The MuchSmarter Blog

Stop Staring At The Answer Choices!

Tom Schecter
September 28, 2015

For many of the students I tutor for the SAT or the ACT, reading comprehension is a rather hit-or-miss proposition when we first start working together. Even some kids who are strong readers and generally doing very well in advanced English and History courses often have a hard time figuring out how to do a really good job on standardized test reading. 

Why is that? Mainly because they’re staring at the answer choices.

Standardized test reading comprehension relies on the false promise in the very existence of multiple-choice questions to make the questions and passages more challenging than they should be.

The “false promise” is that the correct answer could be any of the answer choices. If that’s true, we have to look at all of them very carefully and give them each a respectful consideration, right?

Here is the inherent cruel joke of multiple-choice questions: just like most other types of questions you’d see on most tests, there is one, and only one, correct answer. The rest of the choices are designed to make you think they “could” be correct.

How do we handle this? Look back on the thing that is very obviously correct—THE TEXT!

100% of the text is relevant, “correct” information. Reading comprehension is not about forming your own opinion on what you see in the passage; it’s simply an exercise in read-and-react. So…whatever the text says is right.

Here is the process you want to follow to make any reading comprehension question make more sense:

  1. Cover the answer choices. No, I’m not kidding.
  2. Go back into the text and read the relevant lines. If you get a line reference, that’s at least one sentence before and one sentence after.
  3. Put the text into your own words. That will clarify your understanding of what you just read—and give your mind an idea of what it’s looking for!
  4. Pick the answer choice that agrees with YOU.

When your brain knows what it’s looking for, it will usually find it. Assuming you read and understood the passage, putting it into your own words will often make the correct answer choice jump out at you as the obvious choice.

You’ll be more accurate, feel more confident about your answer choices, and probably shave a few minutes off of your time too!

No kidding: I had one student named Nicole who took her score on SAT Reading from the high-500s to a 760 in ONE WEEK(!!!) trying it this way, and said it suddenly felt “really easy.”

That’s obviously an extreme example, but it certainly shows what approaching the test the right way can do for you!

If you want a little more help learning how to master standardized test reading, feel free to drop me a line at Tom@MuchSmarter.com.

Until next time!

- Tom

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