Once you’re familiar with the Passage-Based Reading section of the SAT, it’s usually easy to eliminate three out of five answer choices, even on difficult questions. Selecting the right answer from the remaining two, however, can be considerably more challenging. Many test-takers simply guess, resigning themselves to a 50% chance of picking the right answer. Fortunately, there is a better way to tackle this problem.
If you’ve taken a Veritas Prep SAT course or read the SAT 2400 book, you’re familiar with the strategy “Don’t Defend, Do Attack”. Essentially, it refers to the fact that confidently spotting the answer choices’ flaws is more effective than noticing their strong points. This is because multiple answer choices in any given SAT question (or even all five answer choices) can contain correct information backed by evidence in the passage. Many trick questions draw a reader’s eye by mixing correct and incorrect information. However, only one answer choice will be entirely free of assumptions, off-topic arguments, and unsupported claims.
This strategy is helpful throughout the Passage-Based Reading section, but becomes absolutely essential when all but two answer choices have been eliminated. The easiest answer choices to eliminate are those that contain little to no information supported by the passage, so the last two answer choices are usually similar in that they are both highly plausible. To pick out the wrong answer, search for the flaws; don’t waste your time considering the merits of each answer, since both will almost certainly have merits.
Consider this example, taken from a recent SAT administration. Skim through the following passage. Don’t worry about the details; just pick up the main idea, and then focus on the last sentence, which is the subject of our sample question. This passage is taken from a pair of Long Comparison Passages, but the question relates only to Passage 2, so only that passage is shown.
(A) is easy to eliminate. The sentence does not mention artists facing moral dilemmas while selling their work; in fact, the entire passage never mentions artists selling their work at all, beyond a single cursory mention of “book buyers”. This answer choice is not supported by the passage.
(B) is also easy to eliminate. The last sentence discusses the government’s role in financing artists, not the artists’ need for money. This answer choice is not supported by the passage.
(C) seems possible. It mentions that it would be a bad thing if the public subsidized art. That seems to align with the views of the author, and is pretty relevant to the last sentence. The author even spends the fifth paragraph discussing bureaucrats’ views on art.
(D) seems possible, too. The author doesn’t want humanists (artists) to be funded by the government, since that could limit artistic freedom. The last sentence essentially summarizes that view.
(E) is easy to eliminate. Other social programs have nothing to do with the last sentence. This answer choice is not supported by the passage.
To choose between (C) and (D), it is important to note that (C) assumes that the author’s focus is specifically the public rather than the government. As test-takers, we can reason that government funding for art would probably draw on money collected from the public. Because the author’s argument is based on the role of the government, not of the public, in art, and because the public is not directly mentioned in the passage at all, (D) is more correct than (C). (C) makes the faulty assumption that the author’s point is to express concern about the public subsidizing art, rather than the government funding art. The difference is subtle but key.
Three answer choice eliminations bring your chances up to 50%, but are not enough to achieve a high score. The fourth answer choice elimination is almost always the most difficult, but is the most important in that it identifies the correct answer. The best SAT scorers look not only for supported information, but also for the small details that truly set the right answers apart from the wrong.
Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.