The SAT: Reading Between the Lines - Getting Acquainted With Critical Reading Passages (page 3)
In their infinite wisdom, the SAT test makers have determined that 70 minutes of highly arti- ficial reading tells colleges how equipped you are to plow through 50 or 60 pounds of text- books each semester. To test your reading abilities, they throw the following three types of questions at you, generally mixed together in three sections:
- Single passages: Some consist of as many as 700 to 800 words; some have only 100 words.
- Paired passages: The paired word count may total 700 to 800 words, but it may also be only 200 words.
- Sentence Completions
Note: You may encounter (meet; run into) four Critical Reading sections on your test if you’ve been chosen to take a reading equating section, which the SAT makers use to try out new questions. The equating section looks exactly like any other Critical Reading section, and it isn’t labeled as an equating section. When you apply your brain to an equating section, you’re basically working for the SAT — even though you pay a test fee instead of receiving a paycheck. How unfair.
Meeting SAT single passages
Long single passages are accompanied by 10 to 14 questions, and short passages are fol- lowed by only 2 questions. These questions cover everything from the passage’s main idea, the author’s tone and attitude, the facts stated in the passage, the meaning of certain words, and the implications of various statements. (Find out more on each type of question in the later section “Conquering Passage-Based Questions.”)
The SAT attempts to mimic reading that you’ll actually face in college, though I personally have never had a course that required me to read random bits of information on a topic I’ve never seen before, don’t care about, and will never see again. (Oh wait. I have had courses like that.) Because students of all majors take the SAT, the reading passages come from all areas of study, with the exception of math word problems, which get their very own section on the SAT. (See Part IV for all the details about that section of the test.)
Doubling your trouble: Paired passages
Every SAT contains at least one set of paired passages. In it, you may find one passage writ- ten by an immigrant about his or her life and one written by a historian who has studied immigration and its effect on the economy. Or, you may find an excerpt from a scientist’s biography paired with an explanation of the significance of that scientist’s discovery. The two passages together may reach 850 words and be followed by ten or more questions, though the SAT often gives you a pair of 100-word passages followed by only four questions. Most paired-passage questions resemble those attached to single passages, but you also face paired-passage questions about the differences between the two passages in point of view, attitude, and tone.
Sentence-completion questions are sentences that contain gaps into which you need to place the best word or phrase. These questions rely on your ability to construct a bridge when faced with a gap between two ideas. Some sentence-completion questions contain two blanks rather than only one, but regardless of how many blanks they have, they all require you to make a logical deduction with the help of word clues in the sentence and common sense. Chapter 5 explains in detail how to ace the sentence-completion questions.
Cracking all types of passages
Because he SAT makers assume that you’ll read some- thing in every subject area when you’re in college, they throw passages from many areas of academia at you. Check out these hints for approaching science, social- science, humanities, and fiction passages.
When you're attacking a science passage, try these tactics:
- Look carefully for the author's stance. If the passage is about space travel, figure out what the author is advocating (making a case for). Science passage questions often ask about the author's point of view.
- Don't worry about technical vocabulary. If the SAT uses a tough words, the definition probably is tucked into the sentence, as in The rise of flibbertigistics, the study of uncontrollable nose movement, is attributed to an increase in the use of chili sauce. You don't have to know what fibbertigistics means because the sentence tells you that it has to do with twitchy noses.
- Identify the argument. Many science passages present a dispute between two viewpoints. The passage may make a case for the theory that dinosaurs died out because a meteor crashed into the earth and then give an alternative explanation, such as the idea that the giant, pea-brained animals chose to become extinct rather than face the SAT. The SAT questions may zero in on the evidence for each theory or make you decided which one the author likes best.
- Notice the examples. The SAT science passages are chock0full of examples. The questions may require you to figure out what the examples above.
If you're poring over a social-science passage (anthropology, sociology, education, cultural studies, and so on), keep these tips in mind:
- Go for the positive. In addition to an increased sensitivity to gender, race, economic level, and the like, the test-makers play safe in other ways. The SAT doesn't criticize anyone with the power to (1) sue or (2) contact the media. So if you see a question about the author's tone or viewpoint, look for a positive answer unless the passage is about war criminals or another crew unlikely to be met with public sympathy.
- Take note of the structure. The social science passages frequently present a theory and support it with sets of facts or quotations from experts. Look for this structure and keep in mind when you're asked the significance of a detail. The detail is probably evidence in the case that the author is making.
- Look for opposing ideas. Experts like to argue, and human nature - the ultimate subject of social science passages - provides plenty of arguable material. Many SAT passages present two viewpoints, in the paired passages and elsewhere. Look for the opposing sides, or identify the main theory and the objections to it.
If you face a humanities passage on the SAT (one dealing with art history, history, literature, and the arts, culture, and language), keep in mind the following tips:
- Notice the details. Humanities passages often contain a great deal of description, as in the sculpture is carved from solid maple and displayed on a base of pancakes. No detail is unimportant. The questions attached to the passage may not ask you about the pancakes directly, but you may be queried about the artist's attitude toward digestion or organic flour. Don't let your attention wander; take note of the small stuff.
- Stay attuned to word choice. You may encounter a memoir (someone's memories, written from a personal point of view). Memoirs are perfectly suited to questions about the author's tone (bitter, nostalgic, fond, critical, and so forth). Pay attention to connotation - not the definition but the feeling of a word. For example, slender isn't the same as skinning. Connotation clues matter a lot in memoir passages.
- Keeping the big picture in mind. Humanities questions frequently single out one example and ask you to explain the context or significance. Think about the big picture when you get one of these questions. How does the detail fit in? That's what you're really trying to determine.
SAT literary fiction is rare, but it does show up occasionally. Follow these tips to reach a higher score:
- Forget about plot. Plot isn't important in fiction passages because in 750 words, not much can happen. Concentrate on identifying scene, character traits, tone, point of view, and symbols.
- Think metaphorically. Everything is in the passage for a reason, and never more so than in literary fiction. If line 5 says that the banana was rotten, you can bet the banana is a metaphor for society or some such concept.
- Listen to a literary passage. Of course, you can't make any noise while taking the SAT, but you can let the little voice in your head expressively, as if you were acting it out. Chances are you can pick up some information from your mental reenactment that you can use when answering the questions.
- Cut your losses if you're lost. Literary passages are the mavericks (the loners) of the SAT world. They can be about anything and in any style. If you start to read one and feel totally lost, skip it and go back later, time permitting.
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