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The Mechanics of the Inference

Imagine that you are a repair person for a car. The problem is the car will not start, so you lift up the hood to diagnose the problem. You don’t check the tires, open the trunk, inspect the lights, or look at the paint job. There is a specific area on which you focus, and really the other stuff is not that important. When solving SAT Critical Reading problems, you have to take the same approach. Just like the mechanic, you too will diagnose the “engine” of the questions -- the specific part of the passage referenced -- not getting lost by examining all the different aspects of the text.

For many reading exams, the term “inference” means that you use information from the text and make an educated deduction or guess about a situation that relates to the material. For example, let’s say a test asks you why a certain character decides to embark on a quest to learn about herself. The passage states problems with the character’s life -- maybe a bad job, maybe a crumbling relationship -- and these factors probably contribute to the decision. You would take the materials of the passage and use them to make an explanation: “She left to embark on her quest because she was not fulfilled at her work or with her spouse, so she decided to take matters into her own hands to attain happiness.” Usually this process involves a large synthesis of information -- or taking the ideas of the passage as a whole and coming up with a response.

That’s not how it works on the SAT. See, the SAT Critical Reading section has a very particular way of quizzing students on information. Where many reading tests will assume that you have read the passage and are answering questions based on comprehension and analysis done while reading, the SAT Critical Reading demands that you analyze specific parts of the passage, assuming that you did not have enough time to really understand the passage. This leads to questions that want you to look at particular line references and answer based on the information surrounding the reference. You shouldn’t consider all the facts of the passage -- however much sense that seems to make -- but always focus on the “local” information.

The “inference” questions fall into this same method of solving. You need to look at the specific part of the passage that the question references and make a usually pretty obvious conclusion based on the information presented. In other words, “inference” on the SAT means that you need to look at the facts and make an assumption that is nearly spelled out for you. It may not be stated verbatim, but, again, it should be fairly straightforward. With all of this in mind, you should definitely avoid jumping to any kind of creative conclusions. Do not make inferences that go beyond the scope of the passage, and especially don’t make inferences that go beyond the ideas in the referenced section. Just like they say in food ads, stay local!

The SAT is a car that has 2400 horsepower, and you need to be a smart mechanic that can solve its problems without getting enchanted by its outward appearance. Focus on the specific areas that need help. You will be one happy worker, and the test can continue purring like it always did.

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