How to use Process of Elimination

Process of Elimination (POE) is the most important technique for SAT Reading, yet many students don’t know how to do it.

WHY POE is important: The SAT is written in a way that makes it really hard to recognize right answers. The test writers don’t phrase right answers in a way that is obvious, and that is one of the things that makes the Reading section challenging. Because of this confusing and weird wording, we can’t count on our brains to recognize right answers when we read them. Trust me, even perfect scorers have this problem.

The good news is that you don’t have to KNOW an answer is correct to pick it and get the question right. POE is a brilliant technique because it allows us to be somewhat confused and still get everything right.

HOW to use POE: POE is the careful process of finding the errors in three out of the four answer choices. Because there are always four answer options and only one of them is totally correct, the other three have something wrong with them. This is always true. Instead of trying to figure out which answer is right, POE has us just finding the three answer options that are wrong. Once we find errors in three options, we can be sure that the right answer is the one that is left.

The reason POE is the best way to tackle reading questions is because it gets your brain to think like the test writers think. They DO NOT believe that they have written the right answer in a way that is easy to recognize. The only criteria for an answer to be right is that it’s simply not wrong.

This is totally counter to what you do in school. Your teachers probably don’t phrase right answers in such a way that, even if you know the content, you won’t recognize the answer as correct. But- oh joy! -the SAT does just that.

So, in order to deal with the way the test works, we have to “play by its rules.” If right answers aren’t meant to be easy to spot, let’s stop trying to find them. Instead, we should reveal which answer we have to pick by finding the three answer options that are wrong. Let’s do an example.

Official SAT practice test 1, question 1: Here, I will go through each of the answer choices and think carefully about anything I can find that’s wrong with the answer options.

Which choice best describes what happens in the
A) One character argues with another character
who intrudes on her home. (There is no argument, so I know this cannot be the answer. Eliminate "A".)
B) One character receives a surprising request from
another character. (There is nothing I see that is definitely wrong with this one, so I'll keep it in.)
C) One character reminisces about choices she has
made over the years. (Neither one of the female characters is reminiscing, so this cannot be right. Eliminate "C".)
D) One character criticizes another character for
pursuing an unexpected course of action. (Nowhere in the passage does anyone criticize Akira, so this one cannot be right. Eliminate "D.")

Okay, so I’d pick “B” here. I didn’t pick it because I thought it was right or because it was what I was expecting; I picked it because there is nothing wrong with it and the other three have errors.

To summarize: right answers cannot contain any errors, and wrong answers must contain errors. POE is the act of hunting for errors and picking the answer choice that is left. I call this the “negatives focused hunt.” It is very important that you pay attention to each and every word when you’re using POE. As with the example above, the three wrong answers weren’t totally wrong. The difference between the right answer and the wrong ones came down to the details. To use POE effectively, you must be very thorough in your negatives hunt.