SAT Reading: Trap Answers and How to Avoid Them

When it comes to the Reading section of the SAT, the test makers at the College Board are absolute pros at creating “trap answers”—answers that are specifically designed to tempt you into some false logic or lazy thinking about the passage you just read. This is especially pernicious on the SAT Reading section, due to a common but ineffective strategy used by nearly all students taking this test. Let’s examine that faulty strategy a bit, before discussing a better approach.

SAT Reading trap answers
Trap answers are common on the SAT Reading section. But don’t worry—there are ways to avoid the pitfalls. Photo by Fandom Wikia.

SAT Reading: A common but ineffective approach

Let’s first look at how most students approach the SAT Reading section, which is as follows:

1) Read the passage.
2) Read the first question.
3) Read the answer choices.
4) Choose from among the answer choices.
5) Repeat until finished.

I’ve marked step three in bold because this is where problems arise. Think about it: most students are willingly spending their time reading through mostly wrong, misleading answer choices, and then choosing the one they think sounds the best, based on what they can remember from the passage. The problem with this is that considering those great-sounding-but-wrong answer choices often distorts your understanding of what you just read. Let’s examine how this works with a brief case study.

SAT Reading Case Study: Practice Test #1

Let’s look at question #33 from the SAT Reading section on the College Board’s Practice Test #1, available for free at collegeboard.org. If you haven’t been through this test yet, you may want to skip this section. If you have, then keep reading! Here’s the question:

sat reading practice test 1

Recall that the passage this question asks about was written by Virginia Woolf and published in 1938. In this passage, Woolf advocates strongly for educated women to think critically for themselves, and to decide once and for all if they are going to go out and become professionals, working alongside men in society.

SAT reading virginia woolf
You may know that Virginia Woolf wrote the famous essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she argues that financial independence is a necessary means to doing creative work. However, the SAT passage is unrelated to this, and your outside knowledge of Woolf may end up working against you on the test, if you’re not careful. Read on to learn why! Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s assume you’ve just read this passage, you’ve understood the main gist, and now you’re reading through these (mostly wrong) answer choices. In all likelihood, despite your diligent reading and your hard-won understanding, reading these answer choices is going to throw a monkey wrench into your thinking. Why? Because all the answer choices are arguably true in the context of your general knowledge (and therefore they’re tempting), but only one of them is right in the context of the passage.

To illustrate this fact, let’s look at choice D, which is an extremely appealing trap answer. Choice D is appealing because it sounds perfectly reasonable to assume that having educated women in powerful positions would necessarily transform those positions; indeed, this thinking is consistent with much of what we are currently seeing in the news, and it may even be consistent with how we feel personally. The problem is, this particular idea never appeared even once in the passage, and for that reason, choice D is incorrect.

We need to approach the SAT Reading test as if it’s its own self-contained universe—one in which our thoughts, knowledge, and feelings from the outside world cannot enter. Of course, this is exactly what trap answers are designed to do—to tempt us into relying on our outside knowledge and personal feelings so that we draw faulty conclusions about the passage.

So how do we avoid this all-too-common pitfall?

SAT Reading: Don’t play dizzy bat!

The SAT Reading strategy I’ve described so far is analogous to a game many of us have played as a kid: dizzy bat.

For those who aren’t familiar, dizzy bat involves placing your forehead on the end of a baseball bat and then spinning around in circles before attempting to run the bases. After spinning and getting dizzy, baserunners often stumble and fall in hilarious fashion. Dizzy bat makes for a fun birthday party game when you’re six or seven years old, but it’s a terrible test-taking strategy. And yet this is the strategy most students are using on SAT Reading.

SAT reading dizzy bat strategy
Playing dizzy bat before taking the SAT Reading section is not advised. Photo by Luke Air Force Base.

Let me put this in context. If you’re approaching the SAT Reading section by first reading through the College Board’s answers—75% of which are wrong, but are cleverly designed to sound right and trick you—then you’re voluntarily spinning around on the bat and disorienting yourself before picking your answer. Let’s avoid that!

SAT Reading: Predict before you pick

Luckily, we can easily avoid this. In baseball, if your goal is to run the bases well, then don’t first take a spin on the bat. To put this in test-taking terms, if your goal is to do well on SAT Reading, then don’t immediately read through the answers after reading a question. Instead, use the following “predict before you pick” strategy:

SAT Reading trap answers
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus tied himself to the mast to avoid madly running off, allured by the tempting song of the sirens. Take note, dear SAT taker: the wrong answers are your siren song. Cover those answers with your hand if you must, to avoid looking before you are ready! Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

1) Read the question, and don’t look at the answers. Cover them up with your hand, if they’re too tempting!
2) Predict the answer based on your understanding of the passage.
3) Look at the answers, and pick the one that is closest to your prediction.

Notice that in predicting before we pick, we are turning the test on its head. Now, armed with our own prediction of what the answer should be, we are no longer choosing from among the College Board’s choices; we now have our own idea of what we want to see in a good answer.

SAT Reading: Final thoughts

If you’ve been using the “dizzy bat” approach to SAT Reading, the “predict before you pick” approach may feel unnatural at first. You may even think that such an approach will be too time-consuming—and yet, believe it or not, that’s part of the point of it. Remember that the SAT is a critical reasoning test, and it measures your ability to think and use your brain; however, using your brain necessarily involves slowing down, to allow yourself time to reason. (If you’re skeptical that slowing down on a timed exam could ever be beneficial, then check out this post of mine where I detail why the best test-takers are slower than you.)

Lastly, “predict before you pick” will not work for every single question on SAT Reading, but it will work for most. Like anything else, it takes practice, but if done properly, using it will increase your critical thinking and comprehension skills. I hope you’ll try it, and if you do, I’m wishing you the best of luck!

If you found this post helpful, please share it with your friends and families. Lastly, always remember: you are smarter than the test!

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Which SAT test dates should I register for in 2018?

Happy new year everyone! With the holidays behind us, it’s back to school, and for many high school juniors, that means registering for the SAT. For the first half of this year, the College Board is offering the following SAT test dates:

  • March 10, 2018
  • May 5, 2018
  • June 2, 2018

Let’s explore which test dates might be the best fit for you and your student.

SAT test dates
Choosing the right SAT test date can be difficult. Read on to learn which dates are the best for you and your student! Photo by Pixabay.

Choosing the right SAT test dates

First, we can narrow the choices a bit if you or your student is planning to take SAT II Subject Tests. Because you cannot take both the SAT and the SAT II subject tests on the same date (nor would you want to!), you should plan to take your subject tests on June 2. (If you’re curious about the subject tests, I go into more detail about them in this post.)

With June 2 devoted to subject tests, that leaves March 10 and May 5 for the regular SAT. Which date should you choose, or should you sign up for both? My personal opinion is to register for both, but to prioritize the March 10 date.

Test early and test often

Let’s face it: standardized testing involves performing under pressure, which can produce quite a bit of anxiety in students. If you put the test off until later, that pressure will only increase. Why? Because by putting the SAT off, you will have fewer chances to take it again if you don’t reach your goal score the first time.

Another reason to test earlier: you can go into the test with the knowledge that you will, in all likelihood, take this test again later. Often, just knowing that this particular test is not the only opportunity to do well can help students relax and concentrate, rather than feel stressed by the need to hit a home run.

For this reason, I advise my students to sign up for the March 10 test date. Then, I’ll recommend they take it again May 5. Why both dates? Because each test sitting involves a bit of randomness.

SAT test dates 2018
A “standardized” test like the SAT involves more randomness than you might think. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a “standardized test”; how can it be random?

There’s more to taking the test than just the test itself. For one, there’s the randomness of your personal life. Maybe you’re just coming off the flu going into the test, or you didn’t sleep well the night before, or your dog Bobo ran away. The point is, when we sign up for the test in January, we can’t predict exactly how we’ll be feeling the morning of March 10.

Then there’s the randomness of the test itself, or “the luck of the draw.” For example, perhaps the test features a reading passage written by Thomas Paine, and you’ve just studied him in your American History class. Suddenly, a wave of confidence washes over you, and you think to yourself: I’ve got this!

However, perhaps one of the reading passages is 19th-century prose about the distribution of wealth in society, and economics just isn’t your thing. Suddenly, a wave of dread washes over you, and you think to yourself: Gross! (Note: While the SAT will never require background knowledge for the reading passages, studies have shown that some prior familiarity with the subject matter tends to aid reading comprehension.)

For both of these reasons, I recommend my students take the test in both March and May, if they can. Each test sitting is a new opportunity to do well. So test early and test often—it could lead to your best possible score.

A useful add-on: The College Board Question and Answer Service (QAS)

What is the Question and Answer Service (QAS)? This is an extra service provided by the College Board that you can add to your test registration. It is not offered for every test date, but it is offered in March and May 2018. For a fee of $18, the College Board will send you a complete copy of the actual exam you take on March 10 and/or May 5, along with an answer key showing which questions you got right and wrong. If you plan on taking the test more than once, this is an excellent study tool, and one I highly recommend!

Ready to register for the SAT?

If you or your student is not yet registered, you can do so on the College Board website. If you haven’t already created an account with them, you’ll need to do so.

Finally, one last piece of advice: the earlier you sign up, the better, because popular test sites can fill up quickly. The last thing you want on the morning of the test is to have to drive over an hour to your test site, which means getting up even earlier. So be sure to avoid that fate by registering soon, if you haven’t already!

Any more questions? Feel free to comment below, or reach out to us at info@paulkingprep.com. Good luck with your test prep!

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