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SAT Passage Questions - Avoiding Wrong Answer Choices

Teacher/Instructor Eva Holtz
Eva Holtz

Harvard University
Perfect scores on the SAT and 4 SATIIs

Eva is a certified admissions counselor and the founder of PrepPoint, a premier test prep company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In this episode we're going to talk about how to avoid wrong answer choices when reading the passages in the critical reading section. There are five main principals you should keep in mind, those are to rephrase the question and predict the answers, answer the questions being asked of you, find evidence in the passage, remember that extreme answers are suspicious and lastly keep in mind that a little wrong is all wrong when it comes to SAT answer choices.
Let's look at those five principals in more detail. The first principal we're going talk about is rephrasing and predicting and I cannot over state how important this is when it comes to the critical reading passages. The first step is that you're going to rephrase the question in your own words. A lot of times the so called questions on the SAT are actually statements that haven't quite finished. So turn them in questions that end in questions marks and that you understand. You don't literally have to write them but you should be able to say them to yourself as questions. Once you've rephrased the question in a way that works for you, then you should go to wherever you're told to look, it's either a line or a series of lines usually and read two lines before and after that place. Afterwards you should answer your question the one you've rephrased, in your own words and then make sure you do that based on what you just read. Lastly find the answer choice, if that matches your prediction among the answer choices that are available to you. Now why did you have to do this process? Here we go.
First of all rephrasing the question forces you to make sure you really understand it because the SAT is so confusing it's easy to try to answer a question that you haven't even taken the time to really understand. So this makes you take the time and that's a good thing. Next up, reading two lines before and after forces you to draw conclusions based on specific evidence and because it's very important to choose answer choices that are driven by evidence, that's what right answers have, evidence in the passage, this forces you to really look for that evidence. And finally, answering the question in your own words instead of just reading through the answer choices looking for one that pops out, keeps you from being influenced or manipulated by the answer choices because the SAT test writers are really good at coming up with the answer choices that are going to be appealing if you haven't already figured out exactly what you're looking for.
The next strategy I want to talk about is answering the question. Believe it or not, "true" doesn't make an answer choice right and here a really silly but one that I hope hits home with you. If you saw a question on the SAT and you won't, that says who is the first president of the United States? One kind of answer you might get is two plus two equals four. Now you're not actually going to get the answer to a math problem on the SAT passages but the idea here is that two plus two equals four is true and you need to remember that doesn't mean it's the right answer. Obviously it's going to be more tricky on the SAT but don't go for an answer choice just because it's true. True is not the same as the right answer. Even if it's sort of on topic. For instance this guy says, "The first president of the United States took office in 1789." It's a little closer to being related to the question but it's still not answering the question. This is also true but it's not right, 'cause it's not answering the question.
Now obviously on the SAT it's going to be a little more complicated than that and it's not going to look like Math and they aren't going to be history questions but it will look a little more like this. You might have a question that says, "hey, what's the purpose of the passage you just read?" And an answer choice might be not telling you what the purpose is but just parroting back information that you covered in the passage and because it's familiar and because it's true, you might be drawn to it but that doesn't make it the right answer, being true is not the same as being right. Here is another situation you might find. You might get a question like, "How would the author most likely respond to his opponent's theory?" Now you want to look for an answer choice that would say, what the author would respond, like what would he say about his opponent's theory, what would he attack in his opponent's theory? But instead you might see an answer choice like this and fall for it if you're not careful. A summary of the opposing theory and the summary would be true and it would be covered in the passage and it would be familiar and so those were all really appealing aspects of the answer choice but remember just 'cause an answer choice is true, doesn't mean that it's right. So, so important.
Another strategy to keep in mind is that you need to find evidence. The vast majority of the time the right answer choice can be backed up by evidence in the passage and the wrong answers choices can't. It's pretty simple but it's a really good rule to stick with. So whenever you see an answer choice that you have no support for in the passage, very simply be suspicious of it. Not too complicated. Another quick rule, you want to avoid extremes. This is not a hard and first rule but it is a good guideline to keep in mind as you're looking through the answer choices. You want to avoid extreme answer choices for a couple of reasons; first of all test makers don't want to offend anybody so they don't want to call some great philosopher a moron or some class of people, total losers and in addition wishy-washy answers, more general answers, tend to be a little easier to defend than extreme ones. So for instances an answer choice that claimed that the protagonist in a passage was a good guy, would be easier to defend than an answer choice that claimed that he was the number one awesomest guy in the history of the universe. So pretty simple.
Now when you avoid extremes you want to be on the lookout for extreme words and there is not a single short list but this will give you an idea what you should be watching out for. You know if you see a word like always, you want to ask yourself, "Really, always, a hundred percent of the time? That's a little bit suspicious." So always could be in the right answer but as soon as you see it, you should consider it a red flag and ask yourself if it really is always and if the answer choice really is right. Similarly with these other words, things like; impossible, everyone; really, those are really strong statements so make sure they're true before you choose them. On the flip side, you should be less suspicious having more drawn to answer choices with moderate words. It's a lot easier to defend an answer choice that has words like, 'usually' or 'may' or 'suggest', so those are much more appealing. This doesn't mean that every answer choice with 'always' is automatically wrong and every answer choice with 'suggest' is automatically right but it's just something good to keep in mind as you're narrowing down your selections.
And one more, a little wrong is all wrong. What this means is that a single word or phrase or series of words in an answer choice makes the whole answer choice wrong. Now that sounds kind of obvious but it's something that people forget a lot. Like they often look at an answer choice that sounds pretty good when they start reading and they get a little sloppy and by the time time they get to any of the answer choice, they're not reading closely anymore. And often time there will be a wrong word or phrase that occurs with the end of an answer choice and you're not reading critically anymore and so you miss it. So you should watch out for words or phrases that aren't quite right, especially ones that fall at the very end of an answer choice, when you might not be reading closely anymore, 'cause that's a good way to make an answer choice it sounds really, really appealing, maybe even repeat certain words or phrases from a passage so it sounds super familiar from being right. So let's take a look at these strategies and action with a simple SAT problem.
So here is a sample reading passage we're going to look at in the context of those principals and the strategies we just talked about. First off take a moment to read this so that you can actually get something out of the process of walking through the answer choices. Okay now that you've a look let's see the question and go through the answer choices together. So we start out by looking at the question and as I mentioned earlier, it's not a question is it? But we should rephrase it as a question so that we can answer it in our own words. A question would be quite simply, what's the purpose of this passage or what's the primary purpose of the passage? And you should definitely go through and make a prediction but for now we're going to go through the answer choices and first talk about why they are all appealing because they're actually pretty good distracters. And then lastly look at why they are all wrong except for of course the right answer. So A, is the purpose to inform reader about the middle ages and renaissance? Now I could see if you thought that was appealing because here is a portion of the passage, "This work devoted to the vivid and faithful description of the manners and customs of the middle ages and renaissance." So I can see why someone will be drawn to A.
How about B? To express the author's discontent with other contemporary historians. We are in fact no longer content with this kind of narration blah, blah, blah. So he does sound discontent so that can be an appealing answer choice too. How about C, is the purpose to prove that no past work can rival the author's? Well it says this work answers fully to the requirements of contemporary times and we are in fact no longer content with some of the old history methods. So that's appealing too, right? And D, is the purpose to point out the author's modern approach to history? Well that looks pretty good too, this work fast forward, answers fully to the requirements of contemporary times. Also works and E, maybe the purpose is to ask question about the nature of people's lives at a particular time. And here are a bunch of questions towards the end of the passage right? So that sounds familiar and promising too. Luckily we can eliminate all but the right answer using the principals we've been talking about, so let's go back to A and talk about why that's wrong and go through the others using the same logic.
So if A, was the purpose of the passage to inform the reader about the middle ages and renaissance? Well it's true, the book being discussed informs the reader about the middle ages and the renaissance but that's different. It's not the purpose of the passage, it's the purpose of the work being discussed but not the purpose of the passage before us. So verifying distinction but an important one, you need to answer the question being asked, so that's not going to work. How about B? Well it is true that the author is discontent so you can see why that would appealing but it's with the historians of the past not contemporary historians. So a little wrong saying the word contemporary here is all wrong. It would have to be a different word like past in order to be the right answer. How about C? Is the purpose of the passage to prove that no past word can rival the author's? Okay this is another strategy. The word prove is a pretty strong statement not suggest or indicate but prove and also 'no' is a bit of an over statement, so as a result where we should to be suspicious of this answer, it's a bit strong and that makes it false. D is actually the right answer, so no complaints there and E has a problem as well. It is true that there were some questions that appeared in the passage but that's not the purpose of the passage, it was an aspect of the passage, it was part of the passage but it was not the purpose and since the question was what's the purpose and this isn't the purpose, it's not the answer remember that true doesn't mean right. So with those principals practice on a SAT problem let's sum things up with the bottom line.
So to recap here are the five principals to keep in mind when it comes to avoiding wrong answer choices. First of all rephrase the question in your own words and predict the answer. That way when you go through the answer choices the only one that should jump at you, is the one that matches what you're expecting to see. Also, answer the question being asked, this is so important. Remember that just 'cause something is familiar and it came up in the passage and it may even be true, none of that means that is necessarily the right answer. The right answer answers the question being asked. Third, find evidence in the passage. Right answers are almost always backed up by evidence, wrong answers are not backed up by evidence or even contradicted by evidence in the passage. Fourth, extreme answers are suspicious so be very careful before choosing answer choices with words like always or must and be a little more open to answer choices with words like 'may' or 'can'. And finally remember that a little wrong is all wrong so if you see an answer choice where a word or a phrase is wrong, the answer choice as a whole is out. So that's how to better read your passages.