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: 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:
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.
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.
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:
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!