A Quick and Easy Adjustment for SAT Passage Questions

SATWhat is your typical method for solving SAT Passage-Based Reading questions?  You probably read through the passage, try to comprehend as much as possible while reading for speed and then when you get to the question, you try to read the question and find which answer looks the best, right?  Well, what if we told you that the method of “trying to find the correct” answer is actually very error prone and will lead you to be unsure of your selection and result in quite a few incorrect answers?

The SAT test writers are very good at creating answer choices that look correct but are actually wrong.  At the end of the day, each question has exactly one correct answer and four answer choices that are incorrect for one reason or another.

The problem with trying to spot the correct answer off the bat is that you’re looking through five answer choices that all look somewhat defensible especially if you are dealing with a more difficult question.  The approach that you should actually take is to systematically eliminate incorrect answer choices by looking at reasons why they are wrong.  Any particular word, phrase or idea in an answer choice can potentially invalidate the answer choice.  When you make this quick and easy adjustment from “looking for the right answer” to “trying to eliminate incorrect answers,” a few things will happen:

  • It’s easier to find the right answer after eliminating 2-3 incorrect choices
  • If you had to guess, you will likely have a better chance to guessing right
  • Eliminating all the incorrect answers shows that you understand the passage
  • Eliminating wrong answers builds your confidence since you are more sure of your final answer
  • You get accustomed to how wrong answer choices are written

Let’s examine the following short passage and try to apply the technique to the question.  This question appears on the 2007-2008 official SAT pre-test.

In the summer of 1911, the explorer Hiram Bingham III
bushwhacked his way to a high ridge in the Andes of Peru
and beheld a dreamscape out of the past.  There, set against
looming peaks cloaked in snow and wreathed in clouds,
was Machu Picchu, the famous “lost city” of the Incas.
This expression, popularized by Bingham, served as a
magical elixir for rundown imaginations.  The words
evoked the romanticism of exploration and archaeology at
the time.  But finding Machu Picchu was easier than the
solving the mystery of its place in the rich and powerful
Inca empire.  The imposing architecture attested to the skill
and audacity of the Incas.  But who had lived at this
isolated site and for what purpose?

The “mystery” discussed in lines 10-13 is most analogous to that encountered in which of the following situations?

(A)  Being unable to located the source of materials used to construct an ancient palace

(B)  Being unable to reconcile archaeological evidence with mythical descriptions of an ancient city

(C)  Being unable to explain how ancient peoples constructed imposing monuments using only primitive technology

(D)  Being unable to understand the religious function of a chamber found inside an ancient temple

(E)  Being unable to discover any trace of a civilization repeatedly mentioned by ancient authors


Since this question mentions some line numbers, you will want to re-read those lines and try to formulate an answer before looking at the choices.  The last line reads “But who had lived at this isolated site and for what purpose?”  This indicates that the mystery mentioned has something to do with “figuring out who lived there and what it was used for.”  Instead of looking for a correct answer choice, let’s start eliminating answer choices first:

  1. This can be eliminated since the mystery doesn’t have anything  do with finding out about the materials used in the construction
  2. This can be eliminated because mythical descriptions of the city are not mentioned and there is no indication that anyone is trying to reconcile mythical descriptions with the actual archaeological evidence
  3. This can be eliminated because the passage does not mention anything about trying to explain how the structures were built
  4. This answer choice most closely matches our objective since it talks about being unable to explain the “purpose” of a structure, similar to how the author closes the passage with a question about the “purpose” of Machu Picchu
  5. This is incorrect because the passage does not mention descriptions by ancient authors

Thus, the correct answer is D.

Note how tricky the answer choices are!  Each of them could be potentially defensible if you were actually trying to “look for the right answer.”  Each answer choice has elements that are correct but all of them except D have elements that do not match with the passage.  As a result, by looking for reasons to eliminate answer choices rather than looking for reasons why they could be correct, we are avoiding the temptations that the SAT writers put in front of us.  For example, answer choice C is likely a very common incorrect answer choice since the same lines (10-13) say something about “imposing structures.”  But when you look more closely, the skill and audacity of the builders are simply acknowledged with no mystery around them.  However, it’s very easy to fall into this trap since a common technique that the SAT uses is to use similar language in the answer choices as in the passage in order to “bait” students into picking the wrong answer.  But, if you train yourself to look for reasons why answer choices are wrong, you are far less likely to fall into this trap!

Next time you practice Passage-Based Reading problems on the SAT, be sure to make this easy adjustment and notice how much more confident you will be!

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Jason Sun is the Director of College Prep for Veritas Prep. When he’s not in the office, he can be found competing in swing dance competitions or defending his title as a table tennis champion.