If you're aiming for a really high SAT score, you'll need to learn how to beat the most difficult questions on every section of the test. Here, I'll go through a few of the most difficult questions I've seen on the SAT Reading section and how to solve them.
Why exactly are they so hard? How do you tackle them? How well will you do? Challenge yourself for that top score.
Example 1: Author Technique Question
Author technique questions ask about why the author of the passage used a certain emphasis or device in his or her writing. These questions can be very difficult because you need to have a deep understanding of the author's viewpoint and how different writing techniques work to develop arguments.
Here's one of the most difficult author technique questions I have seen:
In lines 27-30, the author uses the word "conventional" several times in order to:
A. reveal the performers' frustration with modern theaters
B. disparage the present-day treatment of the arts
C. parody the creative efforts of contemporary artists
D. emphasize the absurdity of a purely aesthetic approach to the arts
The question refers to these lines in the passage:
The trend toward preservation is significant not only because it is saving and restoring some superior buildings that are testimonials to the creative achievements of other times, but also because it is bucking the conventional wisdom of the conventional power structure that provides the backing for conventional culture centers to house the arts.
I think this question is so difficult because it requires a very specific and nuanced understanding of the author's goals and technique. It also provides answer choices that are overall pretty confusing.
Let's figure out how to solve it!
First, we need to understand the question.
Why does the author use the word "conventional" so many times in this paragraph? What's the viewpoint she is trying to support?
Clearly she is pro-preservation of historic architecture (she describes the buildings that preservation saves as "superior" and "testimonials to the creative achievements of other times", which are both good things), and conventional is being used negatively to describe the systems in place that would dismantle these cultural monuments. She is trying to emphasize how important it is not to allow the "conventional" ideas, systems, and centers to completely take over the arts.
Now let's look at the answers, remembering to be very picky and specific about eliminating any answers that are even a little bit wrong!
Choice A: reveal the performers' frustration with modern theaters
True, the phrasing does convey a certain frustration, but is it used to reveal the performers' frustration? Is it specifically about modern theaters?
Nope. This answer makes itself too specific by mentioning performers and modern theaters, so it's gotta be wrong.
Choice B: disparage the present-day treatment of the arts
This seems correct. "Conventional" is definitely being used as an insult (to "disparage" something). And it's insulting the attitudes and structures that surround contemporary treatment of the arts in public life.
This one's a winner!
Choice C: parody the creative efforts of contemporary artists
No, this looks like an irrelevant answer. Contemporary artists are not criticized and certainly not parodied by the repeated use of "conventional". There's no mention of contemporary artists at all!
Cross it out!
Choice D: emphasize the absurdity of a purely aesthetic approach to the arts
Hmm...a "purely aesthetic approach" would mean an approach that only takes into account outside appearance. The author does seem like she might reject that sort of approach, but make sure you stick to the question. Is that why she repeatedly used "conventional"?
Pure aesthetics isn't what she's directly criticizing. It's more the unfeeling bureaucratic mindset (the "power structure") that pervades today's decisions about public cultural and artistic matters.
This answer is slightly off from the author's point, so it's not going to work!
Choice B is correct!
This question was really hard because it gave a few answer choices that made some sort of sense with regards to the author's viewpoint but that didn't directly answer the question. This is why you need to always be sure to keep reminding yourself what you are being asked: to avoid just choosing an idea you saw in the passage but that doesn't answer the specific question.
If you think it will help, write down a paraphrased wording of what the question is asking that's easier for you to understand so you can stay focused while you look at the different answer choices.
Example 2: Analogy Question
Analogy questions are also really tough. They require you to make a comparison between something in the passage and something unrelated to the passage that exemplifies a parallel relationship or theme. This means first understanding an abstract concept in the passage and then matching it to one of five other abstract concepts that sound similar.
Let's take a look at one of the hardest analogy questions:
The "mystery" discussed in lines 10-13 is most analogous to that encountered in which of the following situations?
A. Being unable to locate the source of materials used to construct an ancient palace
B. Being unable to reconcile archaeological evidence with mythical descriptions of an ancient city
C. Being unable to explain how ancient peoples constructed imposing monuments using only primitive technology
D. Being unable to understand the religious function of a chamber found inside an ancient temple
Here's the part of the passage we need to refer to:
But finding Machu Picchu was easier than solving the mystery of its place in the rich and powerful Inca empire. The imposing architecture attested to the skill and audacity of the Incas. But who had lived at this isolated site and for what purpose?
First, let's figure out what the question is asking.
Which situation in the answer choices is most similar to the "mystery" described in the passage? So we need to figure out what the mystery is based on the passage.
Going from the first sentence, the mystery is the role Machu Picchu played in the Inca empire. We also should note descriptions of Machu Picchu in the passage to make as direct a comparison as possible. We know it had "imposing architecture" and was "isolated" but no one knows who lived there or why it existed.
Ok, let's find the most similar answer choice now!
Choice A: Being unable to locate the source of materials used to construct an ancient palace
The mystery in the passage is about the purpose of Machu Picchu in the context of the Incan Empire. It doesn't involve any confusion about HOW the city was created. This answer doesn't fit because the mystery has nothing to do with the origin of Machu Picchu, it has to do with its function.
Get rid of it!
Choice B: Being unable to reconcile archaeological evidence with mythical descriptions of an ancient city
This one doesn't work either. The content doesn't match with the mystery in the passage because there were no mythical descriptions of Machu Picchu. The mystery isn't about any sort of mismatch between the archeological reality of Machu Picchu and how it was described. It's about the fact that its purpose in the Incan empire wasn't described at all.
Cross this one out!
Choice C: Being unable to explain how ancient peoples constructed imposing monuments using only primitive technology
This one is tricky, because the mystery does involve not being able to explain Machu Picchu's existence. BUT the mystery is not about the logistics of its construction—it's about the WHY, while this situation is about the HOW.
This one is also incorrect!
Choice D: Being unable to understand the religious function of a chamber found inside an ancient temple
This answer looks promising—it talks about being unable to explain function, and the mystery is the role of Machu Picchu—synonyms! Explaining the religious function of a chamber found inside a temple is analogous to explaining the function of Machu Picchu in the Incan Empire. How does one part function in the context of the whole it belongs to?
This answer seems correct.
Choice D is the one we want!
Analogy questions like this require you to think at a pretty high level in terms of inferences because you need to make a connection to something totally outside of the passage.
However, this doesn't change the rule about looking for direct evidence for your answers. Notice how in this question we focused on the fact that the mystery was about the role of Machu Picchu. By using this evidence, we were able to find the most direct connection in the answer choices by noting that role and function are synonyms.
Machu Picchu—I think I need to go there.
Example 3: Data Reasoning Question
Unlike the ACT, the SAT does not have a section devoted specifically to science. Instead, the SAT includes graphs and data in other sections of the exam, such as Reading. For data reasoning questions, the student will need to interpret the data in the figure and place it in the context of the overall passage.
Because the SAT doesn't expect high-level data analysis skills from students, most data reasoning questions aren't typically among the hardest you'll see on the Reading section. However, every now and then they have a particularly question, such as the one below. It's challenging because you must have strong graph analysis, reading comprehension, and inference skills in order to answer it correctly, and there is a lot of room for misinterpretation.
Based on figure 2, the engineers surveyed were most skeptical of the idea that in the event of a reallocation of road space, drivers would change
A. when they travel.
B. their means of traveling.
C. how often they make a journey.
D. their driving style.
To solve this question, first let's figure out what figure 2 is showing us. Figure 2 shows data from an opinion poll of transportation engineers. According to the y-axis label, the engineers were asked whether a road space reallocation could cause people to change various aspects of their driving. There are four answer possibilities: "yes," "yes (in exceptional circumstances)," "no," and "don't know."
Now, this question specifically wants to know what aspect of driver behavior that the engineers thought least likely to change. Of the four choices, "driving style," received the smallest percentage of "yes" and "yes (in exceptional circumstances)" responses, as well as the largest percentage of "no" responses. This means that the engineers were most skeptical of drivers changing their driving style, which means Choice D is the correct answer.
Example 4: Paired Passages Question
Paired passage questions contain some of the most difficult questions on the SAT Critical Reading section because they ask you to look at arguments from different viewpoints and make inferences about the views of passage authors.
It's a real mental challenge when these questions ask you to put yourself in someone else's shoes (especially someone whose opinion is different from your own or unfamiliar to you) and then take it one step further and analyze another person's opinion from that viewpoint.
Here's one of the hardest paired passage questions I've seen:
Based on lines 63-67 ("nobody...sheep"), the author of Passage 2 would most likely appear to the author of Passage 1 as
A. a neutral observer of animal behavior
B. well informed concerning research into animal intelligence
C. having a deep fondness for border collies and therefore overestimating them
D. having little respect for traditional scientific research
Here's Passage 1:
And here are the lines referenced in Passage 2:
"nobody could believe dispassionately in the totality of positive and negative reinforcement after seeing the pure intelligence shining in the face of a border collie intent upon helping a shepherd herd sheep"
How should we go about solving this question?
This is the type of SAT Critical Reading question where it actually is important to read and absorb the whole passage. We need to have a strong idea of how the author of Passage 1 feels about canine intelligence.
From reading the passage, it's clear that the author of Passage 1 takes a more cynical view of the issue. People are inclined to believe that dogs are intelligent because we are always around them and they are good companions, but this has no basis in scientific fact. What does this mean about the author of Passage 1's opinions on the author of Passage 2 based on the quote?
Well, it seems like he or she would probably think the author of Passage 2 was naive and falling into the trap of wishful thinking. The quote cites unscientific, emotional evidence of the intelligence of a particular dog breed.
Ok, now let's look at our choices!
Choice A: a neutral observer of animal behavior
Hmm no, I don't think so.
This is almost an opposite answer. Clearly the author of Passage 2 is biased towards believing dogs are intelligent. There's no way the author of Passage 1 would think of her as a neutral observer based on her statement about border collies.
Cross it out!
Choice B: well informed concerning research into animal intelligence
Nothing in the quote says anything about research, so it wouldn't make sense for the author of Passage 1 to consider the author of Passage 2 well informed about animal intelligence research based on the excerpt.
This is definitely an irrelevant answer—get rid of it!
Choice C: having a deep fondness for border collies and therefore overestimating them
Hmm, this seems possible.
The author's point in Passage 1 was that people's emotional attachment to dogs causes them to overestimate their intelligence. In Passage 2, the author is clearly citing her own positively biased observations of border collies as evidence of their intelligence. The author of Passage 1 would definitely think she was overestimating border collies because of how much she likes them.
This answer makes sense.
Choice D: having little respect for traditional scientific research
This one isn't going to work—it makes too many assumptions. The quote doesn't indicate anything about the author of Passage 2's feelings towards scientific research. There's no reason the author of Passage 1 would make this specific judgment based on the excerpt.
This is a pretty tricky answer choice. It would make some degree of sense for the author of Passage 1 to believe this about the author of Passage 2 since she's citing anecdotal evidence rather than scientific facts to back up her point about border collies.
However, this answer is too nonspecific to be correct. There's nothing that directly points to the fact that the author of Passage 2 doesn't respect traditional scientific research. She certainly does respect her own (perhaps biased) judgments that aren't based in science, but that doesn't mean that she looks down on real scientific research.
Choice C is correct!
I thought this question was particularly tricky because it asked you to do some high-level inference work and provided a correct answer that might at first have seemed too specific. It also gave some other answer choices that appeared plausible but didn't fit with any evidence in the quote from Passage 2.
In these types of questions, it's important not to doubt yourself and to use process of elimination very strictly. Even if you're being asked to infer something about one passage author from the point of view of another, your inference will still be based on direct evidence from the passages.
In related news, border collies are too cute to handle.
The most difficult sentence completion questions on SAT Critical Reading will expect you to understand high-level vocabulary in both the sentence itself and the answer choices.
Even if you don't know specific definitions of all the words, process of elimination can help you get down to one or two answer choices. Remember to look for connotation in the sentence and note relationships between words and phrases so you know exactly what you're looking for.
The most difficult passage-based questions on SAT Critical Reading will ask you to understand and compare abstract concepts and points of view.
It's important to always be clear on what the question is asking first. Some choices might be relevant to information in the passage without being a direct answer to the question.
Above all, BE PICKY. The hardest questions are relying on your inability to eliminate slightly incorrect answers. If you can't find direct evidence for a choice, you have to get rid of it.
Even the hardest Critical Reading questions can be answered confidently with enough practice!
Want more tips on how to master the SAT Critical Reading section? Check out our article on how to get an 800!
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.