Stop Making This Mistake on SAT Passages

Stop Making This Mistake on SAT Passages
Next time you practice SAT Passage-Based Reading questions, dumb down your outside knowledge, which can only confuse you and hurt your performance (Photograph by Giorgio Fochesato/Getty Images)
Photograph by Giorgio Fochesato/Getty Images

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Veritas Prep.

The Passage-Based Reading questions on the Critical Reading section of the SAT require test-takers to read a passage or a pair of passages and then answer questions based on those passages. Many students, who are very intelligent, struggle with this portion of the test. In particular, these students are making a relatively common mistake on these types of questions: bringing in outside information. In some ways, this makes sense. Intelligent students have likely amassed a large base of knowledge from years of studying, reading, and just learning about various topics. This is usually an advantage for them in many aspects of life, from being able to talk about different topics with friends to helping them win a trivia contest at school. However, on SAT Passage-Based Reading, this can be a very dangerous practice that can cost valuable points.

On SAT Passage questions, the only information you are supposed to work with is information from the passage. However tempted students are to bring in outside information about a topic, they will be penalized for being influenced by your outside knowledge and making assumptions that are not supported in the passages. The best approach is to wipe your mind of any knowledge about a topic, except for what is in the passage you’re reading. The rule of thumb to follow is: “If it’s not in the passage, it doesn’t exist.” If a passage talks about a famous historical event such as the Panic of 1819 and doesn’t mention that a contributing factor was land speculation, you cannot apply your outside knowledge that there was land speculation. You must work with what’s given in the passage.

Let’s take a look at an example question to see how bringing in outside information can trip you up. The following question appeared on the 2007-2008 SAT official pre-test.

Duke Ellington considered himself “the world’s greatest listener.” In music, hearing is all. Judging by the two or three thousand pieces of music Ellington wrote, he could probably hear a flea scratching itself and put that rhythm into one of his compositions. For him the sounds of the world were the ingredients he mixed into appetizers, main courses, and desserts to satisfy the appetite of his worldwide audience. He wasn’t averse to going out in a boat to catch the fish himself. He would raise the fowl himself. But when that musical meal appeared before you none of the drudgery showed.

The author most likely refers to the “flea” in line 3 in order to:

(A) highlight Ellington’s prodigious memory
(B) emphasize the quality of Ellington’s listening skills
(C) indicate Ellington’s interest in different animal sounds
(D) suggest that Ellington’s compositions were marked by rhythmic similarities
(E) imply that Ellington could be overly concerned about minutia

If we were to bring in outside information on this question, we could really confuse ourselves and make it difficult to find the right answer. Let’s see how this could happen for each answer choice:

(A) Maybe we know from outside reading that Ellington did, in fact, have great memory
(B) Of course, Ellington had great listening skills. He was a great musician.
(C) Maybe you read in his biography that his music was sometimes inspired by animal sounds
(D) Outside knowledge could indicate that Ellington’s compositions were rhythmically similar
(E) Since he was a very detail-oriented musician, maybe we learned that Ellington did have too much of a focus on minutiae

Now you can see that by bringing in outside information, all of the answer choices become defensible in some way. It then becomes harder to choose the correct answer. If we can forget outside knowledge about Duke Ellington, our task becomes simpler. Instead of looking for reasons an answer choice could be correct, you should be looking for reasons why it is wrong. The rule of thumb here is to ask yourself: “Is that in the passage?” If not, it’s probably a trap answer. Let’s see how we can shift our thinking to eliminate incorrect answers:

(A) The passage actually never says anything about his memory
(B) The passage does talk at length about his listening skills
(C) The passage doesn’t talk about how interested he is in animal sounds
(D) The passage never mentions anything about rhythmic similarities, just that he could put a flea’s rhythm into a song
(E) There is no evidence in the passage to suggest that he might be overly concerned about minutiae

Since B is the only answer choices supported by what’s in the passage, it is the correct answer. By shifting our approach to limit our knowledge to what is in the passage and eliminate any choices beyond the scope of the passage, it becomes much simpler to eliminate all incorrect answer choices. Next time you practice SAT Passage-Based Reading questions, dumb down your outside knowledge.

Plan on taking the SAT soon? Sign up for a trial of Veritas Prep SAT 2400 On Demand.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE