If I had to pick the one question type on the SAT that frustrates the most people for no reason at all, it would have to be the Reading questions. People HATE SAT Reading questions. Almost everybody hates them. This hatred comes from a very, very deep sense of frustration that starts to set in when you feel like every single answer choice is just plain wrong. Or, more accurately, you feel like every single answer choice is different from what you would have said if you could make up your own response.
Or sometimes, you feel like TWO answer choices are totally fine. Either one could be justified . . . if you could only explain why you wanted to pick it, instead of having to bubble in a stupid oval and not having any other options.
In other words, you feel like you’re literally being asked to read the SAT’s mind. There are 5 answer choices for each question, and each one seems equally likely to be right.
The GOOD news here is that Reading questions are actually the easiest questions for most students to make significant progress on in the least amount of time. The secret, as you’ve probably guessed by now, lies in realizing that the SAT is STANDARDIZED. Let’s think about this. If you’re going to create a standardized Reading test like the SAT, you’re going to need five things for each question you write:
That correct answer choice has to be clearly identifiable. It has to be totally, completely obvious and beyond all argument. It has to be just as clear and certain as the answer to an SAT math question. If it isn’t, your test will be meaningless for a variety of reasons that we don’t have time to get into here.
Now, if you’re going to put that correct answer choice in front of millions of bright students, as big and obvious as it is, you might have a problem. Too many people are going to see it, which means too many people are going to answer too many questions correctly–unless you do something. That’s where your four wrong answer choices come in. You’re going to use them to distract attention from the obviously correct answer choice. And how do you do this? Well, if you’re the College Board, you come up with some very repetitive, very sneaky, very confusing tricks. There are four main ones.
And that’s pretty much it. For each question, you rely on the same bag of tricks to distract people from the correct answer choice. And it works, because–just like with the other SAT sections we’ve already talked about–MOST PEOPLE NEVER APPRECIATE THE UNIQUE SITUATION CREATED BY A STANDARDIZED TEST.
The College Board is counting on you to look at the Reading part of the SAT just like it was a regular high school English test. Sound familiar? On a regular high school English test, you’re usually invited to interpret things, draw your own conclusion. In fact, I once had an English professor who would only give an A to a student who could come up with an interpretation she’d never heard of before.
The College Board knows this. It knows you’ve been trained to interpret even the slightest shades of meaning in any composition. So the SAT exploits this weakness of yours by giving you several answer choices that MIGHT seem right if you were allowed to support them in an essay or something. Or NONE of them might seem right, since they don’t match the interpretation you came up with on your own.
In other words, if you use the normal high school approach on the Reading part of the SAT, you’re going to get lost very quickly. Really, the only way to be right with this approach is to get lucky. And that’s never the smartest way to approach ANYTHING, much less a hugely important test like the SAT. So what do you do instead? Good question. You get out some SAT Reading questions that were written by the College Board, and you start analyzing them. You look for patterns that set the right answers apart from the wrong ones. And you look for recurring patterns in the wrong answers that help you identify them.
And you discover something amazing: once you know what to look for, it’s almost impossible to get an SAT Reading question wrong. On top of that, once you adjust your thinking out of “high school English” mode and into “SAT Reading” mode, you can’t even understand the old way of thinking.