Elimination is Key
We have learned concepts like actively reading through the text and predicting the answers, but the next most important concept on the SAT Reading Test is all about eliminating wrong answer choices.
March 19, 2020
Your entire life, you have been taught by your teachers to find the correct answer. Unfortunately, finding the right answer is the worst strategy to use on the SAT Reading Test.
From this point forward, stop trying to find the right answers. Instead, your mission is to find and eliminate all of the wrong answers. On every possible reading problem that you solve, the “right” answer is going to be the last answer choice left standing after you eliminate the three others.
A lot of students believe it’s a lot more time consuming to eliminate three wrong answers than pick the right answer from the start. However, it’s a lot faster to prove something wrong than to prove something right. And, if you have predicted the answer (like we practiced in Chapter 4!), then you can eliminate wrong answer choices as quickly as swatting a fly.
Wrong answers are easy to spot and eliminate, and it’ll only take you a few seconds to do it. Conversely, it is practically impossible at times to prove something right, even with a lot of data on your side.
For example: “Lions only kill gazelles.” If we showed you pictures of lions hunting gazelles, it would not prove the above statement correct. No amount of evidence or effort could ever prove this statement. But what if we tried proving it wrong instead? We could show you one picture of a lion killing a buffalo, and the statement would be proved wrong in an instant.
The above example was a bit silly, but the point we’re trying to make is that even when you know something is right, it’s still almost impossible to prove it so.
There is only one right answer to every question. The other answers are all wrong. And since they’re all wrong, they’ll have objective, identifiable errors that you can find and use as evidence against them.
Each answer should be marked as:
- May Be Right
That’s it. There’s no other option possible.
Once you have quickly moved through all four answer choices, return to the ones that you have marked as ‘May Be Right.’ Sometimes, you’ll have 2-3 maybes. Other times, you’ll only have one. If you only have one, that means it’s the correct answer! Otherwise, keep focusing on all the maybes left, figure out what’s wrong with them, and eliminate them one by one once you find their errors.
In other words, you are trying to find the answer choice you dislike the least, or with the fewest flaws. When it comes to the SAT Reading Test, this is the greatest, most efficient strategy to succeed.
There will be times when an answer is obviously correct. For example, there may be answer choices that match your prediction. That’s great. Tick that answer, but still take the time to go through all the other answer choices eliminating them one by one.
How to Eliminate Answer Choices
Most students eliminate answer choices by asking themselves which one is ‘more right.’ “Is this right? Well, maybe. Is this right? Mmmmm…kinda seems right too…”
They are trying to prove an answer choice right, and if they cannot, they eliminate it. This type of thinking gets you nowhere.
The big rule to remember is this: From now on, stop focusing on what’s “right” about the answer choices. Instead, focus on and figure out what’s wrong with the answer choices.
You should be asking yourself: “Why is this answer choice wrong?” And if you can answer that question, eliminate the answer choice.
There’s one strategy that trumps all others when it comes to mastering the art of proving bad answer choices wrong: the concept of comparison.
Pretend you’ve read a passage about the 2014 Indian General election. A question asks you this: “According to lines 35-40, what was the primary reason for Narendra Modi winning the election?”
A. The lower classes were disillusioned with the lack of economic progress during the Manmohan Singh’ Government
B. Narendra Modi was a great campaigner and orator
C. Narendra Modi was from the Bhartiya Janta Party
D. Number of scams discovered during the previous rule of the Congress party
You read lines 35-40, which say the following “Narendra Modi was a great orator and had popular appeal, but it was ultimately dissatisfaction with the Indian National Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi that led to Modi’s election win. People needed something vastly different from the current incumbent.”
Your first step always is to predict an answer. In this case, the prediction is along the lines of “People were unhappy with Congress and Rahul Gandhi; they needed change.” Now, let’s go through the answer choices, eliminating them one by one.
A. Could be true but its not mentioned explicitly - Eliminate
B. Listed as one of the contributing reasons but not the primary reason - Trap Answer. Eliminate
C. It technically does mean he’s different from Congress and Rahul Gandhi, and for the time being, we can’t prove this wrong - May Be Correct
D. Have not read about scams in lines 35-40 - Eliminate
So, strangely enough, “Modi is from BJP,” choice C, is the best answer! Isn’t this a bit strange? It doesn’t really jump out as an amazing answer, but remember: we’re not looking for an amazing answer! We’re looking for the answer that isn’t wrong!!!
NEVER think about answer choices by themselves. Compare them to each other and figure out which one stinks MORE. In this way, you’ll become EXTREMELY fast. In a vacuum, it can be tough to figure out whether something is “wrong.” But when you look at two answer choices at once, it’s EXTREMELY obvious which one is MORE wrong than the other!
To understand why this is so effective, you need a deeper understanding of how your brain makes choices overall. If you’re asked, “what do you want for dinner?” it can be very tough to decide. So many options! But if you’re asked, “what do you want for dinner: burritos or sushi?” suddenly, it’s insanely easy. You’ll instantly prefer one to the other. When your brain has
comparative options, it’s easy to latch onto the strengths and weaknesses of each option and make rapid, accurate decisions. If you’re full, and you had a cheesy lunch, you’ll probably want sushi. If you’re starving and you hate soy sauce, you’ll want a burrito. Done.
Now, let’s discuss a few more tricks to help you eliminate the wrong answer choices:
1. Beware of Specifics
Specifics make things more likely to be wrong, not right. Think about it: the more exact details any sentence contains, the more likely that sentence is to be false in at least some way “I like cats” is more likely to be accurate than “I like big cats.”
The human brain tends think that more details make something more accurate and reliable. In reality, the exact opposite is true!
“The author thinks people are nice” is way more likely to be correct than, “the author thinks all people are nice,” or, “the author thinks people are nice on Tuesdays.” If you keep this principle in mind when using comparison, you’ll be able to identify potential errors within wrong answer choices and eliminate them.
From this point forward, you must remember this: 99% Right is 100% Wrong! The answer has to be 100% correct. The SAT is a standardized test that has to ensures that the correct answer does not include even the tiniest of errors. Use this to your advantage. Therefore, if you see even a microscopically small error in an answer choice, eliminate it.
The only thing that matters is that the answer you choose is supported directly and specifically in the text, in a way that requires no interpretation. In other words, you have to hone the skill of reading exactly what’s on a page and taking in everything that’s stated directly in the text. As we talked about earlier, it’s important to steal answers directly from the passage. The less you think, and the more that you blatantly plagiarize your answers directly from the text, the better.
A Real-Life Example
Let’s imagine a typical English classroom discussion and then consider how the skills developed during such a discussion might be incorrectly applied to a reading question on the SAT.
Imagine you’re in an English class discussing a passage from a book you’re currently reading. In this passage, the main character is very upset. She’s just learned that her cousin has a serious illness, and the passage describes how worried and concerned she is for his health. Your teacher asks the class for opinions on the main character’s emotional state.
You raise your hand and say something like, “I think the main character seems troubled and conflicted.” Your teacher asks, “Conflicted? Why do you say conflicted?” You then go on to explain that you were in a position like this once and you remember feeling conflicted, so, you think the character probably feels conflicted, too. Your teacher thanks you for your contribution, and probably agrees that, yes, it’s possible the main character in this passage might feel conflicted.
This sort of open interpretation is often encouraged in a classroom, but it’ll cause you to miss a lot of questions on the SAT. We’ve talked about the idea that all SAT questions have to be “bullet proof” and objective in order for the test to serve its function in the admissions process.
The only way for a correct answer on an SAT Reading Test question to satisfy this requirement is to avoid any kind of interpretation because interpretation is always subjective. And the only way for a correct answer choice to refer to a passage without interpreting it is to restate some element of the passage exactly. Any other description of the text would necessarily involve interpretation, and then the correct answer wouldn’t be objectively correct anymore.
So, if the same hypothetical passage we were just talking about appeared on the SAT, and you chose an answer saying that the main character felt “conflicted,” you’d get the question wrong, even though your English teacher would probably accept that analysis.
If an SAT passage describes someone in a difficult spot as upset, worried, and concerned, then we can choose any answer that means exactly the same thing as “upset,” “worried,” or “concerned”… but we can’t pick a word like “conflicted” unless the text specifically states that a character feels two different emotions at the same time that seem to go against each other, because that’s what the word “conflicted” literally means.
On the other hand, if the passage said something like, “I was worried about my cousin’s illness, but I was also optimistic that he was strong enough to overcome it,” then you could pick an answer choice that described the character as “conflicted,” because being “worried” and “optimistic” are two conflicting emotions. Further, the ideas of those emotions would be connected by the word “but,” which shows that the speaker considers them to be conflicting ideas. See how that works?
The SAT Reading Test butters its bread by forcing you to justify its wrong answers. When you always focus on why answers are wrong, you’ll always be using the best strategy possible.
If you focus on why they’re right, you’re walking into a booby-trap.
2. The “What ______?” Rule
The best way to explain what we call the “what _______?” Rule is through an example. Let’s say you read a quick passage with this thesis: “People are always trying hard to impress their friends.”
The question is: “What is the author trying to accomplish with this passage?”
A. He’s trying to disprove an argument.
B. He’s trying to recount an anecdote.
C. He’s trying to win over an adversary.
D. He’s trying to prove a point
As you work to eliminate answer choices, the easiest and best tactic you can use is to define the nouns within the answer choices by asking: WHAT _______?
A. What argument? What is he disproving? There’s nothing he’s disproving - no argument he’s trying to prove wrong. Wrong.
B. What anecdote? What story is he telling? He never told an anecdote. Wrong.
C. What adversary? Who is the person he’s trying to win over? I didn’t see an adversary anywhere. Wrong.
D. What point? Oh…the point that “people are always trying hard to impress their friends.” Okay…so I can answer that “What ______?” question. Correct.
The only answer that isn’t wrong will be the one you can answer the “what _______?” question for!!!
If you ask “what _____?” for a particular noun in an answer choice, and you realize that you can’t think of the answer to that question, then that answer choice is automatically wrong!
Now that you know about this strategy, you’ll be blown away by how frequently you’ll be able to use it.
Many students get tricked into picking the right answer for the wrong person. For example, let’s say you’re reading a passage about a family feud. The husband, John, is suspicious of his wife Jane’s loyalty toward him. This regularly leads to him getting angry with her. On the other hand, Jane, who is, in fact, seeing someone else, assumes the reasons for her husband’s recent temper are issues at his workplace.
The question you’re asked is “According to Jane, why does John regularly fight with her?”
The answers will then be a complete mix of: “John knows that Jane is cheating on him” and “John can’t stand her.” Even worse, there will also be answers like this: “Jane is untrustworthy”
In effect, the SAT is hitting every possible hot button that might make you forget the real question asked. Remember, the question is regarding Jane; therefore, the right answer must be from Jane’s perspective, and not John’s perspective.
Is it true that Jane is cheating on John? Yes. But that does not matter here. What matters here is what Jane thinks, and she thinks that her husband is angry because he has issues at his workspace.
This might seem simple, and that’s because it is. However, these kinds of errors are responsible for tons of lost points on the SAT Reading Test. You need to pay extremely close attention to words like ‘according to’ in the question. If you forget to take the correct point of view, you’re dead in the water.
You also have to be extra careful when the question asks you about “Person X” or the “narrator” or anyone or any subject. It helps to be 100% sure that you are referring to the right opinion of the right person or thing.