And question everything.
One of the most helpful resources for a difficult and confusing standardized test question is the set of answer choices that are provided to you (except for grid-in math problems! Sorry folks!) In a math problem, if you can quickly set up and solve an equation, you’re always better off, but sometimes these test makers succeed in being quite tricky. But particularly in a confusing, or seemingly ambiguous, reading or writing question, the answers can really come in handy.
For example, as a GRE and SAT tutor in Boston, one of the responses I hear a lot from students is that they were torn between two plausible answers choices. Two of them just seemed right, and the final choice was made arbitrarily. But answers on standardized tests are never arbitrary. Rather than agonize over the seemingly incommensurate virtues of two attractive choices, start asking yourself questions about answers. In this particular case, ask: what is/are the relevant distinction(s) between the two choices? Often, in improving sentences questions, for example, the distinctions will be quite slight. Maybe one answer choice has a comma and the other has a semi-colon; maybe one answer choice has a past tense verb and the other has the same verb in past perfect. Asking yourself about the precise distinctions between the answer choices will start you on the path toward the right answer. Rather than simply continuing to look at each answer choice in relation to the sentence as a whole, this process narrows down the elements that you have to look at, and allows you to choose one over against the other. Further, this practice also helps you double check your initial estimation of the answers—several times I’ve seen students reread a question only to realize that one word they thought both answers shared actually differed slightly between the two options. Asking questions about distinctions allows you to more firmly grasp the differences between the answer choices, and keeps you from making such careless mistakes.
What do you do once you’ve elicited the difference between difficult responses? The same thing you should be doing with every problem, only in a more precise manner: you now check each one back against the original sentence. Noticing the comma and semi-colon, for example, should lead you to check for a run-on sentence.
Asking questions about answers works in all kinds of contexts. Say, for example, that you’ve read through an error identification sentence and no glaring grammatical issues stuck out. Before you choose E and move on, ask yourself a few further questions about your answers—are any of them ambiguous? are there any redundancies in the sentence? are there any diction issues, or improper idioms? These are all subtler issues that can be easy to overlook if you’re not paying attention to the set of answer choices in front of you and asking good questions about them.
At any point on any standardized test there will always be a question you could ask yourself that can get your thinking back on the right track, and sometimes, it’s the answers themselves that need the most questioning.