When I tutored the old SAT, I heard a lot of complaints from my students about the reading sections. One recurring subject was the passage-based reading questions. These questions seemed “subjective,” students told me: the answers did not depend on concrete facts or skills, as for the writing (grammar) or mathematics sections, but instead on “feelings” or an emotional reaction to the passage.
Although the situation with the old SAT was never as dire as it sometimes seemed (there were in fact skills that could help overcome even the most difficult reading passages), the new SAT has gone a long way towards bringing out into the open the logic that was lurking behind the scenes. You should see immediate benefits from the increased clarity of these new reading questions.
Evidence-Based Reasoning: the “Evidence Question”
One common new type of question characteristic of the revised SAT reading section is what you might call the “evidence question.” This sort of question follows a garden-variety interpretative question (“Why . . . ?”, “What . . . ?”, and so on), and is always phrased in the same way: “Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?” The answer choices are sentences from the passage, one of which will support the correct answer to the previous question. (See the SAT’s practice tests for examples.) These question-pairs might seem to present new challenges, since taking one question the wrong way could lead to getting both wrong. But the benefits of the additional clarity outweigh the dangers. It was always necessary on the old SAT to find concrete pieces of evidence in the passage in order to support an answer choice—that is, the right answer always depended on finding a word, a sentence, or a set of sentences that could directly support it. The new SAT passage questions are no different in this regard, but with the “evidence questions,” they effectively split the process into two parts and make the reasoning explicit.
Strategies for Approaching “Evidence”-Pair Questions
The evidence-based question-pairs provide a nice opportunity to use the questions in tandem to work towards the right answers. One question provides a check on the other. So how can you most effectively exploit this fact? The process is simple:
- Determine whether a reading question has an “evidence question” twin. (Glance down the page.)
- Read the first question and underline or circle the key information. Determine your task. This is one of the most important parts of the strategy: if you start with the wrong task, then you might be lured into a pair of answers that agree with it but are responding to the wrong question. These answers will also be wrong! Resist the temptation to start from the “evidence question”: the passage references it offers are only helpful if you know what you’re looking for.
- Once you know your task in the first question, try to formulate an answer to yourself before looking at the answers that the SAT provides. This will help you avoid falling into any traps among them.
- Look at the answers to the first question now, and identify which answer(s) is the best. Find (without looking at the “evidence question” yet) a word, a line, or two lines, in the passage that support the answer that you’ve come up with. If you are left with two (or more) answers that both seem possible on the first go, note that only a correct answer will have a concrete piece of evidence in the passage in support of it. One of them is an impostor.
- Now look to the “evidence question.” Compare the line(s) that you used to support your answer to the first question with the answer choices to the “evidence question.” See if there is any overlap. Ideally, you will find that one of the choices agrees with your evidence from the first question. This is the answer.
- If you don’t find anything that agrees, troubleshoot with the following questions to yourself: 1) Did you get the task right in the first question? 2) Did you use faulty evidence on the first question? If you are still convinced that you got the task right, then you might have used faulty evidence in support of the answer you chose to the first question. That is, the evidence does not seamlessly match up what it is supposed to support. This is a good hint to rethink your answer to the first question and review the evidence of the passage.
Applications to Solo Evidence-Based Questions
Although we zoomed in on the evidence-based question pairs in this post, there are plenty of solo questions on the new SAT reading that can be approached in the same way. A distinctive mark of these kinds of evidence-based solo questions is that their answer choices will be ranges of lines or sentences. These solo-questions can be thought of as easier versions of the question-pairs: whereas for the pair-questions you have to determine the right answer first and then find evidence, the solo questions will give you a fact and then ask you to find evidence. This means that you don’t have to worry about figuring out the task, only backing up whatever they’ve asked you to support. Just like for paired questions, you should start by finding the evidence on your own, and only then compare to the answers that they offer.
As for everything, practice makes perfect. If you want to translate theory into success, you need to work through passages and make sure you understand how it applies in practice. Start slow and give yourself time to become familiar with the approach. Once you are familiar with how they work, increase the pace until you are up to your normal test-taking speed. Good luck!
James grew up and was educated in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Emory University, where he studied classics and philosophy. After graduating from Emory, James came north to Harvard in order to pursue a PhD in the classics department. At Harvard, his time is evenly split between languages (Ancient Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, etc.), ancient literature, science, and philosophy, and research and writing on pleasantly abstruse topics (for example, ancient agriculture) James has over five years of experience as a private tutor for admissions tests (SAT & subject tests, PSAT, SSAT, ACT, GRE, etc.), academic subjects (Greek, Latin, English, etc.), and writing (from brainstorming to proofing).
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