It’s A Trap!
by Alex Lebedeff, 30-year SAT Tutoring Veteran
Defusing the SAT’s oh-so-tricky Reading section:
Beware The Answers
The goal of the SAT’s test writers is to trick you, the test taker, into choosing wrong answers. Why? Because if everyone got a 1600 on the SAT or a 36 on the ACT, colleges would stop trusting the tests as competitive indicators, and that would be terrible for business.
In the Math sections, the authors try to mess with you by writing long, confusing problems, or using scary-looking formulas in the questions, etc. However, on the Reading section, the questions are actually pretty straightforward, while the traps are in the answers.
Lucky for you, the test writers are not creative geniuses, but rather cubicle-farm creatures of habit. They tend to go with a set of standard trap answers again and again, decade after decade.
Below, we fill you in on the kinds of trap answers the test writers use. This list is not meant to be memorized, or over-thought–it’s just a template for your consideration, so that when you study, you’ll begin to look at answers more critically. Your ultimate goal is to develop a sense–an instinct–of what answers are standard SAT trap answers, and to avoid them or exterminate them outright.
The Usual Suspects
These answers will pluck phrases, word for word, from some part of the passage that has little to do with the question. The psychological lure of these kinds of answers is pretty obvious: the words look familiar when you read them, so they sound attractive. Always double-check answers that repeat phrases from the text verbatim.
These traps can be pretty easy or pretty hard to spot, depending on how obviously extreme they are. For example, if the passage states, “…and today, Cardi B’s listenership is near-universal…” an extreme answer may look like, “The author states that… D) Everyone listens to Cardi B’s music.” This is not the case, since according to the passage, almosteveryone listens to Cardi B. In reality, there may still be unfortunate citizens of the Amazon jungle who’re not yet familiar with Cardi B’s genius musical stylings.
“Everyone,” “nobody,” “always,” “never,” and “must” are absolute words which should immediately raise red flags. Also, beware words like “will” or “will not,” and “best” or “worst”… those are absolutes, too! Finally, just as we caution against answers that use absolute words, we also caution that this is not an absolute rule… occasionally, that “absolute” answer is supported.
Why the test writers still use this type of trap is a mystery. These are traps in which the answer states the exact opposite of something that was stated in the passage. Sometimes, they’ll throw in words lifted from the text to further entice you (see Verbatim Bait above). Just stay alert, and it’s pretty simple to avoid these.
Not the most complex trap either, a Bogus Comparison is when the test writers make a comparison in the question between two things that aren’t actually compared in the passage. These are often qualitative, such as, “X is better than Y.” The reason this trap actually works on some stressed-out students is because, as humans, we tend to compare everything.
An example of this is if the passage describes one character as being pretty, and another as being smart. A trap answer might say that one of the characters is prettier than the other, but the passage never says that.
Of Course, But So What?
These come in different flavors, but what they have in common is that the answer’s true in some obvious way, but it’s irrelevant to the question–and even sometimes irrelevant to the whole passage! Some examples are emotionally appealing answers (“Colonists often treat native populations unfairly”), or popular words that are used differently in the passage. For example, the trap answer uses the word “republicans” in its modern, American political sense, while actually, since the passage is from the 1800s, it’s simply using the word “republicans” to mean people living in a republic.
Half Good Ain’t Good Enough
These traps begin on the right track: they seem to answer the question perfectly, if you stop reading halfway through. If you keep reading, however, you’ll see that it eventually gets bad, like a Gremlin if you feed it after midnight. If any part of the answer is wrong, the whole answer is wrong. These answers are simply a test of whether you’re being diligent, and reading all of the answers fully. Understand: you may skim the passage, sure, if that’s the approach that works for you, but you must read every single question, and every single answer, thoroughly. Slack not, and the truth shall be revealed.
Sometimes a question will ask you to infer something that was implied in the passage, but the answer rephrases exactly what the passage says. That’s most likely a trap answer.
Too Obvious To Be In Context
On every Reading section, there will be one or two questions that ask you for the definition of a word in context. (If you’re an old-schooler reading this, that’s where the SAT writers stuffed the dreaded “vocab” questions after 2015.) These words aren’t always infamous “SAT words,” such as “ubiquitous,” “parsimonious,” and “avuncular.” However, the writers still find ways to trip you up. Namely, they throw in obvious, first-string definitions of the word in question, when that’s not what it means in context. Very often, the definition you need–the one that the word signifies in the context of the passage–isn’t the primary Webster’s definition, but the secondary, or tertiary definition. For example, the word “waste” is primarily defined, in Webster’s, as a barren land. The secondary definition it is to “waste” something, or squander it (which is the most common way we use it in speech). However, in context, the word “waste” might mean losing strength or decaying, as in “waste away.” Always, and we mean always, go back to the passage to make sure they’re not pulling a fast one.
Not too often, but commonly enough, the test writers throw in nonsensical trap answers that have a religious connotation, such as “hymn,” “blessing,” or “ritualistic.” They do this simply because the SAT’s squad of sociologists knows that teenagers these days are 70% less likely to regularly attend religious events as they were a generation ago, and hence, don’t know about religion as much as the test writers do. If you’re not sure what a religious-sounding word means, check the passage again for true “guidance from above.”
Your Path to Mastery
A student who has studied enough reading problems while keeping these traps in mind will eventually be able to look at any set of SAT or ACT reading questions, and, without having even glimpsed at the passage, immediately eliminate half of the answers as being likely traps. If you’re shooting for a top score, strive to develop such an instinct!