The ACT test writers are amazingly skilled at writing tempting wrong answers, so it’s worth taking some time to understand the techniques they use to avoid falling for their traps.
This chapter is designed to give you a look inside the test maker’s playbook to show you how the authors of the ACT can take particular question types and make them incrementally more difficult and frustrating for test-takers.
Questions become truly difficult in the way that they can tempt you into answers that are not necessarily true, or answers that relate directly to the topic but do not quite answer the specific question asked.
Test makers use many of the same tricks over and over again in difficult Reading Comprehension questions. Here are some of their favorites traps that you should be on the lookout for in any Reading Test Question:
- They provide answer choices that makes comparisons beyond the scope of the passage
- They get you to pick an answer choice that is reasonable in the “real world” but is not supported in the passage
- They use clever wordplay both in the passage and the question so that you improperly interpret a relationship or a piece of information
- They send you to the wrong place in the passage
- They make the correct answer simple to prove, but boring and hard to find
Despite your growing ability to read and analyze passages and to understand questions and the right answers, you still might be struggling with some test questions. You can probably narrow down your options to two answer choices, but then you’re stuck.
If an ACT question is going to accurately test reading skills, at least some of the answers must require close reading as an elimination technique. Let’s assume that the test writers have taken four correct answers and changed three of them in ways that will go unnoticed by unwary readers. While the authors of the test put a lot of effort into making those tricky changes, most test-takers don’t give a lot of thought as to why wrong answers are wrong. They instead satisfy themselves with a general “Oh yeah, that’s wrong” and move on.
But it can be instructive to understand why the majority of answer options on the ACT are incorrect. By understanding their common, concrete flaws, you will fundamentally improve your your ability to sidestep the SAT’s many trap answers. Incorrect Reading Test question answers tend to fall into one of five broad “wrong choice” categories:
1. Out of Scope (40-50% of wrong answers)
- Introduces an unwarranted assertion supported nowhere in the passage
- The answer might be true in the real world but is not supported in the passage
2. Direct Contradiction (20-25% of wrong answers)
- States the exact opposite of something asserted in the passage
- It relates to the passage closely. If you miss the contrast, you can easily think it is the right answer
3. Mix-Up (10-15% of wrong answers)
- Scrambles together disparate content from the passage
- Tries to trap the student who simply matches language, not meaning
4. One Word Wrong (10-15% of wrong answers)
- Just one word (or maybe two) is incorrect. Includes extreme words
- More prevalent in general questions
5. True but Irrelevant (10% of wrong answers)
- True according to the passage, but does not answer the given question
- May be too narrow or simply unrelated
Caution: You should generally NOT try to classify wrong answers right away. Don’t waste precious time or attention classifying an answer choice that is obviously wrong. Rather, use this classification list in the last stage of elimination if you are stuck deciding among answer choices that all seem attractive.
Before we work through solved examples, there is one more important point that I would like to discuss.
Justify every word in the answer choice.
In the correct answer choice, every word must be completely true and within the scope of the passage. If you cannot justify every word in the answer choice, eliminate it.
For example, consider the answer choices below:
A. The colonists resented the king for taxing them without representation.
B. England’s policy of taxation without representation caused resentment among the colonists.
The difference between these two answer choices lies in the word “king” versus the word “England.” Although this seems like a small difference, it is the key to eliminating one of these answer choices. If the passage does not mention the king when it discusses the colonists’ resentment, then the word king cannot be justified, and the answer choice should be eliminated.
Be on the lookout for wordplay and misdirection as well. These common tricks are used everywhere on the ACT. For instance, just because an answer choice mentions several words from one part of the passage, don’t assume that it is correct. Test makers are expert at creating answer choices similar to what you have read in the passage, but that actually contradict the reading or go beyond the stated information.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a controversial psychiatric treatment involving the induction of a seizure in a patient by passing electricity through the brain. While beneficial effects of electrically induced seizures are evident and predictable in most patients, a unified mechanism of action has not yet been established and remains the subject of numerous investigations. ECT is extremely effective against severe depression, some acute psychotic states, and mania, though, like many medical procedures, it has its risks. Since the inception of ECT in 1938, the public has held a strongly negative conception of the procedure. Initially, doctors employed unmodified ECT. Patients were rendered instantly unconscious by the electrical current, but the strength of the muscle contractions from uncontrolled motor seizures often led to compression fractures of the spine or damage to the teeth. In addition to the effect this physical trauma had on public sentiment, graphic examples of abuse documented in books and movies, such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, portrayed ECT as punitive, cruel, overused, and violative of patients’ legal rights. Modern ECT is virtually unrecognizable from its earlier days. The treatment is modified by the muscle relaxant succinylcholine, which renders muscle contractions virtually nonexistent. Additionally, patients are given a general anesthetic. Thus, the patient is asleep and fully unaware during the procedure, and the only outward sign of a seizure may be the rhythmic movement of the patient’s hand or foot. ECT is generally used in severely depressed patients for whom psychotherapy and medication prove ineffective. It may also be considered when there is an imminent risk of suicide, since antidepressants often take several weeks to work effectively. Exactly how ECT exerts its effects is not known, but repeated applications affect several neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. ECT has proven effective, but it is not without controversy. Though decades-old studies showing brain cell death have been refuted in recent research, many patients do report loss of memory for events that occurred in the days, weeks, or months surrounding the ECT. Some patients have also reported that their short-term memories continue to be affected for months after ECT, though some doctors argue that this memory malfunction may reflect the type of amnesia that sometimes results from severe depression
1. The passage is primarily concerned with
A. defending a provocative medical practice
B. explaining a controversial medical treatment
C. arguing for further testing of a certain medical approach
D. summarizing recent research concerning a particular medical procedure
2. Which of the following is NOT cited in the passage as a current or historical criticism of ECT?
A. ECT causes the death of brain cells
B. Seizures during ECT can cause bodily harm
C. Short-term memory loss results from ECT
D. Repeated applications of ECT affect several neurotransmitters in the brain
3. The tone of the passage suggests that the author regards ECT with
A. conditional support
B. academic objectivity
C. mild advocacy
D. unreserved criticism
4. Which of the following can be inferred from the third paragraph?
A. Greater amounts of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine seem to reduce symptoms of depression.
B. ECT is never used prior to attempting psychotherapy or medication.
C. Succinylcholine completely immobilizes the patient’s body.
D. ECT generally works faster than antidepressants.
5. According to the passage, which of the following statements is true?
A. The general public was unaware of the bodily harm caused by unmodified ECT.
B. Research into the side effects of ECT has only recently begun.
C. ECT does not benefit individuals with anxiety disorders.
D. Severe depression can have symptoms unrelated to emotional mood.
A. Answer choice A states that the passage explicitly defends ECT. The passage addresses ECT in an objective manner; the author neither defends nor argues against it.
B. This is the correct answer. The primary purpose of the passage is to explain ECT, its purpose and the reasons why it has generated such controversy.
C. Describes a need for further testing that is never mentioned in the passage
D. Although recent research concerning a particular side effect of ECT is mentioned in the final paragraph, this is not the primary purpose of the passage.
A. The final paragraph indicates that the death of brain cells was the basis for a historical criticism of ECT. Although the research was recently refuted, brain cell death is still a side-effect that, at one time, caused criticism of the procedure.
B. The second paragraph explicitly and prominently mentions the bodily harm caused by seizures during unmodified ECT in its second and third sentences.
C. The second sentence of the final paragraph also cites short-term memory loss as the primary reason that ECT, in its current modified form, still generates controversy.
D. This is the correct answer. The third paragraph specifically states that repeated applications affect several neurotransmitters in the brain. However, this statement is offered in a neutral way, not as a criticism of ECT, but simply as additional information about the procedure.
A. The authors tone does not indicate support for ECT.
B. This is the correct answer. The tone of the passage is impartial and objective. The passage explains the history and discussion of ECT in an unbiased, academic manner.
C. The tone does not suggest even mild advocacy on the part of the author.
D. The language is too extreme. The tone of the passage is not unreserved.
A. For choice A, the third paragraph specifically states that ECT affects these particular neurotransmitters. However, no information is provided about how these neurotransmitters are affected.
B. The third paragraph states that ECT is generally used in severely depressed patients for whom psychotherapy and medication prove ineffective. This does not mean that ECT is never used before these other therapies.
C. The third paragraph states that succinylcholine renders muscle contractions virtually nonexistent, rather than completely nonexistent. Moreover, the passage states that a patient’s hand or foot may rhythmically move during ECT.
D. This is the correct answer. The paragraph also states that ECT may be used when there is an imminent risk of suicide, since anti-depressants often take several weeks to work effectively. The conjunction since indicates that the length of time ECT takes to work is being contrasted with that of anti-depressants. It is implied that ECT works faster than antidepressants.
A. Answer choice A includes the key words bodily harm and unmodified ECT, which describes ways in which the public was aware of the bodily harm caused by unmodified ECT.
B. In answer choice B, the key words only recently prompt you to look for time references. The second sentence of the final paragraph cites decades-old studies of ECT.
C. The first paragraph states that ECT is effective against severe depression, psychotic states, and mania. This does NOT mean that ECT is ineffective for anxiety disorders.
D. This is the correct answer. The final sentence states that a memory malfunction is a possible side effect of severe depression. A memory malfunction is clearly unrelated to emotional mood.
Until recently, Ascaris azure, known as the Diaz blueworm, and Ascaris tropica, known as the Costa Rican heatworm, were thought to be different species of roundworm. The heatworm is about 0.5 centimeters long, and lives within the bark of huge cecropia trees in Southeast Asian rain forests. The blueworm, barely visible with the naked eye, is found in frigid seafloors. Despite these apparent differences, the Institute of Helminthological Studies has officially stated that “both” species are actually Diaz blueworms. Dr. Ginny Bolton, examining roundworm samples collected in Borneo, noticed that the heatworm’s tiny cilia (hairlike organelles) appeared to beat in a single direction, aiding in the expulsion of food. Dr. Bolton later determined that the cilia also made it much easier for the heatworm to live in the stifling confines of tree bark. The cilia project from a cuticle that is made of keratin, a protein that protects the worm’s epidermis from drying out and overheating. The cilia help regulate the proliferation of the keratin, and the force of the cilia’s movements varies as the external temperature changes, allowing for a highly responsive thermostatic system, constantly adjusting the amount of keratin so that the worm would be neither overexposed nor stifled. Knowing that the only other roundworm with directional cilia is the blueworm, Dr. Bolton consulted with several blueworm specialists. The thermostatic system that served the heatworm so well proved to be identical to the one used by oceangoing blueworm. However, the blueworm, which has been known to colonize methane ice mounds, uses the keratin to protect itself from frigid temperatures. The cilia sensed when the temperature was high enough to allow the production of keratin to slow down. Without the surrounding wall of keratin, the worm can more easily graze on bacteria. Genetic testing showed that the blueworm and the heatworm were not merely structurally similar; to the scientists’ surprise, the worms were identical. This was startling, not only because of their vastly differing habitats, but also because of the difference in size. The answer again was to be found in the keratin, a tough substance that normally inhibits growth, keeping the hydrostatic pressure very high within the worm. The relatively large worm found in the rainforest molts as it grows, allowing the worm to increase its volume a very small amount each time it does, but the smaller worm cannot afford this much exposure. The freezing temperatures trigger the production of keratin so quickly that the worm has little chance to grow, thus keeping its volume approximately one-fourth that of the larger worm. If you struggled to master the science behind blueworms and heatworms in your first pass through on this passage, you’re not alone. Then again, if you truly struggled to do so, you can learn to read more efficiently. When you initially read this passage, the details are unimportant. What is important is the general flow, which you can get from an emphasis on structural language. Ultimately, this passage is organized as follows:
Before you attempt to answer the questions, start off by writing an effective concise summary for each paragraph as well as the primary purpose of the passage: