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How NOT to Answer ACT and SAT Passage-Based Reading Questions

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In the past we’ve covered strategies for answering ACT and ACT passage-based reading questions. In this lesson, we’re going to highlight some of the things that you should not do while attempting to answer these questions. Many of these approaches would be acceptable, even encouraged, during a high school or college literature class. However, ACT and SAT critical reading take the form of multiple-choice exams. Each question can have only one correct, directly-supported answer. The very techniques that make for success in a “real world” literature class can actually hurt you on the ACT and SAT.

Do not try to get into the author’s head
Try to avoid thinking about what the author of a passage would say in various hypothetical situations. The ACT and SAT both include incorrect answer choices that “sound” like something the author would write but that are not actually found in the passage. Don’t be fooled by questions that ask what an author might think about a certain scenario. These types of questions are based entirely on the presence or absence of certain information within the passage itself.

Do not over think a question
All the critical reading questions on the ACT and SAT are designed to be answered in less than a minute. The longer you have to think about an answer choice, the greater the chance that that choice is incorrect. If you find yourself coming up with an elaborate explanation for why an answer choice is correct, there is a good chance that you are either overlooking some obvious piece of supporting evidence in the passage or that you have the wrong choice altogether.

Do not change your answer
One of the worst things you can do on any section of the ACT or SAT is to change your first choice for an answer to another possible answer. While there is research available to suggest that the opposite strategy yields a higher probability of success, none of it (to the best of my knowledge) has been conducted on college entrance exams. In my own anecdotal experience as an ACT and SAT tutor, students who decide to revise their original answer choices consistently change from correct to incorrect answers.

Do not go with your “gut” answer
While you should absolutely go with your first answer choice, that choice should not be one chosen by raw instinct. Just as over-thinking a question can lead you to the wrong answer, so can under-thinking the answer choices. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve asked a student why he or she chose an incorrect answer choice over a correct one that is clearly spelled out in the passage. More often than not, students have told me that these erroneous answer choices simply “felt” like the correct ones. The trick here is to train yourself to take your “gut” out of the question answering process. You need to learn to analyze each question and answer choice literally and objectively. Carefully consider what is present in or absent from the text, but stop before you dive in so deeply that you risk committing the “author’s head” or “over-thinking” errors discussed above.

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