Advance Reading Comprehension
The further you go above the 95th percentile, the harder it becomes for the SAT to differentiate between who “gets it” and who “really, really gets it.” This chapter is about how they do that.
March 19, 2020
This chapter is designed to give you a look inside the test maker’s playbook to show you how the authors of the SAT can take particular question types and make them incrementally more difficult and frustrating for test-takers.
It should come as no surprise that the SAT makes Reading Comprehension more difficult with the use of technical subject matter and complicated language. 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.
To successfully navigate difficult Reading Comprehension problems, do not try to be an expert. Like in other Reading Test questions, you will be able to answer the problems relying solely on the information in the passage.
The harder questions are more about reasoning than they are about knowledge. Therefore, resolve to be problem-driven and not passage-driven.
The most difficult questions also tend to feature inferences that you must and can draw from based on provided information. For example, let’s say a passage states:
Conifer trees in Mediterranean coastal climates, which provide a near-perfect blend of sunlight, moisture, and constant temperature, grow three times as quickly as those in arid climates.
A difficult question might ask you to draw an inference that must be true based on the passage, but it will also require you to add a couple of logical steps. The following sentence is such an example based on the above statement:
The average arid-climate conifer tree grows at less than half the rate of the average Mediterranean-climate tree of the same variety.
A trap answer will be quite likely true, but contain a fatal logical flaw:
Conifer trees in arid climates are less than half the size of their counterparts in Mediterranean coastal climates.
(We only know about “growth rate;” size is a different – albeit related – matter!)
Commonly Used Tricks
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
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:
1. Which of the following is the primary purpose of the passage?
A. To present an overview of the function of keratin in roundworms
B. To give an example of the kind of discoveries that are still being made in the natural sciences
C. To show the ways in which scientists who are highly specialized need to work together
D. To provide some of the details of a surprising scientific discovery
2. According to the passage, in what way do the blueworm’s cilia aid the worm in coping with extreme heat and cold?
A. They help with the removal of food from the worm’s system
B. They provide a mechanism by which the production of keratin can be regulated
C. They collect the bacteria on which some blueworms graze
D. They keep the hydrostatic pressure within the worm high
3. It can be inferred from the passage that, compared to blueworms found in the sea, heatworms found in rainforests
A. do not graze on bacteria.
B. do not have high levels of hydrostatic pressure.
C. have little chance to grow because of extreme temperature.
D. replace keratin more slowly.
4. It can be inferred from the passage that if the cilia of a blueworm found on the seafloor were to become damaged, preventing the sensing of warmer temperatures, the worm
A. could grow to a length of 0.5 centimeters.
B. would be in danger of freezing.
C. might not be able to gain access to enough nourishment to sustain life.
D. would be forced to find its way to warmer temperatures.
5. According to the passage, researchers were able to make the discovery of the unlikely relationship between the two worms because of which of the following?
A. Both worms have mechanisms to produce keratin
B. Both worms exist in extreme temperatures
C. Both worms are researched by the Institute of Helminthological Studies
D. Both worms feature directional cilia
Here’s a paragraph by paragraph breakdown:
Paragraph 1: Blueworms and heatworms are same species
Paragraph 2: Details the heatworm
Paragraph 3: Details the blueworm and why their discovery was possible
Paragraph 4: Compare/contrast the two worms
Primary Purpose: To note a fairly surprising discovery, and explain some of the facts behind it.
- The main idea is to highlight a surprising discovery, and to provide details. That matches with answer choice D.
- To answer this question, your main objective is simply to follow the organization of the passage. The question asks specifically about the blueworm, so you should know to look in paragraph three. The question specifically asks about the role of cilia with regard to heat and cold, so from there you need to follow the cause/effect relationships. The fourth paragraph says, specifically, “the cilia sensed when the temperature was high enough to allow the production of keratin to slow down.” This sentence should lead you directly to answer choice B, the correct answer. The cilia sense temperature in order to slow down the production of keratin.
- For this question, you should know upfront that the answer will be found in the final paragraph based on your initial read and concise summary. From there, however, look at how the test authors hide the correct answer, choice D. The question asks about heatworms but the operative sentence in the last paragraph is about blueworms: “The freezing temperatures trigger the production of keratin so quickly that the (smaller) worm has little chance to grow….”The passage explicitly states that the blueworm produces keratin much more quickly than does the heatworm. This leads us, via an inference, to option D. It must be true that the heatworm, then, produces keratin much more slowly.
- When the question asks you to “infer,” your job is to follow cause-and-effect relationships. Here a cause/effect flowchart could look something like this: cilia -> sense temperature -> slow production of keratin -> allow worm to eat. This means that without the cilia, the effects that follow would also not occur. Therefore, answer choice C is correct: Without the properly functioning cilia, the worm might not be able to obtain enough nourishment
- If you have properly read for organization, this question should be manageable. Paragraph three starts with the answer. Dr. Bolton was able to make the discovery because both worms have directional cilia. Therefore, the answer choice D is correct.
Erythropoietin, known also as EPO, is a glycoprotein hormone that controls the production of red blood cells in a process called erythropoiesis. When the kidneys detect a lack of oxygen flowing through the bloodstream, they secrete this glycoprotein, increasing the production of red blood cells, the body’s primary method of transporting oxygen to tissues and muscles. Typically a human’s hematocrit level, the percentage of red blood cells in the bloodstream, is between 40 and 45. For most adult males, a hematocrit level of less than 42 is said to be anemic, meaning that red blood cells are in dangerously low supply; this number is substantially less for women. Synthetic EPO is used to boost low hematocrit levels in chemotherapy patients and those suffering from kidney disease, who are unable to maintain the necessary levels without frequent EPO injections. Perhaps more famously, it is also used illicitly by many endurance athletes seeking to gain a competitive advantage by artificially increasing their red blood cell count. Traditionally, athletes have trained at high altitude to achieve a similar natural effect, but today more and more have chosen to artificially boost red blood cell activity through the use of synthetic EPO. For all its negative publicity, synthetic EPO remains a positive medical advancement to treat anemia and prevent hypoxia, the condition in which tissues are deprived of oxygen. Researchers continue to improve the effectiveness of synthetic EPO and even to develop a new glycoprotein—called novel erythropoiesis-stimulating protein (NESP) which eliminates several drawbacks of EPO in its current form. NESP not only requires smaller doses, but also lasts longer, eliminating the need for frequent and often-painful IV administration, which can have complications. Still, unlike the natural stimulus that occurs with the release of EPO, any artificial stimulus of red blood cell production has potential risks, as it raises hemoglobin to the desired levels above 15 grams per deciliter far too quickly. The body cannot properly adjust to the quick change in blood viscosity and substantial cardiac risk results. Given that risk, synthetic EPO must be highly regulated by the FDA so that its use is limited to medical necessity, not athletic performance enhancement.
1. Which one of the following is a challenge in using synthetic EPO to treat patients?
A. It has to be administered more frequently and in larger doses than is ideal
B. It does not increase hematocrit levels as quickly as naturally occurring EPO does
C. It has more cardiovascular risk than other treatments
D. It is frequently stolen by those seeking performance enhancement
2. Which of the following can be inferred about training at high altitude?
A. It is not as effective as synthetic EPO at increasing red blood cells in an athlete
B. It does not allow athletes to reach levels of hemoglobin above 15 grams per deciliter
C. It increases hemoglobin levels in an athlete more slowly than synthetic EPO does
D. It does not increase the viscosity of blood to a dangerous level
3. All of the following are potential risks of synthetic EPO except?
A. It can raise hemoglobin levels too quickly
B. It increases hemoglobin to levels above 15 grams per deciliter
C. It abruptly increases blood viscosity
D. It increases the likelihood of cardiac problems
4. Which of the following can properly be inferred from the passage?
A. Training at high altitude is safer than using synthetic EPO.
B. A higher percentage of athletes are using performance enhancing drugs than in the past.
C. NESP is a more effective treatment for raising hematocrit levels than synthetic EPO.
D. NESP carries fewer risks than synthetic EPO.
- Synthetic EPO is introduced in the second paragraph, but most of the details about how it is used come in the third paragraph. The third paragraph states that NESP eliminates several drawbacks of EPO by requiring smaller doses and less-frequent injections. Therefore, it must be true that large doses and frequent administration are challenges in using EPO. Answer choice A is correct.
- Because training is discussed in the second paragraph, your natural tendency is to look there, but the more important information lies in the third paragraph. This is another classic example of misdirection; you’re tempted to look in one place, but the answer lies elsewhere. Since training at high altitude is well defined as a “natural” stimulation of red blood cell production in the second paragraph, you can be sure the stimulation occurs more slowly with natural EPO than it does with synthetic EPO. Again, this is easy to miss but well defined when you put it together. Answer choice C must be correct.
- Most of the risks of synthetic EPO are discussed in the third paragraph, but you may have to look in the second for a clue. Answer choice B is the correct answer, as it is not a risk of synthetic EPO. As stated in the second paragraph, hemoglobin levels above 15 are “desired,” so this is not a risk.
- In questions like this, go to the answer choices and examine them individually, finding clues about where to look. Answer D is the correct answer. This is relatively easy to prove with this sentence in the first paragraph: “When kidneys detect a lack of oxygen flowing through the bloodstream, they secrete this glycoprotein, increasing the production of red blood cells, the body’s primary method of transporting oxygen to tissues and muscles.”
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825−1895), one of Charles Darwin’s earliest and most staunch defenders, as well as an influential naturalist in his own right, first observed the many similarities between reptiles and birds. Huxley noted, for example, that the wings of a bird hid reptilian fingers. Today, few scientists challenge not only the link between birds and reptiles in general, but between birds and theropods, a group of bipedal saurischian dinosaurs. Hundreds of structural similarities exist, including elongated arms, large eye openings, swiveling wrists, three forward-facing toes, and hollow bones. The most diverse theropod group is the coelurosaurs, a carnivorous bipedal group that includes the Tyrannosaurus rex and the Velociraptor, the latter of which is quite similar to the oldest known bird, the Archaeopteryx. Coelurosauria, in fact, is the clade that contains all theropods more closely related to birds than to carnosaurs, and all coelurosaurs have been thought to possess feathers. However, a recent find of what seems to be an entirely new—and apparently featherless—coelurosaur has complicated the subject. Several suggestions have been made as to why this particular chicken-sized dinosaur from the Late Jurassic period lacked feathers. One possibility is that, in some creatures, feathers were replaced by scales because the feathers were not needed for warmth, recognition of family members, or mating rituals—uses that feathers were thought to have had for dinosaurs that did not fly. It is also possible that some coelurosaurs had feathers in only certain geographic areas. Another idea is that this particular coelurosaur was so young that it had not yet grown feathers. A more fundamentally profound alternative is that, contrary to conventional scientific thought, birds and feathered dinosaurs developed feathers independently of each other rather than from a common ancestor. This would certainly not be the first case of what is known as convergent evolution. Fish and certain mammals can swim, but have evolved this attribute separately. Likewise, insects have wings, but developed them independently from birds. Luckily, the new fossil of what has been named a Juravenator is well-preserved almost in its entirety. More insights into why it did not have feathers will likely lead to new insights into how other animals did develop this trait.
1. According to the passage, convergent evolution
A. had not been thought to apply to a common trait found in birds and other animals prior to the discovery of the Juravenator fossil
B. has not been shown to apply to humans
C. was not always thought to apply to birds and coelurosaurs
D. was first noticed by Thomas Henry Huxley
2. In the passage, the author is primarily interested in
A. presenting possible solutions to a problem that has troubled scientists for years
B. providing background information and possible explanations for a curious discovery
C. answering critics of a controversial theory that is supported by a new finding
D. showing how an established idea can become too entrenched in conventional scientific thought
3. According to the passage, the Archaeopteryx
A. had feathers but did not fly
B. is the oldest known coelurosaur
C. was approximately the size of a chicken
D. shares some similarities with carnivorous dinosaurs
4. According to the passage, feathers on dinosaurs
A. were not used for flight
B. were not always present at birth
C. were first noted by Huxley
D. might have evolved from scales
5. Which of the following can be inferred from the passage?
A. All adult coelurosaurs possessed feathers.
B. Coelurosaurs who did not need feathers for warmth or mating rituals shed those feathers for scales.
C. Scientists have reached a consensus that certain birds and dinosaurs are evolutionarily linked.
D. Thomas Henry Huxley believed in the idea of convergent evolution.
- C is the correct answer. In the 4th paragraph, convergent evolution, as it applies to birds and coelurosaurs, is said to be a “fundamentally profound alternative.” Instead, evolution from a common ancestor was thought to apply. Regarding choice A, the 4th paragraph also states that birds and insects developed wings through convergent evolution. There was no mention of human evolution in the passage, which rules out option B. No connection is made in the passage between Huxley and the convergent evolution, making D also incorrect.
- B is the correct answer. The 1st and the 2nd paragraph up to “However….” provide background information while the 3rd and 4th paragraphs discuss possible explanations for the discovery of the Juravenator fossil. Regarding options A, there is no problem as such. Choice C is incorrect because we don’t know of any controversy, and D cannot be the answer because nowhere in the passage does the author make a point about conventional thinking.
- D is the correct answer. According to the 1st sentence of the 2nd paragraph, the Archaeopteryx is similar to a Velociraptor, which, like other Coelurosaurs, is carnivorous. We are told that the Archaeopteryx is a bird, but not whether it flew, so A is incorrect. Option B can also be eliminated the Archaeopteryx is not a coelurosaur: it is similar to some of them. The Juravenator is described as chicken-sized, which invalidates Answer C.
- B is the correct answer. The last sentence of the 3rd paragraph states, “Another idea is that this particular coelurosaur was so young that it hadn’t yet grown feathers.” Option A is incorrect because the passage mentions dinosaurs that did not fly, leaving open the possibility that some did fly. Option C is also incorrect because Huxley noted similarities between birds and reptiles; there is no mention of feathered dinosaurs. Regarding D, the 3rd paragraph says that scales may have been replaced feathers, not the other way around.
- C is the correct answer. This inference question requires you to infer the correct answer mainly from this line in the first paragraph: “Today, few scientists challenge not only the link between birds and reptiles in general but between birds and theropods, a group of bipedal saurischian dinosaurs.” Because there are few challenges to that link between the birds and dinosaurs, we can conclude that there is a consensus that a link between birds and some dinosaurs exists. For the other answer choices, recognize the flaws. For A, paragraph 2 actually notes the presence of a featherless dinosaur, disproving the notion that “all” adult coelurosars had feathers. While the information in choice B is indeed mentioned, it’s prefaced with the phrase “one possibility,” noting that this is far from a “must be true” inference. Choice D is also incorrect. Convergent evolution is mentioned as an alternative to conventional wisdom, but Huxley’s research is nearly 200 years old, so it’s undoubtedly part of the “conventional wisdom.”