How to Answer SAT Critical Reading Questions without Reading the Passages

By | April 17, 2008

In my last post – How I improved my SAT Critical Reading Score By 150 Points – I emphasized the importance of focusing on the Questions and Answer Choices, rather than the reading passages themselves. In that post, I explained how to avoid some of the pitfalls in the reading comprehension questions by noticing indicators of poor answer choices. If you need to improve your Critical Reading score, I suggest you start there.

In this post, I’ll explain some of the factors of a good Critical Reading comprehension answer choice. But first, consider this. Did you know there are standardized test-taking experts who make a game out of taking SAT Critical Reading tests WITHOUT reading the passages?? Read the excerpt below from an article by Malcolm Gladwell that was published in the New Yorker:

Critics of the S.A.T. have long made a kind of parlor game of seeing how many questions on the reading-comprehension section (where a passage is followed by a series of multiple-choice questions about its meaning) can be answered without reading the passage. David Owen, in the anti-S.A.T. account “None of the Above,” gives the following example, adapted from an actual S.A.T. exam:

1. The main idea of the passage is that:

A) a constricted view of [this novel] is natural and acceptable
B) a novel should not depict a vanished society
C) a good novel is an intellectual rather than an emotional experience
D) many readers have seen only the comedy [in this novel]
E) [this novel] should be read with sensitivity and an open mind

If you’ve never seen an S.A.T. before, it might be difficult to guess the right answer. But if, through practice and exposure, you have managed to assimilate the ideology of the S.A.T. – the kind of decent, middlebrow earnestness that permeates the test – it’s possible to develop a kind of gut feeling for the right answer, the confidence to predict, in the pressure and rush of examination time, what the S.A.T. is looking for. A is suspiciously postmodern. B is far too dogmatic. C is something that you would never say to an eager, college-bound student. Is it D? Perhaps, but D seems too small a point. It’s probably E–and, sure enough, it is.

With that in mind, try this question:

2. The author of [this passage] implies that a work of art is properly judged on the basis of its:

A) universality of human experience truthfully recorded
B) popularity and critical acclaim in its own age
C) openness to varied interpretations, including seemingly contradictory ones
D) avoidance of political and social issues of minor importance
E) continued popularity through different eras and with different societies

Is it any surprise that the answer is A? Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of the anti-test group FairTest, says that when he got a copy of the latest version of the S.A.T. the first thing he did was try the reading comprehension section blind. He got twelve out of thirteen questions right.

The thing about these experts is that they don’t do this to prove how smart they are, or to prove how good they are at taking standardized tests. Most of these people are CRITICS of standardized tests! They do this to prove, or point out, the flawed nature of standardized test: the SAT Critical Reading Sections don’t really test for Reading Comprehensions.

So how do they do this? What they’re doing is simply pointing out what many high scorers on the SAT have known all along. Continue reading as I point out some of the indicators of good Critical Reading answers choices below.

Anatomy of a Good SAT Critical Reading Answer Choice

Have you ever noticed that many of the SAT Critical Reading reading comprehension answer choices is a matter of opinion? You ever think to yourself, “WTF, both the answers could be correct?” While in reality, you’re probably right; you could justify almost any answer choice on this test, you have to keep in mind that the SAT is a “standardized” test. That means that only the answer choices that can be justified “objectively” according to the CollegeBoard’s standards are correct. And since the Collegboard people are the ones who grade your tests, that’s what you’ll have to deal with. Well then, your goal should be to discern what types of answer choices the CollegeBoard wants. Remember, your goal is to learn to think like the creators of the SAT.

The 5 Factors of a Good SAT Critical Reading Answer Choice:

So without further ado, here are the Five factors that make a Good Critical Reading answer choice:

1. The Correct answer will always be the most defendable

Consider the following sentence:

– The recent findings on the uses of medical marijuana are the most controversial ever!

While such a sentence is typical of something you might read in the newspaper headlines, overhear in daily conversation, or even find in this blog, it’s too extreme to be the correct answer on an SAT test. As the extreme words “most” and “ever” suggest – as I pointed out in my last post – make this statement very hard to defend. How is one to objectively know that anything is the most controversial? And ever? That’s quite a timeframe to cover. This statement is more of an opinion than anything objectively measurable, and not likely something the author of a passage on the SAT would claim.

Good SAT answer choices on the other hand will be more defendable. They tend to have more moderate word choice and avoid the sweeping generalizations such as the one above. Rather than absolute ideas, they convey the ideas of more moderate terms such as may, might, can, or could.

2. Good answer choices are often paraphrased

The CollegeBoard people know that students will like employ the strategy of simply looking for keywords. A student may read the referenced portion of the passage, then look for keywords that appear among the answer choices. However, a choice that takes a lot of key words from the passage is often a trap.

On the other hand, the CollegeBoard people have gone through the trouble to paraphrase an answer choice, that is like to be the choice. For example, is a passage describes a character who is “sensitive to other peoples needs,” a correct answer choice may describe him as a “considerate” individual; a trap, on the contrary would may simply call him a “sensitive” person.

3. Good answer choices are often ones that are echoed in other questions

Ever realize that a few of the questions on pertaining to a Critical Reading passage point out the same thing? Well you should because it’s typical to see this in this section. It’s not that the test developers want to ask the same question over and over, it’s just that the question is pointing to one of the major themes of the passage! So if you think about it, while the questions may point to different parts of the passage, all the parts of the passage should serve the same purpose for the author: to further support his main idea.

4. Good Answer choices are politically correct

Not only are they politically correct, they’re in line with how society deems well-educated intellectuals should think. Ironically it’s probably not politically correct to be so crude in pointing this out, but my goal it’s simply true. This is what Malcolm Gladwell means when he more articulately points out “the kind of decent, middlebrow earnestness that permeates the test.”

5. Finally, Good Answer choices point out universal qualities of society and human nature.

This is especially true when the answer choice is in accord with my last point (#4). When both these qualities are found in an answer choice, it’s very likely the correct answer. Often times these answer choices will literally use the word universal – or a variation of it.

This concludes my tips on the reading comprehension question on the SAT. If anything is unclear, please comment below. I’d be glad to help you out.

For more advice and practice on the SAT Critical Reading Sections, get Adam Robinson’s Rocket Review Revolution: the Ultimate Guide to the New SAT.

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Topics: Reading Passages, SAT Critical Reading | 24 Comments »

24 Responses to “How to Answer SAT Critical Reading Questions without Reading the Passages”

  1. Jay Says:
    May 2nd, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    Could you elaborate a little more in this section on the 5 things I should look for? 3,4,and 5 look a little underdeveloped. Thanks for all your work

  2. ahmed Says:
    May 13th, 2008 at 11:40 am

    i want to be perfect at critical reading

  3. Grace Says:
    November 30th, 2008 at 3:38 am

    Hi, your tips have helped me enormously!
    But, could you explain #4 and 5 with provided examples as you did for the previous tips?

  4. Carlos Says:
    March 26th, 2010 at 12:37 am

    The new library on campus (A. dedicated to the former university president) and the student recreation center (B. built on the old lot) (C. was funded) (D. by private) endowment. (E) No Error

    You said that the flaw was found in C. (was founded). However, I believe that THE NEW LIBRARY WHICH was dedicated to him and it and was built there, WAS FOUNDED… I believe they are talking about how the new library was founded and also, after the word campus all the way to the word lot, all that is information that one has to keep in mind, just so we know. They are just telling us “why and where” it WAS founded.
    I was looking at this question for minutes, and i could’t find a possible explanation of why the answer is C and not E. Please tell me why you think it’s C. because i am so confused! =O

    Thanks in advance

  5. How I improved my Critical Reading Score by 150 Points | SAT Ninja: SAT Test Prep Expert Says:
    May 20th, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    […] out my next post here: How to Answer SAT Critical Reading Questions without Reading the Passages Share and […]

  6. How to Answer Inference Questions on SAT Critical Reading Passages | SAT Ninja: SAT Test Prep Expert Says:
    May 20th, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    […] How to Answer SAT Critical Reading Passages WITHOUT Reading the Passages […]

  7. Syed Says:
    June 22nd, 2010 at 6:12 pm


    Thank you very much for having post these excellent tips and I find them to be helpful. I haven’t taken an official SAT yet, but the ones that I took for practice a while ago, my average on CR was 520. I am not a good English speaker and I’m trying really hard to somehow bring up my score for CR. I was wondering if you have some specific strategies on how to read the passages and answer the different types of questions that are found in the CR section

    Thank you once again.

  8. Sadi Says:
    October 7th, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    library and center were founded

  9. Megan Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    I had taken the SAT 4x and my highest scores were:
    Math: 790
    Reading: 610
    Writing: 670

    After following these tips, I scored a 710 on the reading. That’s a 100 point increase! I was so ecstatic! I can’t believe what scammers these test-makers are… I thought I had a serious reading comprehension problem, but the problem was that I didn’t know the secrets of the test.


  10. May Says:
    January 18th, 2011 at 8:24 am

    hey, this is really helpful, i liked the way you organized it, but actually i don’t understand point 4, and point 3 is unclear. i only got till now a score of 1700, my main problem is in critical and essay. actually English is not my first language, so critical reading is a frustrating section for me. when i solve at home with timing and answer sheet i get 620, 600, 590. but in the real exam i got 460 only. i improved my vocabulary A LOT!! i have successfully memorized 600 words as lists, and a great portion of words from school, search, passages, etc… that can exceed 400 words. i know that your tips will definitely help me improve my score at least 50 points. thanks a lot. But i wanted to ask, is it possible to improve my score in the upcoming trial 200+ points. i have studied extra 320+ words for critical, new GREAT new tips for writing an essay (i got the 2nd best essay in my class after using them), i knew that i used to write MOST math grid in answers in a wrong way although i solved them right (which affected my score negatively in November’s test “-60 points”) , and i have studied more writing and exercised more often. if i got a much higher score next time ,, i would definitely give this site a great thanking!!!
    anyways jan’s exam is 4 days away, please tell me what can i do in these final days, solve what, how much and how!!
    May (sorry i have been garrulous)

  11. trey j Says:
    May 5th, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    thanks for all ur assistance..i wanted to kno if the number of questions in each of the three sections in the critical reading affect the way your score is graded? pls i need to kno da answer to that question…if u could answer it, i’d be most thankful…

  12. Sidney Says:
    July 13th, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Does the strategy of avoiding bad answer choices and looking for good answer choices work for all types of questions on the critical reading section? 🙂
    What if I come to a point where I can’t define bad or good answer choices?

  13. sol Says:
    July 20th, 2011 at 7:58 am

    this is really helpful!!! 🙂
    thanks so much,
    i’ve always heard ppl say similar things abt how to eliminate answer choices, but
    this def. helped me a lot!

  14. Imoohi Ruth Says:
    August 31st, 2011 at 7:08 am

    am having problems on hw to answer reference questions.pls higlight on it in a simple way.thks

  15. Deb Says:
    January 23rd, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    I don’t get inference questions. Help

  16. Eric Says:
    June 20th, 2012 at 5:31 am

    Thanks for the help…am getting better with time…

  17. Kelly Nguyen Says:
    June 24th, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    I need help on the Critical Reading Section. My Critical Reading score is very low. Hope your site helps.


  18. Kelly Nguyen Says:
    June 24th, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    I will try your advice to see if it works.


  19. deeksha Says:
    July 3rd, 2012 at 11:57 am

    hi ,i took sat in may and got only 1520 .i intend to take the test in oct.i need to get atleast 1800.pls what should i do and how should i practice

  20. Nelly Says:
    September 26th, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    After reading this (hoping to cram for the SAT the night before- don’t do that- visit this site and study it carefully as soon as possible) my CR score increased from a 650 to a 740, I wish I had read it sooner and practiced more, but all the same, thank you so much SAT ninja!

  21. coolguy Says:
    November 11th, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    This was very helpful. From reading your little tips , my sat score improved a lot. Thank you so much. Can you clarify sections 3, 4, and 5. Those are the only ones I don’t get.

  22. Mrunmayee Says:
    July 13th, 2013 at 4:52 am

    This was really helpful in my real SAT. I had to solve 6 questions in last 2 minutes. I used this and got 4 rights!

  23. SATPRO Says:
    September 28th, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    SAT test is within a week from now and i am really looking forward to improve my score by at LEAST 150. Can you show me one example of a reading comprehension question to demonstrate. I am a visual learner. And what do i do if i don’t understand the passage or the question is confusing. Time is ticking and please help me. If my score improve at least by 150 i will donate. Please share more of what you know with me on how to improve SAT reading section:D

  24. Julian Says:
    September 18th, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks a lot for your tips I have been trying them and so far they have been very helpful. Apart from getting the questions right I also want to understand what I read. I may take as fast as a minute and a half to read a whole long passage and still not understand anything I read. It would be my joy if you can help me on this.Thank you.


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