about earlier.

If you end up not being able to eliminate 4 choices, then you”re making some kind of mistake. It might be that you”ve misread the text or the question. It might be that your understanding of one of the words you read is slightly (or very) inaccurate. It”s often the case that people who are left with 2 or 3 answer choices that seem to restate the text probably aren”t being picky enough about sticking to exactly what each word means to ensure an accurate restatement.

If you end up eliminating all 5 answer choices from consideration, then, again, you”ve made some kind of mistake, but it might be a different kind of mistake. You may have been referring to the wrong part of the passage, for instance. You might also have misread or misunderstood one or more words.

4. Look at the remaining answer choice.

See if the remaining answer choice fits the right answer pattern (in other words, see if it restates concepts and relationships from the relevant portion of the text). If it does, that”s great.

If you still can”t identify one choice that clearly restates the passage and four choices that don”t restate the passage, you”ll need to consider the prospect of guessing. I would advise the vast majority of students NOT to guess on SAT Passage-Based Reading questions, for the reasons discussed in the article in this book called “A Word on Guessing: Don”t.”

And that”s it, believe it or not—the process for Passage-Based Reading questions typically isn”t as complex as the processes for other question types can be.

As I noted above, the simple process we just went through works on all line-citation questions exactly as described. In a broader sense, it works on all Passage-Based Reading questions. But let”s look at some specific, small adjustments we might make if the question isn”t exactly a classic line-citation question.

What About Questions Without Citations?

When a question has no citation, very little actually changes in our approach to it. The answer to the question is still going to be spelled out somewhere in the passage, but now it might be anywhere in the passage, rather than being localized to a few lines.

Let me say that again: even though there”s no specific citation, the answer is still going to be spelled out somewhere. You should NOT try to answer a question like this by making a broad inference from the overall passage that isn”t directly supported by actual phrases from the text.

The only challenging thing that separates a question like this from a question with a citation is that it can sometimes be harder to locate the part of the text with the answer.

If the text is very short, we can probably just go ahead and read the whole thing without too much difficulty. If the text is longer, I”d recommend saving any general questions for the end—in other words, I would skip around and do all the citation questions first, then come back and pick up the more general questions. I do this because answering the citation questions will typically cause me to go back through most of the text, and I”ll often find that the answers to general, non-citation questions are right there in the citations for other questions. So I can save some time and energy by doing the citation questions first.

Even if answering the citation questions doesn”t actually cause me to read the part of the text that contains the answer to a general question, I can still save a little time because I don”t need to re-read or skim those areas of the text when I go back to find the answers.

Again, the critical thing to remember with general passage questions is that the answer is always clearly spelled out in black and white somewhere within the passage, even though the question lacks a citation. There is literally never a moment on a real SAT in which the only way to answer a question is to draw a general inference from the overall “feeling” of the text. If there were any questions that required those kinds of inferences, the reliability of the SAT would disappear.

What About “Tone, Mood, And Attitude” Questions?

Sometimes the College Board asks you about the tone or the mood of a passage, or about the author”s attitude, or about how the passage might best be characterized, and so on. Test-takers are usually very tempted to try to answer these kinds of questions in the same ways they would tend to answer them in a literature class: they usually just read the passage and make a subjective assessment of how it makes them feel, and then look for an answer choice that describes their subjective feelings.

But, as we have mentioned repeatedly, the SAT would not be a valid, reliable standardized test if it relied on subjectivity and inference.

So even for the “tone, mood, and attitude” questions, the correct answer is going to be spelled out somewhere in the text. For example, if the correct answer is that a particular quotation is “nostalgic,” then the passage would need to say something like “Tom kept thinking about the happy days of his past, and longing for them to return,” because that would reflect the definition of the term “nostalgic.” If the correct answer is going to be something like “enthusiastic,” then the text would need to say something like “Everybody was very excited for the project to begin, and couldn”t wait to enjoy the results,” because that”s what “enthusiastic” means.

So when you answer these kinds of questions, you”re still just going to be looking through the text very carefully to match phrases in the text with one of the answer choices—just like you do for all of the Passage-Based Reading questions, basically.

What About “Similar Situation” Questions?

Some questions ask you to choose the answer choice that describes a situation that is similar to a situation described in the text. These are the only Passage-Based Reading questions on the test that can really be said not to involve direct paraphrasing, in the strictest sense of that term, because the correct answer will typically mention concepts that aren”t in the passage.

But these questions still shouldn”t be too difficult to answer if you stick very, very closely to the concepts in the text, and find an answer choice that demonstrates the same relationships among the concepts it includes. So we”re still going to be reading the text very carefully, and we”re still going to be reading the answer choices very carefully, and we”re still going to be looking for the answer choice that echoes the text.

For instance, imagine that the text says, “Steven was surprised to discover that Lauren had never learned to throw a baseball, since she was so athletic in general,” and the question asks us to pick the answer choice that describes a similar situation. The correct answer might say something like “a woman is stunned when she finds out that her friend, who is a great musician, has never learned to play the piano.” In this hypothetical scenario, both the text and the correct answer would describe someone being surprised to find out that another person has a lot of talent in a particular field but has never learned a particular skill within that field.

Don”t worry too much about these types of questions. For one thing, reading closely and paying attention to relationships will make these questions pretty easy. For another thing, there aren”t many questions like this on any given test, anyway.

What About “Except” Questions?

Some questions seem to take the normal question-answering process and turn it on its head, often by using the word “except.” Such a question might say something like “all of the following are found in Passage 1 EXCEPT . . .”.

For a question like this, we”re still going to read the relevant portion of the text carefully, but now the correct answer is going to be the only choice that does NOT appear in the passage.

It”s always important to make sure you read all five answer choices for every question (it helps you catch mistakes). But it”s ESPECIALLY important on these “except” questions because students often accidentally forget about the “except” and just choose the first choice that doesappear in the text, and get the question wrong. If you accidentally overlook the word “except” but still read all five answer choices, you have a better chance of noticing your mistake.

What About “Vocabulary In Context” Questions?

Some questions ask you how a word is used in the passage. They often read something like this: “In line 14, the word “sad” most nearly means . . .”

For these questions, just like for all the others, we”re ultimately looking for an answer choice that restates something from the passage—and not just one that restates the original word in the question, because usually all the choices will do that in one sense or another. Instead, we need a word that restates an idea from the surrounding text. In the imaginary question above, if the text said, “The dilapidated old warehouse was in a sad state by the time the inspector closed it for safety reasons,” then the correct answer would be something like “worn out,” because “worn out” means the same thing as “dilapidated” in this context. In this hypothetical scenario, a choice like “weepy” wouldn”t be supported by the text, even though it can be a synonym for the word “sad” in other situations.

What About Humor, Metaphor, And Irony?

Sometimes an answer choice will mention the idea of humor, metaphor, or irony. In order to evaluate these kinds of answer choices along SAT lines, we have to know that the College Board uses these terms in very particular ways that don”t really reflect their use in everyday speech.

When the College Board refers to part of a passage as “humorous,” “comical,” “funny,” or anything else along those lines, we should understand that to mean that the text cannot be true in a literal sense. For instance, if the text says something like “when I found out we would have homework over the vacation I was the mayor of Angrytown,” then the College Board might refer to that remark as humorous, because the speaker wasn”t really made the mayor of a place called Angrytown just because he found out about a test. Whether a real person would actually laugh at something doesn”t matter on the SAT; all that matters is whether the text describes something that couldn”t literally happen.

“Metaphor” is another word that the College Board uses differently from most modern speakers. On the SAT, when a question or answer choice refers to a metaphor, it”s referring to any non-literal use of a term. If a sentence in an SAT passage said, “she ran as fast as lightning,” then the correct answer might describe this as a metaphor, since a person cannot literally run as fast as lightning.

When the College Board refers to something as “ironic,” we should understand that the text describes some kind of contradiction. If the text said, “John was working in a butcher”s shop even though he never ate meat,” a correct answer choice on the SAT might describe this as irony, because the ideas of a butcher shop and an aversion to meat are somewhat contradictory. This isn”t really a proper use of the term “irony” in real life, but if you keep this idea of contradiction in mind when encountering the word “irony” on the Passage-Based Reading questions, you should be fine.

As long as you keep those specialized meanings in your head and apply them when the test mentions the concepts of humor, metaphor, or irony, you should still find that the correct answers to those questions match up with the relevant text.

(By the way, if this all seems a little much right now, don”t worry—we”ll see plenty of examples of these ideas at work in real SAT questions from the College Board”s Blue Book in just a bit.)

What About Paired Passages?

Sometimes the College Board asks you questions about two passages at once. These questions often ask how the author of one passage would respond to a statement from the other passage. When this happens, students often worry that they need to read an author”s mind, which seems very subjective and unfair.

But we have to remember that every answer to a Passage-Based Reading question is spelled out somewhere in the text, and these questions are no exception, even if they seem to be asking you to guess how an author would feel.

To answer these kinds of questions, we have to find a point in the text where the author we”re being asked about discusses something that appears in the other passage, and then choose an answer that reflects that author”s opinion on the subject.

This might sound a little complicated, but it”s actually not that bad. Let”s use a fake example to demonstrate how it works for now, and then you can see some real examples a few pages from now when I go through some questions from the Blue Book.

Imagine that a question asks how the author of passage 1 would respond to the views of the author of passage 2 on the subject of education. Let”s say that passage 2 contains this sentence: “Formal education is vastly overrated.” Finally, let”s imagine that passage 1 contains this sentence: “People who criticize formal education are usually the ones who need it most.”

In this imaginary scenario, the correct answer might say that the author of passage 1 “believes that the author of Passage 2 would benefit from further education.” Two reasons combine to make this the right answer. First, this answer choice restates passage 1”s claim that people who criticize formal education are in need of formal education; second, passage 2 criticizes formal education when it says that formal education is overrated. In other words, the text of passage 2 shows that its author would be one of the very people that the author of passage 1 discusses in his own passage.


So far, we”ve talked about the general processes for answering a wide range of Passage-Based Reading questions on the SAT. Adhering to the approach I”ve described here will get you through the vast majority of real test questions that you”ll ever see on the SAT.

But there are a few questions that will involve one or two further considerations that you”ll also need to be aware of. Let”s talk about them in the next section.

Special Cases: Parallelism And Demonstration

As I”ve explained, the College Board had to lay down some ground rules when it created the Passage-Based Reading questions in order to make them work as valid multiple-choice questions that could be administered on a large scale. One of those ground rules was the Big Secret of Passage-Based Reading that we”ve been discussing for several pages now: the idea that the correct answer to a Passage-Based Reading question will be the only answer that says the same thing as the relevant part of the text.

Two other ground rules are a bit more obscure, and the College Board only uses them a few times on an average test. The first of these rules has to do with something I call “parallelism,” and it says that two ideas stated in succession can be treated as exact synonyms if a question asks about them, even though they aren”t synonyms in real life. If two ideas are stated in quick succession and they have some kind of negating phrase between them, then we should treat those two ideas as exact antonyms for the purpose of the SAT, even though they wouldn”t have to be antonyms in real life.

This particular idea is too bizarre for me to feel comfortable making up a fake example, so in this case I”ll use an example from the College Board”s Official SAT Study Guide. The example is on page 392, starting at the middle of line 41, where the sentence reads, “Shadowy imaginings do not usually hold up in the light of real experience.” In that sentence, using the College Board”s way of looking at these things, we should know that the phrase “shadowy imaginings” can be thought of as the antonym of the phrase “real experience,” even though “shadowy” isn”t an exact antonym of “real” and “imaginings” isn”t an exact antonym of “experience” in everyday speech. When question 13 on that page asks about the phrase “shadowy imaginings,” we”re supposed to realize that it means something opposite to “real experience,” and choose “unsubstantiated” (because “un” is a negating prefix and “substantiated” can mean “real”).

If you think that sounds like a little technical and complicated, you”re right, it does. But the questions involving this parallelism idea pretty much always end up being complicated like that—they”re often the hardest questions for students to answer. Luckily, there aren”t going to be that many of them on any one test.

The other ground rule I”d like to talk about is the idea of demonstration. Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—the College Board expects you to identify a correct answer because it technically describes something that the text demonstrates, rather than restating it. One example appears on page 479 of the same book, in question 17. That question asks about lines 4 through 8 of the text, and the correct answer to the question mentions “vivid imagery.” This answer is correct because the citation includes this sentence: “Raindrops . . . bounced against sidewalks in glistening sparks, then disappeared like tiny ephemeral jewels.” This sentence is a demonstration of imagery, not a collection of words that mean the same thing as the word “imagery.” Again, the College Board rarely asks questions of this type, but it”s important to be aware that it may occasionally do so.