I’m not a foodie. Which is why, the other night, I somehow found myself staring at the deserted aisles of the frozen dinner section at 1 in the morning. There I was, standing under the awful fluorescent lighting, contemplating whether I was more in the mood for Hungry Man or Lean Cuisine. It was a sad sight—a grown man picking out the worst kind of food.
Trust me, this has a lot to do with SAT Critical Reading.
You see, I didn’t go there with the intention of buying TV dinners. All I knew was I was that my stomach was rumbling. And somehow I wound up in front of Hot Pockets and Stouffer’s Lasagna and all the frozen cousins. They all sounded very good, and I suddenly wanted them all.
Studies have actually shown those who have a grocery list spend far less money than those who don’t. People with a list of eggs and milk head straight for those aisles. But people like me who don’t believe in lists just know they’re hungry. We walk in and suddenly see some Pringles. “Oh, I wasn’t craving that before, but now that it’s in front of me, that sounds pretty good. Oh, there’s some Coke too. Nice, I should get some of that.” We weren’t searching for anything, so we end up falling for everything.
It’s the same with reading. You’re the grocery shopper. If you dive right into the answer choices without a list, you’re doomed to before you even start. Just like the packaging of all the foods at the market has been carefully designed to be as appealing as possible, so too are all the answers on the SAT.
Have you ever had that experience where you read a choice and you’re like, “Hmm, I wasn’t really thinking in that direction before, but now that I’m reading it, yeah, it sounds pretty good. It seems plausible. Could be right.”
NO! It’s wrong! (At least 90% of the time.) The reason you weren’t thinking in that direction in the first place is that it wasn’t the right direction! When you read, you’re naturally guided by the author’s structure towards a clear understanding. The thoughts you arrive at are the ones intended by the writer. Recognizing that direction is good. It means you’re reading correctly.
So when you hit a choice that wasn’t aligned with your original line of thinking, that choice is very likely to be wrong. Trust yourself. If you generally understand what you read, then your reading intuition is fine. That’s what people mean by that tired cliche: your first instincts are right.
Students often over-complicate and obfuscate things. They had the right answer, then convince themselves there’s something more to it. Or rather, the SAT conniving-ly convinces people to change their minds. Really, it’s the SAT’s specialty.
So you have to arm yourself to guard against these traps. One of the biggest trap answers is one that sounds feasible or possible (maybe even likely) but just isn’t actually stated in the passage. If you recall, one of the seven reasons an answer is wrong is that it’s not mentioned. You have to be strict with yourself on that point: if there’s even a small leap of faith to arrive at this answer choice, then it’s not the right answer.
But identifying wrong answers is actually playing defense. Today’s strategy is all about going on the offense. Introducing…”The Professor X Technique” for demolishing critical reading.
Think of Professor X from X-Men. His psychic power allows him to know what you’re thinking even before you’ve said it.
You too have a little of that X-gene and his psychic power. Here’s how you use it to defeat the SAT reading. Come up with the answers in your own words first! Before reading any of the answer choices. Literally use your hand to cover up the answer choices and take the extra moment to answer yourself first.
I know this is harder and more time-consuming. But remember, slowing down and being more accurate (even if you don’t finish the section) is a far better way to improve your score than going quickly but missing half the questions along the way.
You MUST do this on every critical reading question: answer in your own words first. If you believe that reading over the choices first will help guide you towards the right answer, you’re wrong. If you believe that when you read the correct answer, it will just pop out at you and you’ll know it when you see it, you’re wrong. (Maybe that’ll work for easy questions, but not for hard ones.)
I didn’t know I’d end up buying all this junk food when I went into that Ralphs, my local grocery store. Same thing with the reading. Every answer is designed to lure you in and convince you that they are worth picking. Don’t fall for it. Use your psychic power determine the answer ahead of time. You’ll often be surprised just how accurate you are, sometimes down to the exact word.
The reason this works is that coming up with your own answers first forces you to think critically and ONLY use the information available to you in the passage. Doing this forces you to naturally hone in on the main idea of that paragraph. By coming up with a succinct answer, you naturally capture the true essence of the right answer. That process of making up your own concise answer requires you to toss out the minor details that will undoubtedly show up in the trap answer choices to tempt you.
Now there are some question type that do force you to look at the choices first before you can answer, but even then, you can somewhat come up with your own answer first.
For example, if the question asks which of the following situations is most analogous to one presented in the passage, obviously you need to examine all the possible situations. But the key thing is the word “analogous.” If you’ve read the paragraph already (which you should have), then you already know the situation that needs to be most similar to the correct answer choice. So just answer like so: “A situation that shows playing on a team allows people to learn the limits of their strength.” When you see a choice that says, “A soccer player tackles his teammate and accidentally injures him,” you know that’s the right one.
If you REALLY can’t come up with your own answer first, within 10 seconds, then that either means you didn’t understand what you read (you’re doomed for sure in this case), or it’s just a particularly hard question. Okay…you can cheat just that once…go peek at the answers, but remember to be defensive. Arm yourself: don’t justify why an answer is right. Instead, identify the wrong ones.
I’ve shown the Professor X technique to countless students, and here are some of the things they report back to me:
“Duuuude, that technique is AMAZING. I got nearly all the questions right!”
“Peter, you won’t believe it, but I just improved 100 points on the reading! This Professor X technique is incredible.”
I’ve literally been called into last minute panic situations where students only have time for ONE tutoring session with me, and if they need help with reading, the Professor X technique is what I show them. Then they come back with 100 point improvements…it’s nothing short of an awesome mutant superpower.
Try it out, prof! And let me know how it goes for you in the comments below.