Every student has experienced that moment on a Reading section when they’re down to two ridiculously similar answers and they can’t seem to pick which one is better. Figuring out how to handle this “down to two” problem is at the heart of getting a better score. 

Before we jump into exactly what to do in the “down to two” situation, I want to review a few things about right answers. *This is very important, so please read it carefully and completely!*

Because every question on the SAT/ ACT needs to have an objectively right answer, the test writers are very limited in the ways that they can create right answers. Since right answers have to be objectively, incontrovertibly right, they can only be one of two things: a restatement of what the passage says (just using different words) or an identification of something the passage clearly illustrates. I think of these as Type 1 (restatement) and Type 2 (identification).

A Type 1 right answer uses synonyms to repeat what the passage has said. These types of right answers are easier to recognize than Type 2 because if you can understand what the passage says, you can recognize when the ideas are put a different way.

Simplified Example: The passage says that the beekeeper harvests honey on the 5th and 9th months of the year. The question asks, “When does the beekeeper harvest honey?” The right answer says, “In May and September.” Here, the content in the passage says the same thing as the answer- they just use different words to do it.

Real Test Example (see practice test 1, reading section, question 9): 

9. Why does Akira say his meeting with Chie is “a matter of urgency” (line 32)?
A) He fears that his own parents will disapprove of Naomi.
B) He worries that Naomi will reject him and marry someone else.
C) He has been offered an attractive job in another country.
D) He knows that Chie is unaware of his feelings for Naomi.

Here, we use the lines given in question #10 to help us. We find that quote B) gives us the answer. Lines 39-42 read, “Normally I would approach you more properly but I’ve received word of a position. I’ve an opportunity to go to America, as a dentist for Seattle’s Japanese community.” Answer C) in question #9 is a restate of this quote, making it a classic Type 1 right answer.

A Type 2 right answer typically names/ identifies something that the passage shows or illustrates. Type 2 is a much harder right answer to recognize because your brain has to grasp the content on two levels: what the passage says and what that means/is.

Simplified Example: The passage is a fiction story and it describes a child skipping home from school after an amazing first day in which she made a lot of new friends and feels awesome about herself. The question asks, “How is Sarah feeling when she comes home from school?” The right answer says, “Joyful.” Here, the passage clearly paints a picture of what joy is like.

Real Test Example  (see practice test 1, reading section, question 36): 

36. Woolf indicates that the procession she describes in the passage
A) has come to have a more practical influence in recent years.
B) has become a celebrated figure in English public life.
C) includes all of the richest and most powerful men in England.
D) has become less exclusionary in its membership in recent years.

This question goes with question #37, so we can use the provided lines to focus our search. For the purposes of this lesson, I am only going to examine the quote that contains the answer, which is quote C). Quote C) reads, “For there, trapesing along at the tail end of the procession, we go ourselves.” The right answer to question 36 is clearly not a Type 1 restatement. But if we ask ourselves, “What is quote C) demonstrating?”, we realize that it is demonstrating that the procession now includes women. If a march that used to not allow women now DOES allow women, that is what answer 36 D) identifies: the march has become less exclusionary (allowing more people than were previously allowed).

The reason I think it is SO important to understand the two kinds of right answers is because they help tremendously when you’re down to two and trying to pick.

Here are my suggestions for what to try (not in order of importance):

1.For the two options you’re debating between, ask yourself, “Is this a Type 1 or a Type 2 right answer?” If option “A” is a T2 and option “C” seems like it’s relying more on inference, pick option “A.” 

2. Ask yourself, “Which one can I get directly from the text?”

3. Ask yourself, “Am I making a logical jump here or do I really have proof of this?” Right answers require discernment rather than speculation. 

4. Go Narrow! Think about the exact meaning of every word in each answer choice. One of the two options has at least one word that makes that answer wrong. Example: Imagine a random question with two answer options. A. analyze a culture  B. describe a tradition

When I “Go Narrow” on this question, I ask myself, “What does analyze mean and is it really analyzing? What is a culture and is this a culture or is that too broad?” Then I ask myself, “What does describe mean and is this really a description? What does tradition mean and is what they’re talking about actually a tradition?” 

Going narrow is about finding the tricky places the SAT has hidden an error in one of the options. Since the test is VERY nit picky and detail oriented, training your brain to “Go Narrow” and hunt for small errors is important.

5. Re-read the question and put it in your own words if you’re confused. What are they really asking you? 

6. Rephrase the question to make it seem less subjective. If they write, “….most clearly means,” I always translate that in my head as “what does X mean?” The text must contain the answer to that question, so which answer choice the text directly support?

7. If one answer has something that seems like it may be wrong and the other answer is just super vague but not exactly wrong, pick the vague one.

Add all of these tips to your mental toolbox. Obviously you don’t have time to use all 7 techniques every time you’re in the “down to two” situation, so you will need to practice to become skilled at knowing when to use what when.