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Trick Questions on the SAT? A Guide to Spot Them and to Succeed

Who wrote Boswell’s “Life of Johnson”? Who is buried in Grant’s tomb? If missed the trick wording in these questions, you join many bright students whose imprecise reading misses similar trick questions on the SAT.


Plausible Wrong Answers

There’s a devious art to writing tricky questions, and the people who write the SAT are masters of their trade. By playing with wording and sentence construction, SAT writers are adept at tricking the unwary into selecting plausible wrong answers.

You may know the difference between affect and effect, or complement and compliment, but what about humorous and humerus? There are hundreds of “frequently confused” word pairs that ambush unwary SAT-takers. Luckily, help is just a keyword search away.

Grammar counts too. Many high school juniors have forgotten their elementary-level grammar instruction because they haven’t used or added to that knowledge consciously since then.

The SAT writers know you probably don’t confuse “between” and “among” on an average day, so they deliberately switch one for the other in the middle of a confusingly long sentence about shifting numbers to confuse you.

They also know the test is stressful. Imagine a sequence of questions about the correct use of possessive and plural apostrophes, verb tenses, sentence structure and paragraph organization. How reliably can you decide whether to use “although,” “however,” “nonetheless” or “concurrently”? As my imaginary old granny used to say, “That kind of thinkin’ can wear a body down.”


When You Don’t Know the Answer

Many students learn to eliminate obviously wrong answers to increase their odds of guessing correctly. (This is called POE or “process of elimination” in test jargon.) However, students are also told to choose a “letter of the day” as their go-to answer whenever they must guess. Of course, if you implement the first suggestion, you may not be able to implement the second. If your “letter of the day” is C, what do you do if POE eliminates choice C for a question?

A surprising number of test takers rely on misguided “advice” they hear, especially when they feel like deer in the headlights of an 18-wheeler. I have taught kids who believed that the shortest answer is always right and others who swore by the longest answer. I won’t bore you with the myriad problems with such reasoning, but you should definitely expect a vocabulary-in-context question about the definition of “myriad” in the first half of this sentence.


Careless Reading

A question about a speech given to the Cherokees by George Washington in 1796 provides an excellent example of reading pitfalls that snare the unwary. It reads, “It can be reasonably inferred that Washington’s ultimate goal for the Cherokees is that they will:

(a) travel across the entire nation on foot.

(b) domesticate livestock and sell their surplus.

(c) stop their violence toward other Americans.

(d) maintain their tradition of hunting game.

A student who is skimming for keywords (a pitfall of reading the questions first), distracted or inattentive may select choice A because Washington says that there is “but one path” that “I wish all the Indian nations to walk.”

However, the answer is really B. Washington’s metaphorical use of “path” and “walk” connects with his suggestion that the Cherokees raise sheep as well as “cattle and hogs.” This will allow them to “raise livestock not only for your own wants, but to sell to the White people” in the form of wool for clothing. The “path” is an economic plan, not a literal one.


Choose Your Path to SAT Success

Earning a high test score is time consuming, regardless of whether one takes a class, works with a private tutor or simply studies on one’s own. However much it may feel as if the SAT is eating your life, it is worth putting as much time as you can into preparing. The more you study, the more likely you are to reach your target score.

Taking practice tests will familiarize students with the directions and question types, improving their efficiency and accuracy.

Studying vocabulary is definitely a good idea. The only person I knew in high school who went to an Ivy League school kept wadded up lists of SAT vocabulary in his back pocket. SAT vocabulary lists and study aids abound in print and online, and apps like Quizlet are a great online resource for flash cards and self-quizzing.

The answer to an SAT question is on the page in front of you. You just have to find it. Read carefully. Remain alert.

Finally, a message to parents: Even if your kid “flunks SAT” and does not go immediately to a four-year college, his or her life will probably still turn out all right. I was a B+ student in high school, scored 1220 the only time I took SAT, went to Rutgers, dropped out, worked for two years, returned to school, and earned a PhD.

Just imagine what I could have done if I’d studied.

By Elizabeth Breau, PhD

Elizabeth Breau, PhD, is the owner and operator of Prep for Success, LLC, an SAT tutoring program that offers individual coaching, pop-up classes and group instruction. She can be reached at [email protected]

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