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Catching the Trickiness of SAT Critical Reading

The SAT likes to throw all sorts of curveballs at students, and the Critical Reading section is no exception. To the undiscerning eye, questions that are blatantly obvious become the stages on which students make their biggest blunders. It’s important to remember that on Critical Reading, the SAT wants to trick; it wants to see you slip on the stage and land into a fat whip-creamed pie. Your failure is its success.

How does one beat the SAT? With knowledge, of course. But not the kind that you’ve been developing since kindergarten. College Board is an institution like many of the others you’ve encountered in your academic career, and as such, you expect it to create straightforward tests, to “play by the rules.” Its questions--and more importantly, its answers--are designed to varying degrees of difficulty, and just as there are some questions that are stupidly simple, there are others that should make you think twice. It is this balance of easy and hard that can disorient the average test-taker and lull them into a false sense of security.

For Critical Reading, it’s necessary that you see how answers are written to throw your steps off course, to make you miss the music of the test and fall flat on your face. In many cases, the test likes tricking students with one surefire method:

Throwing information at you that has nothing to do with what the text says.

Notice that I am really emphasizing the word “text.” You may have all sorts of thoughts, feelings, interpretations, outsider info, or whatever else about the subject, but if the text doesn’t spell X out rather clearly, then the passage never mentioned X, and therefore any answer that touches on X is wrong.

But wait! It’s not that simple. There’s a difference between including an answer about dinosaurs when the passage is about Victorian England and an answer about two aspects of Victorian England, one of which is dangerously close to what the text talks about and the other of which is naturally on point. This advice isn’t for the super obvious cases. It’s for when you really think a passage should be about something that it actually never addresses. Don’t let your personal desires about content blur what actually appears on the page.

What exactly does this look like? Let’s take a question from one of the College Board practice tests as our example:

[The first half of the literature passage appears before the question. The literature passage is an excerpt of a short story by Saki, published in 1911. The question is from College Board.]

Lady Carlotta stepped out on to the platform of the small wayside station and took a turn or two up and down its uninteresting length, to kill time till the train should be pleased to proceed on its way. Then, in the roadway beyond, she saw a horse struggling with a more than ample load, and a carter of the sort that seems to bear a sullen hatred against the animal that helps him to earn a living. Lady Carlotta promptly betook her to the roadway, and put rather a different complexion on the struggle. Certain of her acquaintances were wont to give her plentiful admonition as to the undesirability of interfering on behalf of a distressed animal, such interference being "none of her business." Only once had she put the doctrine of non-interference into practice, when one of its most eloquent exponents had been besieged for nearly three hours in a small and extremely uncomfortable may-tree by an angry boar-pig, while Lady Carlotta, on the other side of the fence, had proceeded with the water-colour sketch she was engaged on, and refused to interfere between the boar and his prisoner. It is to be feared that she lost the friendship of the ultimately rescued lady. On this occasion she merely lost the train, which gave way to the first sign of impatience it had shown throughout the journey, and steamed off without her. She bore the desertion with philosophical indifference; her friends and relations were thoroughly well used to the fact of her luggage arriving without her. She wired a vague non-committal message to her destination to say that she was coming on "by another train." Before she had time to think what her next move might be she was confronted by an imposingly attired lady, who seemed to be taking a prolonged mental inventory of her clothes and looks.

"You must be Miss Hope, the governess I've come to meet," said the apparition, in a tone that admitted of very little argument.

"Very well, if I must I must," said Lady Carlotta to herself with dangerous meekness.

"I am Mrs. Quabarl," continued the lady; "and where, pray, is your luggage?"

…[passage continues for 55 more lines]...

The description of how Lady Carlotta “put doctrine of non-interference into practice” mainly serves to

A) foreshadow her capacity for deception

B) illustrate the subtle cruelty in her nature

C) provide a humorous insight into her character

D) explain a surprising change in her behavior

First, we have to understand that Lady Carlotta’s friends find her to be nosy and interested in other people’s business; that’s her typical behavior. The part in question describes a time when Lady Carlotta decided not to intervene in someone else’s affairs--in this case, she was painting and her acquaintance was being attacked by a boar. Notice that the scene does not begin with a discussion of anything other than she once decided to remain passive, and the scene is a bit comical, because she is painting and her acquaintance is getting attacked--the juxtaposition here is supposed to be funny. Hence, we are in pretty good shape to choose answer “C,” which is the correct answer.

However, students love choosing the other options. Let’s look at how the wrong answers appeal to the test-taker.

A) foreshadow her capacity for deception

This answer is a perfect example of the SAT putting ideas into your head. You are attracted to this answer because this scene is mentioned right before the moment when Mrs. Quabarl mistakes Lady Carlotta for someone else. Yet, notice that the text does not indicate anywhere in the wording that Lady Carlotta is deceptive. Since the narrator doesn’t point out her deceptiveness at any point, then the answer is wrong. Also, it is factually inaccurate; even though Lady Carlotta doesn’t correct Mrs. Quabarl’s misunderstanding, she doesn’t actively deceive Mrs. Quabarl.

B) illustrate the subtle cruelty of her nature

This answer is tricky because it appeals to the students who want SAT CR to be a test based on interpretation and creative thought. Unfortunately, this is not that test. This is another case where the answer gives you ideas that definitely make sense, except these ideas aren’t addressed in the text. Nowhere in the passage does the narrator tip the reader off on Lady Carlotta’s subtle cruelty. Sure, we could label Lady Carlotta’s behavior as “subtle cruelty” because she doesn’t help an acquaintance in need, but we could call it anything, because we are all different people with different interpretations of behavior. The SAT can’t make a multiple-choice test based on how thousands of teenagers interpret behaviors, so it needs something more concrete to work with--hence, the literal wording of the test.

D) explain a surprising change in her behavior

This is another tricky answer, especially because it, like the others, appeals to some truth we understand about the text. In this case, we can at least see that there is some difference between how Lady Carlotta usually behaves--she butts into other people’s business--and how she behaved with her acquaintance and the boar. Notice, however, how the one instance is not described as shocking or unexpected but simply as the one case of “non-intervention”--it’s just the exception! The narrator doesn’t seem surprised at all...just read the text again.

Going through these wrong answers, do you notice one quality of the correct answer? It’s rather vague. Other than saying the text provides a “humorous insight,” which you may not find very funny, it also says that it is an “insight into her character.” This vagueness allows pretty much any observation in those lines to work with the answer. The “humor” element definitely helps, because we do see the comical juxtaposition, but even without that, the vagueness of the answer is a sure sign that the SAT has deemed this one the best. The SAT loves being vague.

Vagueness aside, the main point is that interpretations and ideas can make sense, but if they are not clearly identified in the passage, then you are in trouble. Big, pie-in-the-face trouble. Don’t let the wrong answers put ideas in your head. Use the literal phrasing of the text to guide you to the correct answer. You are stronger than this, and your performance on the wondrous, rickety stage of the SAT will be all the better if you keep confident and don’t overthink your steps.

If you are seeking a little extra help on how to approach the Critical Reading passages, or any part of the SAT for that matter, than consider checking out our test-prep services. We have tutors happy to help work with you on any part of the test. At B2A, we know that life’s a stage, and all the test-takers are merely players, so we want to make sure that the players aren’t pie-faced but instead hitting the right steps.


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