Reading: Question and Answer Tactics

SAT/ACT Reading Question & Answer Phenomena
Key principles and phenomena of ACT and SAT reading comprehension questions and answers to always bear in mind: (Please click the triangular bullets (‣) to expand the collapsible outline for important detail.)

Correct Answer Choices: There Can Be Only One.
• Not just the basis of the Highlander movie franchise, but also an inviolable principle of SAT and ACT reading test design. Test authors design each set of four answer choices to contain one and only one right answer; the other three must be flawed rather than merely being "not as good" as the right answer.
Test Authors Use a Familiar Bag of Tricks to Design Harder Answer Choices
• Test authors' go-to tactic to shake students off (i.e., add difficulty to) a question is to design one or more appealing but flawed wrong answer choices alongside an unappetizing but unassailably correct right answer choice.
• Be familiar with and watch with the eagle eye for test authors' predictable answer choice design tactics. See Test Author Subterfuge below for a rundown of some of the most predictable designs of correct and incorrect SAT and ACT reading answer choices.
The Devil Is Still, As Always, in the Details
• Test authors easily design question stems and answer choices to be easily and fatally misread, even just by missing/misreading a single word or piece of punctuation.
• Read extra-carefully and thoroughly the entire question stem and each and every answer choice.
• Test authors defeat careless reading with answer choices designed to answer misread question stems and/or to be easily misread themselves.

SAT/ACT Reading Question & Answer Tactics
Key SAT/ACT question/answer tactics that respond to and exploit the above phenomena:

Annotate the Question Stem
• Circle or underline crucially important components of the question stem (the full question text between the question number and answer choices) to avoid forgetting or disregarding them when you engage with and reason about the answer choices. Use your own judgment and experience to determine when/if to annotate, keeping in mind specifically the following critical but sometimes stealthy question stem components:
• Even though test authors capitalize these for our benefit, they know that some students will rush through and disregard/forget as soon as they engage with the answer choices; for this reason, test authors often design wrong answer choices to these questions that would be correct if the question didn't say EXCEPT.
Primary or Main
• The words "primary" (as in "primary function") and "main" (as in "main point") in the question stem signal that we must thoroughly synthesize the referenced text to correctly answer this question type and avoid answer choices that might be supported by the text but do not rise to meet the standard of "primary" or "main". Circle or underline these words in the question stem to focus on and remain attentive to this critical aspect of the question.
Imply, Infer, Suggest
• These words in a question stem signal that the correct answer is strongly implied by but not explicit in the text. Annotate these words in the question stem to alert yourself to the dual task of carefully reading and then reasoning about the relevant text.
Paired Passage Questions: Passage of Inquiry
• Circle or underline the passage you are asked to actually answer about (rather than the other passage being compared). Test authors will often design wrong answer choices that would be right had the question asked about the other passage.
Predict the Answer
• Before engaging the answer choices, always aim if possible to mentally articulate your own answer to a question. Although this involves more work and still doesn't guarantee you'll instantly recognize the correct answer choice, this work allows a superior test taker to:
◦ Make a beeline for the correct answer choice and easily dismiss flawed answer choices when test authors offer limited-difficulty answer choices.
◦ Spend less time deciphering knotty answer choices that are already manifestly wrong.
◦ Avoid Reasonable but Wrong answer choices, a favorite of test authors turning up the heat on students who didn't insist on thoroughly understanding the passage and resort to educated guessing. Don't put the cart before the horse and decide what the passage means based on the most plausible-looking answer choice - test authors design Reasonable but Wrong answer choices to defeat this approach. A test taker able to predict the correct answer based on strong passage understanding in turn defeats this test author tactic.
Nail your answer to the text
• Whenever time permits, insist upon confirming your prediction with specific text content - here, your task is not to waste time returning to the passage to first learn its meaning, but to swiftly scan to the passage section containing text that justifies your answer. Upon finding the relevant text and of course reading the context as necessary, revise and shape your prediction as necessary to hit the nail on the head.
Sort the Answer Choices
• Use a stronger technique than finding the right answer and moving on: Sort the answer choices into 1 right, 3 wrong. This is the model test authors must produce, which allows us to confirm the correct answer choice more confidently by also confirming that its three adversaries are, no offense to dogs, dogs.
• In the process of sorting the answer choices, you will inevitably find on certain questions that one or more answers initially seem correct. You have work to do. Sort the answer choices into 1 right and 3 wrong using the following tactics:
Devil's Advocate: Finding the Flaw in a Wrong Answer Choice - Rather than spend precious time reasoning only about which answer is more right, shift swiftly to searching the answer choices for the inevitable flaw(s) test authors predictably design.
Innocent 'til Proven Guilty: Decoding Rather than Discarding the Right Answer Choice - Test authors design unappealing right answer choices to play upon our prejudices as to how the right answer should be worded and the perspective we expect it to focus on. Rather than quickly kick an unappealing answer to the curb, we must ensure that our justice is blind and demands only that the correct answer choice be justifiably right, rather than that it be pretty or easily anticipated. In particular, watch for the following test author tactics to disguise a right answer by intentionally diminishing its appeal.

Test Author Subterfuge
When sorting answer choices, carefully watch for the following standard design tactics test authors use to generate appealing incorrect answer choices and unappealing correct answer choices.

Appealing Wrong Answer Choices
Achilles Heel
◦ A very common wrong answer choice design, Achilles Heel presents an answer choice that is almost right except for the fatal but sometimes intentionally inconspicuous (at the very end of the answer choice? buried in an extra-wordy phrase?) flaw that makes it dead wrong. Thoroughly read and evaluate every detail of the answer choice - it only takes a single detail contradicting the text to turn from right to wrong.
Blinded by the Light
◦ An extreme version of Achilles Heel, this wrong answer choice design presents a delectable answer with exactly the words and ideas you want! This answer is so wonderful that some test takers will miss the fatal but intentionally inconspicuous flaw that strikes it dead. A favorite companion of the Greased Watermelon or Ugly Duckling, right answer choices that are intentionally made unappealing.
Right Answer, Wrong Question
◦ This wrong answer choice design exploits the potential disconnect that can happen when we shift from reading the question stem to the answer choices - if we misremember or distort the question we were asked, we could end up mistakenly choosing the Right Answer, Wrong Question - the answer choice that would be supported by the text if only we had been asked a different question but simply fails to answer the question we were actually asked.
Forest vs. Tree
◦ This wrong answer choice tempts readers to misidentify a supporting detail (tree) as a key idea (forest) or, when "primary" or "main" is in the question stem, to select an answer that is supported by the text but clearly does not satisfy the "primary" or "main" standard.
Reasonable but Wrong
• An answer choice that, if it were right, would make a lot of sense!! But it's wrong, wholly unjustified by anything in the text though perhaps not directly contradicted either. Students who predict their own answers and nail them to the text can see a Reasonable but Wrong answer choice a mile away. Students who do not are subject to the mind games of the test authors.
Double or Nothing
• Two answer choices that seem almost equivalent and that both seem right.
◦ Different how/why? - First, maybe they are not actually identical - study any differences between them and question whether they make one flawed and one correct. If not...
◦ Watch out for EXCEPT in the stem!!! Often, seeing two right answers is a sign of not having caught or remembered "EXCEPT" (or equivalent) in the question stem. Did you annotate it?
◦ If there's no EXCEPT, and two answers are truly equivalent in meaning, then Double or Nothing: they both are wrong and the answer lies elsewhere (one of the other two answer choices!).

Unappealing Correct Answer Choices
Greased Watermelon
• A vaguely or unemphatically worded answer choice made intentionally unappealing by the test authors. But every time you try to get a hold of it with specific reasons it's wrong and toss it aside, like a greased watermelon, it slips through your grasp. The Greased Watermelon is the indefatigable right answer despite its lukewarm appeal.
Ugly Duckling
• A more extreme version of the Greased Watermelon, the Ugly Duckling is an answer choice that intentionally uses wording that avoids the much more obvious wording we would expect from a non-perverse answer to the question. Despite tiptoeing around the more obvious language, the Ugly Duckling nonetheless answers the question perfectly if you translate the perverse language into its indisputable but not immediately obvious meaning.
Whatchoo Talkin' 'bout, Willis??
• A hard-to-understand answer choice that proves correct when you finally decipher it, but that is intentionally phrased in an unexpected, sometimes almost obtuse, way that makes some test takers jump ship before they analyze its true meaning.
Bait and Switch
• Rather than offer the obvious correct answer easily justified by passage text, test authors present the Bait and Switch, a correct but wholly unexpected answer choice that intentionally shifts from the expected perspective to an equally justified but less immediately obvious one. Similar to the Ugly Duckling but about the reader's perspective rather than merely the wording.