SAT Crash Course

Page 2: SAT Critical Reading

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The content on this page has been updated to reflect the March 2016 changes to the SAT.

Most students think that the Critical Reading section of the SAT is very “tricky,” and it can be – but only if you allow it to be.

If you want to instantly improve your SAT Critical Reading score, you need to realize something extremely important:

Critical Reading questions are not difficult – the ANSWERS are difficult!

If English is your native language, doesn’t it seem strange that questions in English about passages written in English are so difficult to comprehend?  Well, it’s not as much of a puzzle as it seems.  The passages are pretty simple, and the questions are even simpler – the answers are the things making your life so difficult.

The SAT is incredible at coming up with one right answer that seems wrong, and three wrong answers that all seem sort of right.

For instance, imagine that you read a passage about a man – Jack – who’s trying to save his grandmother’s diner from going out of business. The passage states that the man is extremely busy, and that he’s hurting his own career by helping his grandma, but that he knows that it’s the right thing to do.

One of the first questions looks like so:

What’s Jack’s attitude toward helping his grandmother?
A) Ambivalent
B) Enthusiastic
C) Resentful
D) Doubtless

Having a bit of trouble figuring out which answer is best? Well – that’s by design. The SAT is amazing at coming up with answers that all SEEM to be legitimate. But if you know the proper strategies, you can quickly cut through the BS.

We’ll get back to this problem in a moment, armed with the proper strategies necessary to rip it apart!

But the answer choices aren’t just confusing in and of themselves – the answer choices will also try to confuse you by answering a question that has never been asked.  For instance, you might read the following lines excerpted from a novel:

“Mr. Jones had the hilarious, though sometimes unpopular, habit of insulting the women in his company.”

The question might then ask:

18. What is the tone of this sentence?

(A) Sexist
(B) Jovial

Here’s the issue: the content and meaning of the sentence itself is incredibly sexist.  Anyone who is in the habit of making fun of women is a sexist jerk.  But the question didn’t ask about the content of the question – it asked about the tone of the question!  As a result, A is a wrong answer (though it seems quite tempting) while B is the right answer.  A is a trick, and a darn tempting one at that!  Tone has to do with the way something is being said, and not with what is being said.  If you pick answer A, you’re answering the wrong question.

Knowing that the SAT Critical Reading section is trying to trick you is your first defense.  Once you realize that all the answer choices exist solely to mess with your head, you’ll have a much greater appreciation of the two key strategies for SAT Critical Reading.

All SAT critical reading strategy boils down to just two strategies:

1. Come up with your own answers before looking at the answer choices provided.

2. Eliminate wrong answers rather than trying to pick the right ones.

If you follow the two strategies above, this section will go from “ambiguous and tricky” to “incredibly obvious and easy.”  However, perfecting both of these strategies is much easier said than done, and requires a significant amount of practice.

Let’s take a quick peek at how each one works:

1. Come up with your own answers.

The key to coming up with your own answers is to steal them directly from the text.  The SAT hopes that you’ll look for answers “in your head” rather than “in the text.”  The text doesn’t lie – it’s all based on facts and objective, proof-driven sentences.  Your head, on the other hand, lies to you and tricks you all the time.

If you let the SAT “suggest” answer choices for you, your brain will do an amazing job of justifying them and considering them as valid –  even when they’re totally off-base.

Consider this: if you can’t answer a question on your own, how the heck are you supposed to pick the right one from a minefield full of intentionally deceiving answers?

The SAT is incredible at coming up with wrong answer choices that, at first glance, seem correct.  If you don’t “guard yourself” by coming up with the right answer beforehand, you’ll never be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Once you come up with the right answer, all you need to do is “find it” within the answer choices provided, which is remarkably easy (especially when using strategy #2, which I’ll discuss momentarily).  When it comes to creating your own answer, you just need to remember two sub-strategies:

A) FIND the answer, don’t come up with it.  The text does not lie.  The SAT is an objective exam – every right answer is factually correct, and is derived from facts and bulletproof evidence within the text.  Your job, therefore, is to steal the answer directly from the text itself.

Put another way: the right answer is NOT in your head – it is IN THE TEXT.

B) The simpler and more general/broad/basic your answer is, the better.

Most of my students get into a nasty habit of “over-thinking” when they first approach the critical reading section. As they quickly learn, the more you think, the less likely you are to come up with the right answer.

If the text asks you “what is the author is trying to accomplish on lines 64-65,” and the text reads:

“Jellyfish move quite quickly, and though most people think of them as slow, they can cover great distances in short periods of time.”

Your answer should be:

“Show that jellyfish move faster than people think they do.”

This is no time to get creative.  Just rip your answer directly from the text.  There’s no thinking involved here – you just need to take the text, steal from it, and regurgitate an answer that matches the text itself.

From this point forward, NEVER look at the answer choices until you’ve come up with your own answer first.  Once you have a clear concept of what the right answer looks like, you’ll quickly realize how silly the wrong answer choices are.

Of course, there are some questions that can’t be answered up front.  For instance: “what does the author NOT do in this passage?”  In these cases, you should move right to strategy #2.  But a surprisingly large number of questions that don’t seem like they can be answered up front actually can be.  For instance, “What would be a good title for this passage?” is basically just another way of asking, “What is the main idea of this passage?”

Steal from the text, stop thinking, and come up with your own answers first, then watch what happens to your score.

2. Kill wrong answers rather than picking right ones.

Your entire life, you’ve been trained to “find the right answer.”  It’s a logical instinct that, unfortunately, will absolutely massacre your SAT Critical Reading score.  The main problem with this strategy is that it is almost impossible to prove something right.  For instance, take a look at this sentence:

“Grass is green.”

We all know that grass is green.  So this is a “correct” statement, right?  But is all grass green?  What if it’s dehydrated and brown?  What if it’s red grass, which grows in different regions throughout the world?  What is “green,” really?  Do different shades count?  If you saw 10,000 instances of green grass, would that prove that “grass is green?”  Not really – even one instance of brown or red grass would prove it wrong!

When you dwell on answer choices and try to “prove them right,” you’re not only wasting time – you’re also working to JUSTIFY answers that are intentionally designed to be justified!

In other words, if you put your mental energy toward proving something right, you’ll sometimes fall in love with your own reasoning and try to avoid the errors inherent in the answer choice.

But what about proving things wrong?

Proving things wrong is incredibly easy, fast, and foolproof, and it should be your OBSESSION on the Critical Reading section of the SAT.

If you eliminate answers based on wrongness, rather than picking them based on merit, you’ll be faster and more accurate.

At first, this might seem counterintuitive.  Won’t it take more time to kill four wrong answers than to pick one right one?  Not at all.  The reason is this:

Wrong answers are OBJECTIVELY wrong (their wrongness is based on fact, not opinion), and therefore incredibly quick and easy to kill.  When something isn’t accurate, you can immediately figure out its flaws and cross it out.  You no longer need to think about it.  For instance, the statement “all grass is always green” can be crossed out in 1/10th of a second.  All grass is not always green…DONE.

Take a look at the following excerpt from a passage:

“Harry was always a little bit shy around his classmates.  It wasn’t that he was scared of them, or felt himself inferior.  Rather, it was a sense of distance and separation that he simply could not bridge.  Harry was shy because he didn’t feel the closeness to other human beings that he observed others feeling so easily.”

14. The reason for Harry’s shyness is most likely:

FIRST, come up with your own answer.  In this case: “he could not feel close to people.”  Simple, stolen from the text.  Now look at the answer choices:

(A) He did not enjoy people’s company
(B) He was anxious around people
(C) He could not develop bonds with people
(D) He was afraid of social judgment

Rather than try to pick the right answer, I’m going to use a “heck no” and “maybe” system to go through and kill all the blatantly wrong answers.  From there, I’ll compare any stragglers and kill the one(s) containing the most objective errors.

(A) is wrong because enjoyment of their company is never even mentioned.  This has nothing to do with any of the text.
(B) is wrong because anxiety is never mentioned.  Next.
(C) has to do with my answer – closeness, bonds, etc.  I will leave it as a “maybe” as I cannot immediately strike it down.
(D) Social judgment is never mentioned.  Wrong.

And there you have it: C is the answer because it is not wrong, while A, B, and D are objectively false.

Notice that all of the wrong answers are reasons why people might be shy – they’re just not accurate according to this particular passage, which is all that matters right now.

The best thing about this strategy is that it allows you to select answer choices that you don’t even understand.

Used in tandem, these strategies will revolutionize your SAT Critical Reading performance.

Let’s try it out on the question that I posed at the beginning of the guide:

What’s Jack’s attitude toward helping his grandmother?
A) Ambivalent
B) Enthusiastic
C) Resentful
D) Doubtless

First, come up with your own answer by stealing it.

After a quick scan, I find this sentence:

“Though Jack’s personal life was falling apart as a result of his work on the diner, he knew that helping out his grandmother was the right thing to do.”

OK, so what’s my answer? “He knows it’s the right thing to do.”

I’m keeping it simple, clean, and short. I’m not complicating things. That must be right, because the passage says it!

Now that I’m armed with my answer:

Step Two: KILL the WRONG answers rather than picking the “right” one.

My answer is “he knows it’s the right thing to do.”

Now let’s look at the different choices:

A) “Ambivalent” means “torn” or “conflicted.” See why this is so tricky? The thing is, helping his grandma isn’t all good – it’s destroying his own personal life. But THAT ISN’T WHAT THE QUESTION IS ASKING! It’s asking what his attitude is, and the passage says, directly, that Jack KNOWS it’s right. So is he torn? Nope! This answer is DEAD.

B) This is basically the exact opposite of answer A. He knows it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also destroying his life. Would you be “enthusiastic” about something like that? Is he happy or excited to be doing this? No! He’s just sure that it’s the right thing to do. This answer is misleading, and wrong, and so it’s dead.

C) Again, this is a brilliant trick. Many people would resent their grandmother for hurting their own personal life. But does Jack? We have no evidence for that. He doesn’t resent her, or say that he thinks less of her for helping her. So the SAT is just trying to confuse us by forcing us to think about what WE may feel in this scenario (or what the average person would feel), rather than focusing on what Jack feels, which has nothing to do with resentment.

D) Is this wrong? Nope. In fact, it’s so “not wrong” that it must be right. If you know that something is the right thing to do, then you don’t have doubts about it. He’s not enthusiastic about it – he’s not pumped – nor is he resentful or torn – he’s just sure.. And hence this becomes the only answer that isn’t wrong!

See how this works? It takes a bit of practice, but once you get used to thinking like this, it’s impossible to stop. Suddenly, you’ll see these wrong answer choices for exactly what they are: intentionally confusing and intentionally tempting mind tricks. And once you can get past them, you’re 99% of your way toward a perfect SAT Critical Reading score!

Right now, grab a Critical Reading section from one of your practice books and try coming up with your own answer to each question, then killing the answer choices that don’t match it.  If your score doesn’t improve, then you’d be the first student I’ve ever taught whose score didn’t. If you don’t have any materials on hand, you can check out some free, official SAT practice tests here. One thing I NEED to point out, however: you should SAVE THESE TESTS FOR OFFICIAL DIAGNOSTIC TESTS! Use third-party practice books to try these techniques out – otherwise, you’ll end up using up one of your best prep resources.

If you’re interested in getting all the best materials, you can always check out my online prep programs. They’ll show you all the materials you need to get started on your prep (and take you through these Critical Reading strategies in much more detail so that you turn into a total pro.

But no matter what you do, try these strategies out! They’re only useful if you use them!

Now that we’ve tackled the critical reading section, it’s time to head over to everyone’s favorite subject – math! For that, click the button below to move on to the next section of this guide:

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