ACT and SAT Reading Tips: How to Recognize Right Answers

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There is a certain comfort in multiple choice questions, knowing open bookthat the right answer is there on the page staring up at you. While we often spend more time discussing the characteristics of WRONG answers in the Reading section of the ACT and SAT, it’s important to know what the RIGHT answer looks like, too. There are several characteristics of right answers on the ACT and SAT to help you select the correct answer to Reading questions, which I'll outline in today's blog post.

So, how do you recognize a right answer?

1. The right answer tends to be more general than some wrong answers.
The right answer is often a general statement among the answer choices, while wrong answers tend to be more specific. Consider four answer choices from question 31 in section 3 of the  Official ACT Practice Test available on the ACT website. I was able to correctly guess the answer without reading the passage or the question:

(A) provide an overview of the mechanics and key operations of the jaws of trap-jaw ants.
(B) analyze Patek and Baio's techniques for filming two defensive maneuvers of trap-jaw ants.
(C) compare the jaws of Odontomachus bauri to the jaws of other species of ants.
(D) describe the evolution of the ability of trap-jaw ants to perform an escape jump.

Choice (A), the correct answer, refers to a general "overview", a very non-specific word choice. Choice (B) more precisely "analyzes" the work of two specific researchers, "Patek" and "Baio." In choice (C), the very specific scientific name of trap-jaw ants is provided, and while this shouldn't eliminate choice (C) as an answer, it definitely makes me suspicious. Choice (D) is not extremely specific in the beginning of the answer, but the "description of the evolution of an ability" is more specific than an "overview of mechanics and operations." And the answer takes a very specific turn with "escape jump."

Note, however, that I say the correct answer is often  more general than the wrong answer. There are times when the right answer is very specific, especially in Facts and Details questions about a specific portion of text. But when in doubt on the ACT or SAT, choose the answers that are more general.            

2. The right answer includes all of the important ideas from the text.
Let’s say a passage provides two reasons why Mars is a cold planet [(1) it is a great distance from the sun and (2) its thin atmosphere allows heat to escape] and a question following the passages asks why Mars is a cold planet. Expect a wrong answer to use ONE of these reasons coupled with either a bogus explanation of that reason or with a second fictitious reason, such as “A thin atmosphere that traps cold air close to the surface of the planet.” Mars does have a thin atmosphere, but it allows heat to escape, not cold air to stay trapped. Plus, the second reason (distance) is never mentioned. The right answer will include all relevant reasons: “Its immense distance from the sun prohibits significant warming and what little heat it receives is not retained by the scant atmosphere.”

3. The right answer on the SAT* will likely paraphrase the actual passage.
On the SAT, the wrong answers like to pull the exact words or phrases from the text to trick you. Some students see the words “ferocious velocity” in both the text and in an answer choice and immediately select that answer choice because of the matching phrase. But the right answer would probably use phrases like “extreme speed” or “tremendous momentum.” Obviously, some nouns are difficult to replace with synonyms; there are only so many ways to say cheekbone or goldfish. But most adjectives, adverbs, and verbs have a surplus of synonyms, so avoid any answer choices that mimic these parts of speech from the text.

*Note that this characteristic may not hold true on the ACT.  Both correct and incorrect ACT answers are known to use words directly from the passage.

 

While there are exceptions to every rule, these characteristics will usually help you narrow down answer choices. Remember, the right answer is the only answer that can be proven true. You should be able to point to a portion of the passage and say “This is why my answer is correct” on every single question.

Want more tips? Consider an ACT Course to help you prepare for the test.

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