SAT Tip: Tackling Critical Reading 'Detail' Questions

Photograph by Jesper Elgaard

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

“Details” questions on the SAT Critical Reading sections ask about (you guessed it) details. To answer detail questions, there is one important rule: Always go back to the passage. Unless you have a great memory, it’s nearly impossible to recall every detail from the passages, especially if you’re looking at passages with scientific or technical jargon. Gather the main gist on the first read, marking up the passage as needed, then simply go back and scan to locate the relevant details for each question. Put your finger on it when you’ve found it, then eliminate the incorrect choices. Let’s look a sample passage:

Though there is some solid indication that streams and lakes briefly existed on Mars when it was a significantly younger planet, today’s astronomers are currently debating whether a body of water as large as an ocean ever existed in a certain large crater in the northern plains. Data from satellites [have] revealed a feature that resembles some of the shorelines surrounding Earth’s oceans: a terrace. This terrace is almost always at the same elevation. However, in a few key locations, the elevation of the terrace sharply rises and is much higher than elsewhere. The situation occurs in some of the other potential shoreline terraces. This indicates that these large depressions obviously cannot correspond to the boundary of ancient oceans, because their terrace elevation varies by several kilometers from one end to the other. The surface of any body of water will, of course, be level—so the terrace must also be at the same height at every point.

Even without examining the question yet, we can see there are a lot of tiny details here. Don’t feel the need to understand all of them. The question will tell us what’s important for the correct answer.

1.  According to the author, an ocean must have:

(A) a surface that is at a steady elevation at all points;

(B) a bottom that is at a steady elevations at all points;

(C) a depth that is the same at different points;

(D) a depth that is different at different points;

(E) a terrace surrounding it at different points;

Ask yourself: where were ocean requirements discussed? We’ll scan back and search for the criteria the author used to categorize oceans. As the passage states, the surface of any body of water (including an ocean) must be level. He said the crater couldn’t have been an ocean because its terrace was uneven and its elevation varied. A level surface is a surface whose elevation is the same at all points. The answer to this Details question is (A).

Don’t be intimidated by dense passages on test day. For shorter passages, you’ll need to pull out only one or two details to get the questions correct. Read for the main idea, then go back for the details as needed.

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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