Last Wednesday, you were probably sitting at home when you suddenly heard a strange sound coming from outside. Upon a closer look, you realised that it was raining. The monsoons had arrived! Not only you do you love the idea of getting pummelled by thousands of heavy droplets crashing onto you from the sky above, but you also really enjoy muddying your books while stomping through the newly and increasingly verdant forests and hill stations during treks. You immediately get on the phone and call up your friends. Soon enough, a plan is set for a few weekends from now. Your excitement, however, is tempered by one barrier. Your parents.

You sit down with them and mention that you want to go on a trek. You look at your mom, who spouts a long soliloquy about the dangers of such adventures. You will get sick. You will get lost. You will get hurt. You will have no mobile network. You will blah blah blah. Then, you look at your dad, who provides a completely different perspective. You will get exercise. You will experience nature. You will build character. You will spend time with your friends in an active, constructive way. You will blah blah blah.

You leave your parents to discuss among themselves and you ring up your friend. She asks what your parents said. And suddenly, you don’t really remember. ‘My mom said...wait, no, that was my dad.’ By the end, you are completely off course. ‘You know, I think they’re okay with it. No problems.’ You have mixed and mingled and mangled what your parents had said, taking two differing viewpoints on the same topic and confusing them. This folly will come back to hurt you when your parents say no right before you leave for your weekend trek.

You have just faced (and failed) a real-life version of the Dual Passage (DP) questions on the SAT. The skills tested here are so important that it’s actually surprising that more exams do not test you on this (the only other one is the LSAT, which prepares people to become lawyers!). You need to be able to read and understand two different perspectives and answer questions that both compare and contrast them. Because of this, the DP questions on the SAT are considered some of the hardest for test-takers.

Before we get into some strategies to help you effectually tackle these questions, let’s first understand what these passages will look like:

  • Like with all reading passages, you will start with an italicised Blurb
  • You will see two passages (usually labelled as ‘Passage 1’ and ‘Passage 2’) next to each other that will give two viewpoints, ranging from very similar to complete opposites, on the same topic
  • If the passages are short, you will see three to four questions (two for individual passages and one to two for both passages)
  • If the passages are long, you will see six to eight questions (at least half should relate to both passages)
  • The questions relating to both passages (from here on called Comparative Questions, or CQs) will come after the questions relating to individual passages

Now, the reason that you messed up in properly transferring your parents’ individual monologues to your friend is simple. You listened to both of them first, and then talked to your friend. Imagine how much more accurate you would have been if you had done the following: 1) Listen to your mom while your dad is not home; 2) Tell your friend her perspective; 3) Listen to your dad later when your mom is not around; 4) Tell your friend his perspective; 5) Tell your friend how they are similar and different. Doing this would have ensured that you and your friend could have come up with a plan to guarantee a victory for your dad’s position. And you would then have been on your way to the jungle for a wet and muddy adventure with your friends.

This technique translates perfectly to the Dual Passages on the SAT. Here are some tips that may help you master these questions on the exam:

  • Read the Blurb carefully before you start: This will tell you exactly how the two passages are related by giving you the topic. Often, the Blurb can help you solve questions that ask you about agreement between the two authors, because often the right answer will at least be in the same topic area.
  • Jump back and forth for Long Passages: Read Passage 1 and do the questions related to it. Then, read Passage 2 and do its questions. Finally, do the Comparative Questions. Following this order will ensure that you do not confuse the two passages. You will need to practice this way of reading so you feel comfortable moving in this nonlinear way on test day.
  • Focus on Main Ideas: The Main Idea is the point the author is trying to make (which is different from Purpose, which is WHY the author wrote the passage). The Main Idea should perfectly identify the author’s opinion as well as tell you the author’s overall conclusion. When you finish Passage 1, and before you go to the questions, jot down its Main Idea. Do the same when you read Passage 2. These will really help you distinguish between the two. You do not need to write the Main Ideas for Short Passages, only long ones.
  • Jump back and forth even more for Short Passages: Since you will only have one or two questions for each Short Passage, you can follow a quicker method. Read the question(s) for Passage 1, then search for the answer in the passage. Do the same for the question(s) for Passage 2. By this point, you will know the passages well enough to do the CQs. Moving back and forth like this will help you focus on the questions and thus save time.
  • Use Line Numbers to identify Questions: When Passage 1 ends, the line numbers don’t. Instead, they continue through Passage 2. For example, if the last line of the first passage is 25, then the first line of the second passage would be 26. Because of this, you can use the line numbers to identify which
    questions belong to which passages. Yes, some questions will say “According to Passage 1” or “In Passage 2,” but not all will make it this simple. And yes, the questions will go in order, putting all the questions for Passage 1 before those for Passage 2. But use the line numbers to determine when the Passage 2 questions start. So, for example, if you get to a question that says “in lines 28-29,” you know that this relates to Passage 2. Stop doing the question and now read Passage 2.
  • Review the Main Ideas before doing the CQs: The Comparative Questions will test how well you understand the similarities and differences between the two passages. So, before you get to these questions, just review the two Main Ideas you’ve jotted down. Mentally note how these Main Ideas, and thus the author’s conclusions and opinions, are analogous and are distinct. Now you’re ready to dive into the CQs.
  • Vaguer is better for Agreement Questions: Agreement Questions ask you what the two authors agree on. These questions are very common when the two authors seem oppositional. Solve them by eliminating answers choices that either 1) Seem focused on only one author or 2) Contradict the opinion or main idea of one author. And typically, the correct answer will be quite vague. For example, the only thing your parents will agree on is that the monsoons are wet. See? Vague.
  • Become the author for Perspective Questions: These questions ask you how one author would respond to a point made by the other author. Before answering these, quickly review the Main Ideas so you have no confusion. Then, put yourself in the shoes of the author (say, Author 1) and dive into the other author’s (Author 2) passage. Predict what you, as Author 1, would say to the other. Look for answer choices that match. And when in doubt, eliminate choices that don’t agree with the tone and opinion of the author you became.

Follow these tips, and you will have a much better chance of succeeding on the Dual Passages. Most importantly, remember to jump back and forth, doing everything related to Passage 1 before doing everything related to Passage 2. Save the Comparative Questions for the end after you’ve reviewed the Main Ideas you had written. Attacking these passages in such a piece-by-piece method will help you avoid confusion and thus ace the questions on test day.

And soon enough, you’ll be on your way to soak up the monsoons in the nearby jungle...just get some studying done beforehand.

(p.s. – I will, from here on out, highlight difficult words to encourage you to continue to build your vocabulary. Write them down and determine their definitions based on context.)

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