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Dear Mitch,

There's another SAT exam coming up.

(Which you probably know)

Do you have any tricks for the reading comp questions?


Nick B.


Dear Nick B.

As a matter of fact, I do!

However, for this one, I hesitate to use the word 'trick', as I prefer to think of it as a "technique". As a legitimate technique, it might require a bit more thinking and practicing than a simple mindless 'trick' would -- but it will also reap richer rewards for a longer time than most of the tricks we tend to think of as the magical ways to go through these tests.

Also, this particular technique is, in a way, based on such common sense that people don't use as often as they should within the context of standardized tests, but I promise that if you try this way of approaching the reading passages it will serve you well for the rest of your thinking life.

So, let's start by thinking about something: Why is it that you will never encounter an SAT exam on which each and every passage is about one particular topic, such as athletics, or nature, or theater arts?

Answer: The reason is that the authors of the test try to be as fair as they can to assure that if a subject has no interest to you, you will not have to deal with it on more than one passage, and if you are an expert in a particular subject, you will not luck into that subject on more than one passage.

Why? Because it is much easier to comprehend a passage if the subject is one very familiar to you, or is on a topic that interests you.

For example, if, on the next SAT or other big test you take, one of the passages just happens to be about horses, and you either grew up on a horse farm or have been riding horses in competitions for years, you are likely to grasp more from the passage and retain more of what you've grasped to answer the questions than would a classmate who has spent his/her entire life in an urban setting without access to horses and riding.

That is the main reason the writers of the test try to find or produce passages from a broad range of topics.

So, on the reading comprehension portion of the test, we can simplify things by saying the passages go into one of three categories: 1) those that interest you; 2) those that don't; 3) those that are in-between.

For the in-between ones, perhaps the topic is of interest to you (let's say motorcycles) but the writing is too dull for your taste or covers an aspect outside your interest, such as the role they've played in American history or the reasons rare bikes have gone down in value...

And so? 1) If the passage interests you, just be careful not to forget that you are being tested on what the passage says. Whether you agree or not with the author's assertions, and whether or not you actually spot errors in his/her info/research/facts, it is not your outside knowledge that you use to answer the questions, NO.

Pretend the author is correct about everything and you are not; your outside knowledge will actually help a lot as a way of recalling the author's assertions even when they're the opposite of what you know to be true. And you should do very well; the only problem such a passage can present is when students rely on their own expertise and either skim the passage, or go straight to the questions without bothering to read the author's attempt, or answer the questions based on what they believe to be 'objective truth' rather than the author's supposition.

On such a passage you should do well – just do not fall into the above traps!

When coming to one of the other 2 categories, what you should try to do is make yourself interested in the subject as fast as possible. How? Well, often this is not an easy thing to do. But if you're reading about plants and how to get them to grow and blossom big colorful flowers, and you hate fauna and are allergic to the stink of flowers, tell yourself that this article can help you become an expert on how to kill those evil buds before their creepy petals expand... all you'll need to do is the opposite of what the author recommends. If a passage tell you the best food and water for snakes, and you have an aversion to snakes -- Oh well, then to get rid of the snakes in your attic try closing down the cafeteria you've opened up there.

And if all else fails, base your 'interest' on the true fact that you're getting paid to quickly develop expertise.

Paid? How are you getting paid?

With points from your correct response. Do what you must to focus, reminding yourself that every line you decipher and retain a piece of a passage, it will "pay off". And since you have to sit there anyway for those brutally quiet minutes, you might as well pick up whatever change you can. Do it well enough and you'll end up with a couple of extra bucks profit without taking one extra moment out of your life!

When my son was five year old, I took him to see a movie called "March of the Penguins" (or something like that). Though I loved the film, it was not to his taste. And so, like many five-year-olds, he was not shy about expressing his opinion, and he did so without pausing to consider modulating the enthusiasm in his voice...

"Poppy, it's boooooooorrrrrring!!!!" he declared, "Can we go now?"

I was not ready to go, and hoped he would gradually find the story interesting. So after trying various approaches to encourage him to give it another few minutes, I finally resorted to a 'trick' that had never occurred to me before. I whispered to him that of the hundreds of penguins depicted on the screen, one was a puppet. And the only way to spot that artificial bird was by a small red dot on his shoulder. I pointed out that it was almost impossible to spot, so hardly even worth the energy. Suddenly, he sat forward in his seat and became uncharacteristically quiet. He was busy working on an age appropriate game: His very own Eye-Spy of the fake penguin. He was interested. He was focused. And he ended up becoming more engaged in the film than anyone else I saw in the theater – and people seemed pretty engaged!

My point? Why not try making a passage into a game – whatever it takes to stick with it to pick out whatever you can.

Often subjects that never interested you were never given a chance. The thought of birds, for example, may bring to mind those creatures that seem to leave their droppings on your bicycle, mailbox, etc., but watch them fly, or think about the motion involved when sailing through the air, or think of how they migrate in perfect patterns thousands of miles and arrive on a more reliable schedule than many airlines, then, magically, the birds are able to find a particular tree they liked the previous year. Is that not amazing? And nests – who teaches them how to make nests? They don't go to night school, as far as we know, yet they make better nests than most people could ever make. How do they figure it all out? To me, it's miraculous, though, for some reason, not something I tend to think much about.

And then, do what you can to paraphrase each paragraph with one sentence under or next to it.

See what happens. The results might INTEREST you!

Hope this helps,