So here’s the thing—do you even know who or what the question is asking about? Many of you are getting killed on the critical reading because you don’t. If that’s happening to you, then you’re just throwing points away like quarters in a wishing pond. You know the pond isn’t really going to grant any wishes, right?
Anyways, if you’ve ever been confused who or what the question is even talking about, this article is for you. Many of you end up answering the precise opposite question, but that’s not really your fault. The SAT was designed that way, those tricky bastards. Let’s throw a wrench in their plan, shall we?
Here’s an example that’s typical of the type of question I want to dissect here:
“The author of Passage 1 would most likely agree with which of the following statements about the argument in Passage 2?”
There’s an improv comedy show called Whose Line Is It Anyway? These SAT questions are just like that: to win, you have to know who said what. The difficulty is that these questions conjure up multiple people, so it’s easy to get confused. We have to be systematic and break it down, almost like a math formula.
In my example question above, we have to first identify:
1) What the author of Passage 1 believes about the general topic
2) What the argument of Passage 2 is
The complication is that the question isn’t asking for EITHER of those two things. The question is NOT asking what Author 1. The question is ALSO NOT asking what Author 2 said. Of course both of those things are likely to be trap answers.
The question is really just a complex way of asking what Author 1 would say about Passage 2.
REAL SAT EXAMPLE
Enough abstract thought. Let’s dive into an explicit example. If you have the CollegeBoard’s Official SAT Study Guide 2nd Edition, turn to page 403. It’s the dual short passages about Walden by Thoreau. If you don’t have a copy, no worries. I’ll summarize for you.
Passage 1 basically says that Walden is about how awesome nature is and that industrialization and machines threaten nature. It says Walden is taught in schools as a reflection of living harmoniously with nature. In essence, nature = good, machines = bad.
Although Passage 2 predominantly focuses on how amazing machines are. The power of the machine is positive and productive. Basically, according to Passage 2, Walden is a text that reveres the awesomeness of industrialization, which is the polar opposite of what Passage 1 said.
Question 12 asks which statement about the interpretation of Walden in Passage 2 would Author 1 agree with? Notice it’s NOT asking what Author 1 thinks about Walden. Notice how it’s ALSO NOT asking what Passage 2 thinks about Walden.
The question just wants to know what Author 1 thinks about Passage 2. Which of the choices would Author 1 say about Passage 2?
Passage 2 interprets Walden as a book that celebrates the machine –> What would Author 1 say to that? (Presumably, if he says it, he agrees with it.)
Remember, the question asks which of the following statements would Author 1 agree with. Since he agrees, he might as well the one saying the statement about Passage 2 himself.
THE RIGHT ANSWER
The correct answer here would be (C) It is not representative of the way Walden is often taught in schools.
Author 2 says, “Walden is about how awesome industrialization is.”
Someone (let’s call her Becky) makes a statement about Passage 2, “No, that’s not how Walden is normally taught in school.”
Author 1 agrees with this statement. “Yeah! Are you frickin’ stupid, Author 2? Becky is absolutely right.”
Therefore, Author 1 agrees with the statement (choice C) about Passage 2’s interpretation of Walden, so (C) is the right answer.
THE WRONG ANSWERS
Let’s analyze the traps:
A) It exaggerates the destructive power of the machine.
No, because Passage 2 talks about the productive, not destructive, power of the machine. Since Author 1 doesn’t believe there is anything productive about the machine, he’d say Passage 2 (which praises the machine) exaggerates the PRODUCTIVE power of the machine. Choice A is the opposite of true.
Author 2, however, would agree that Passage 1 exaggerates the destructive power of the machine, but the question isn’t asking what Author 2 thinks. So we can just tell Author 2 to shut his mouth; we really don’t care what he thinks about Passage 1 right now.
B) It is overly influenced by the long-standing American worship of nature.
No, because this choice is something Author 2 would say about Passage 1 (which isn’t what the question is asking for). Furthermore, this choice isn’t even a true statement about Passage 2, since Passage 2 worships the machine, not nature.
We have to assume Author 1 completely understood Passage 2’s ideas. Therefore, not only does Author 1 disagree with this choice (because worshipping nature is the opposite of what Author 2 said), but Author 2 himself also disagrees (because it’s not what he said).
This choice is a trap because it is something Author 1 says in his own paragraph (Passage 1), sorta. He does say Walden is influenced by the worship of nature, but not “overly” so. And if even one word is wrong, the whole choice is wrong. So this choice isn’t even something Author 1 would agree with about his own paragraph.
But remember, the question isn’t asking what Author 1 says in his own passage. It’s asking what Author 1 would say in response to Passage 2. This answer is wrong on two counts: it’s a false statement about Passage 2 (so really, no one would agree) AND it’s a stretch of what Author 1 said in his own passage (Passage 1).
D) It overlooks Thoreau’s enthusiasm in Walden for the railroad.
No, because this is what Author 2 would say about Passage 1. Author 2 believes Thoreau was at times “downright enthusiastic” about the railroad. The question is what Author 1 would say in response to Passage 2, not the other way around. Make sure you know whose viewpoint the question is asking about! It’s asking about Author 1’s, not Author 2’s.
E) It is more in accord with the way Walden was generally understood in Thoreau’s time than it is currently.
Umm…what the hell? Neither passage or author talks the past versus the present. There’s no mention anywhere by either author that Walden was understood differently in Thoreau’s time than in current time. Both passages just describe how their respective authors believe Walden has been understood for all time…since it was written.
So that’s that.
ONE MORE THING: THE OPPOSITE QUESTION
Now, humor me for a moment. I want you to imagine if the question asked this instead:
“The author of Passage 1 would probably DISAGREE with which of the following statements about the interpretation of Walden offered in Passage 2?”
What if someone said Passage 2 (which claims that Thoreau revered the machine) is “indicative of Walden’s true meaning”? That’s something Author 1 would most definitely NOT agree with because Author 1 feels Walden is worshiping nature, not the machine.
The question is really a convoluted way of asking which choice would Author 1 NOT say (because he disagrees) about Passage 2? Whatever Author 1 wouldn’t say would be the correct answer.
The takeaway is simple: make sure you know who and what the hell the question is asking about!
Alright, go forth, my valiant test-takers!
P.S. There’s also a major difference between what an author himself thinks and what the people mentioned in his passage think (because authors often write about what other people think, not what he himself believes).