Anyone who really wishes to achieve success on the SAT should not only be able to identify what makes up a correct answer, but also what makes an incorrect answer. The anatomy of an incorrect answer choice is not as complex as one might expect and gives students an important tool in selecting the correct answer choice: the power to eliminate all the other, less deserving options. The most common characteristic of an incorrect answer choice is the fact that it cannot possibly be correct given the context of the problem.
This is a tip that can help with all sections of the SAT. An incorrect answer choice often cannot possibly be correct. In math, that often means a choice that is way to large or too small, an equation that does not accomplish the goal that is stated by the equation, or the answer is otherwise unfeasible in context.
For instance, say the question was as follows:
“A taxi charges d dollars for the first two miles and c cents per quarter mile for every mile after the first two. Which equation describes cost of a taxi ride of n miles in dollars.”
A) dn – c/8(100)
B) cd + 4n-8/200
C) d + (4cn-8c)/100
D) d + 100cn/4
E) 4cd(n-2) – 100
This is about as complicated as these types of problems come, but it is essentially the same as any problem which has an initial cost which is added to a dependent additional cost. Looking at the problem, we notice that the cost d is added to the mile dependent cost, which is some combination of the other terms listed in the problem. With just that knowledge we can eliminate all but two of the answer choices! Choices (A), (B), and (E) either do some strange calculation with the initial cost d, or subtract the additional cost from d. Both of these circumstances would be next to impossible if there is an initial cost being added to another cost. Thus, we only have to choose between choice (C) and choice (D). We can easily find the right answer by plugging in real numbers and checking which choice yields a correct answer. We can also see that answer choice (D) seems to be multiplying the cost in cents by 100, which, if the trip was 6 miles and the charge per mile was 25 cents, would make the taxi cost an additional $3750! This seems impossible, and leaves only the correct answer choice, (C).
The biggest factor that makes a reading answer choice incorrect is the fact that it is not discussed in the passage. By far the most repeated question I ask my students is “where is this answer stated or implied in the passage?” If something is not stated or can not be reasonably implied by the passage, it CAN NOT be the answer choice. I have begun having my students write the exact words referenced from the passage on their answer sheets to see which answer choice is closest in meaning to the statement taken directly from the passage.
More often than not, the correct answer choice is nearly identical in meaning (though usually not identical in its wording) to the selection from the passage. The answer is almost always directly stated in the passage, the few times that this is not the case, the wrong answers are so glaringly NOT stated in the part of the passage being referenced that only one answer choice is even remotely possible.
The incorrect answer choices in the writing section are either sentences that contain glaring errors, as in the improving sentences and paragraphs sections, or are parts of sentences that are underlined but do not contain errors, as in the identifying sentence errors section. The trick with finding the impossible choices on the writing section, is understanding that there are really only a finite number of types of errors that are common on the SAT. Let’s look at an example.
“Just behind the the new school house in town are a row of corn stalks which seems to rise up out of the ground as if summoned by some unknown force towards the sky. No Error.”
In this case, the impossible answer choices are choices that could not contain an error common to the writing section of the SAT. The first underlined section is simply a combination of an adverb and a preposition, which are fine to combine, as in “Jim was just inside the door.” An error here would be next to impossible. The third underlined portion is an infinitive verb (any verb in the form of “to ‘verb’”) which would most likely be incorrect if it was acting as a conjugated verb. This one is fine since it follows the conjugated verb “seems”. The only common SAT error that could be present in the fourth underlined portion is an idiomatic error with the phrase “rise…as if summoned by”. We can check this construction by trying to build another similar construction. Could you say “He spoke as if possessed by the devil” or “He moved as if drugged by some powerful narcotic”? Both of those are fine (though they seem unfamiliar because they are in the passive voice). This leaves only the second underline portion which contains a verb. The only real problems possible here are conjugation and agreement problems. Everything is in the present tense, so the conjugation is fine, but what subject does the verb “are” refer to? By golly, it refers to “a row”! It should be “IS a row” instead of “are a row.”
By understanding what errors are likely in a section of a a sentence, it is much easier to determine which choices could not possibly contain errors and which errors to check for in the ones that could contain errors. Understanding incorrect answer choices is very helpful in finding correct answer choices. Often by learning to eliminate the impossible choices, it becomes much easier to spot the choices that are possible and to score at the highest level on the SAT. Happy studying.
David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.