SAT Tip: Critical Reading Shortcuts

Writing down each task will help you ensure you don’t get confused as you weed out the "right" answers Photograph by Dave Jacobs/Getty Images

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

By now you’ve probably encountered some Critical Reading questions with such words as “not”, “except,” and “least” in the question stem. The SAT loves to try to trick students with these, especially those who have difficulty completing the passages in the allotted time and are rushing through the final questions. The difficulty arises from having to look for the opposite of what you’d normally be seeking—that is, you must seek the “wrong” answer, as opposed to the “right” one. Here are some fool-proof steps to get the correct answer every time:

Put the question in simpler terms. Are you faced with an interminably long question-stem that’s barely understandable? “Dumb it down” and rephrase it in terms your little brother or sister would understand.

Write down your task. It can be so simple as “Get rid of the positive-sounding choices.” Or it could be more complex: “Eliminate options that match an opinion the author would agree with.” Either way, this will prepare your brain to correctly remove the wrong choices. Writing things down will make sure you don’t get confused and stay on track.

Do the Task. Now that you’ve come up with what you need to do, it’s time to do it. For example, you might see an open-ended question stem such as, “Which of the following is not something with which the author would agree?” There could be many things in that instance with which the author would disagree. But every wrong answer will be mentioned in the passage as something with which the author would agree.  Go back to the passage and quickly underline or circle those things.

Carefully eliminate the wrong answer choices. There will likely be two or three “obviously wrong” answer choices, which are close rephrases of what is directly stated in the passage. These will be very easy to find since you have circled them in the passage. Remove those choices first. Then carefully compare what’s left. Look for the choice that is the “most wrong,” or the least supported by the passage. Let’s look at how we can apply Steps 1-3 to a question-stem:

1. Based on the passage, Albert Einstein’s academic interests extended to all of the following except:

Simplified Question: What did not interest Einstein?

Task: Find and eliminate the things that did interest Einstein.

Do the Task: Find things that did interest Einstein in the passage. Here you would go back to the passage and quickly identify the things that did interest Einstein. Underline or circle them as you review, so you don’t have to write them down in a list if you’re short on time. Don’t spend too much time re-reading the passage. Use the “scan and circle” technique, putting your focus at the tip of your pencil.

Once you have found the three or four things mentioned in the passage that did interest Einstein, it will be much easier to spot them paraphrased in the answer choices. Cross off the ones you’ve found, and carefully compare the final two. The best thing about the “except” questions is that we know four out of the five choices must be mentioned somewhere in the passage. The details are always there somewhere. We just have to find them.

Vivian Kerr has been teaching and tutoring in the Los Angeles area since 2005. She graduated from the University of Southern California, studied abroad in London, and has worked for several test-prep giants tutoring, writing content, and blogging about all things SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT.

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