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Common ACT and SAT Verbal Errors (Part One)

In this lesson and the one that follows, we’re going to cover some of the most common errors that I and other teachers at the Learning Island have seen students make on the Reading and Writing sections of the ACT and SAT. These are mistakes that arise either from not fully understanding the test format or following your “gut” instead of the test rules.


Choosing what “Feels” or “Sounds” Correct

I’ve lost track of the number of times a student has confidently chosen an answer that is either directly contracted by the passage or contains obvious grammatical errors. When I ask the student to explain why he or she chose such an answer, the student will invariably responds that the choice “felt right” or “sounded best.”


While reading and writing are somewhat subjective in the “real world,” every section of the ACT and SAT follows specific rules for what is a right and what is a wrong answer. You can no more “feel” your way to the correct answer on the verbal sections than you can on the Math section. If you find yourself leaning towards an answer solely because it feels or sounds correct, you are almost certainly learning towards a wrong answer.


The “Easter Egg Hunt”

Diving straight into Reading questions without first examining the passage leads to what I like to call the “Easter Egg Hunt”: frantically scrambling to scan the passage for correct answers. There are two keys to minimizing this hunt. The first is to skim the passage before answering any questions. We’ve covered skim-reading techniques in depth in past lessons, but the basic goal is to map out how a passage is structured so you know where to read in depth to answer a given question. For example, if paragraphs 2 and 3 talk about putting together a team of geologists and a question asks when Dr. Jane Rock joined the team, you know that the correct answer must be somewhere in those two paragraphs.


The second key is to not make “egg hunting” any harder than it has to be. If a question asks for something that your “map” can’t account for, read the very first and very last sentence of the passage and each topic sentence before you read anything else. Often the information you seek will be found in one of these locations, especially on the Reading section of the ACT.

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