Every SAT has one very difficult long passage. The passages may come from a 19th British work of fiction; they may come from something that was only penned yesterday. Regardless, the test writers have one goal: To determine which students are capable of dealing with abstract concepts, unfamiliar ideas, and difficult vocabulary.
As a test taker you need to be prepared, whether that means preparing yourself for the right questions, or, for the Harvard-bound, getting them all right. For the former, it is paramount that you keep your wits about you. Do not have an existential meltdown and think: I am going to fail the SAT. I totally don’t get this.
The truth is most of the other students in the class are having an existential meltdown. Stay calm and know that you’ve in all likelihood encountered the tough SAT reading passage. One option is for you to make sure that you answered the preceding questions correctly, instead of rushing through them, only to miss them. Remember that guessing on the SAT is tricky at best. Or, and this is more important, sometimes the tough passage comes before a much easier passage in the same section. Skip the tough passage and go on to the easier one.
Nevertheless, you must face the beast that is the tough passage, lest you want to miss 10 to 13 questions. Here are some helpful tips:
We already went over this – but it such an important piece of advice that it needs reiterating.
Do not sink in the quicksand
Quicksand can serve as a metaphor for difficult vocabulary, unfamiliar terms, or dense, abstract writing. If you do not understand a sentence, do your best to understand the main point of the paragraph.
The questions may help
Sometimes the questions accompanying difficult passages are much easier than the passage itself. Oftentimes, the questions can help you understand what the passage is about. One classic example is the Trabb’s boy passage from the Official Guide, pg. Indeed, give it a go after reading this post.
The tough parts sometimes aren’t tested
I’ve known many students who struggle with a dense part of the passage only to realize that, once they’ve gone through the questions, the tough part of the passage was never covered in the questions.
One quick note, do not read the questions first. It wastes time and actually will not make the passage clearer. Only after you read through the passage—even if you nothing more than a vague sense of what the passage is about—should you use the questions to guide your understanding.
Example passage and practice question
The following passage has been excerpted from a recent Nytimes.com article by Benedict Carey.
SOME cultural archetypes leave the stage with a flourish, or at least some foot stomping. All those pith-helmeted colonialists, absinthe-addled poets and hippie gurus founding 1970s utopias: They made some noise, if not always much sense, before being swallowed by history. Yet one modern American type is slipping into the past without a rattle or even its familiar whimper — the neurotic.
For a generation of postwar middle-class Americans, being neurotic meant something more than merely being anxious, and something other than exhibiting the hysteria or other disabling mood problems for which Freud used the term. It meant being interesting (if sometimes exasperating) at a time when psychoanalysis reigned in intellectual circles and Woody Allen* reigned in movie houses.
That it means little now, to most Americans, is evidence of how strongly language drives the perception of mental struggle, both its sources and its remedies. In recent years, psychiatrists have developed a more specialized medical vocabulary to describe anxiety, the core component of neurosis, and as a result the public has gained a greater appreciation of its many dimensions. But in the process we’ve lost entirely the romance of neurosis, as well as its physical embodiment — a restless, grumbling, needy presence that once functioned in the collective mind as an early warning system, an inner voice that hedged against excessive optimism.
In today’s era of exquisite confusion — political, economic and otherwise — the neurotic would be a welcome guest, nervous company for nervous days, always ready to provide doses of that most potent vaccine against gloominess: wisecracking, urbane gloominess.
Some of the reasons that “neurotic” has fallen out of colloquial usage are obvious. Freudian analysis lost its hold on the common consciousness, as well as in psychiatry, and some of Freud’s language lost its power. And scientists working to define mental disorders began to slice neurosis into ever finer pieces, like panic disorder, social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder — all evocative terms that percolated up into common usage, not to mention into online user groups, rock lyrics and TV shows.
In 1994, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, psychiatry’s encyclopedia of mental disorders, officially dropped the word neurosis from the book. “The DSM is the lingua franca of psychiatry, and given what we know today the term feels old-fashioned and quaint,” said Dr. Michael First, a former editor of the manual. “With the general decline of value of Freud in our society, it is ultimately anachronistic.”
Still, the desire for precision and the decline of Freudian thinking do not entirely explain the disappearance of the neurotic. Psychiatrists don’t ultimately shape the language we use, after all — we all do — and neurosis has at least as much going for it as other Freudian keepers, like ego and id.
The answer may reside in the one area of social science where the spirit of the neurotic is still alive and well: research psychology. “Neuroticism” is one of the “dimensions” of the so-called five-factor model of personality, the most studied measure in the field (other dimensions include conscientiousness and openness). It is rated using a simple questionnaire, in which people respond to statements like “I get irritated easily,” “I worry about things” and “I get stressed out easily.” Decades of research suggest that scores on those measures are relatively stable through life, and at least some of the differences in factors among people are rooted in genetic inheritance.
Over all, scores on those kinds of questionnaires have not changed much in adults in the United States since the 1950s. But recent studies have found that, among college students, neuroticism levels have increased by as much as 20 percent over the same period. Are young people today really more anxious and troubled — more neurotic — than their parents were at the same age? Many parents undoubtedly think so (college was a long time ago), and some researchers do, too.
But another way to read those numbers is not as a measure of mental makeup but of cultural change. People of all ages today, and most especially young people, are awash in self-confession, not only in the reality-show of pop culture but in the increasingly public availability of almost every waking thought, through Facebook, Twitter and other social media. If chronic Facebook or Twitter posting is not an exercise in neurosis, then nothing is.
The primary purpose of this passage is to
- define a term that has fallen into disuse
- describe the irrevocable disappearance of a trait
- expand on a well-known metaphor
- claim that a term has changed too often over the years to have any real meaning
- account for the apparent disappearance of a certain personality type
This is a tough question, one that requires you to think about the passage before plunging into the answer choices. Of course if you had trouble with the passage the first time around, which is understandable, you may not be able to answer this question in your own words. In that case, you may want to come back to a ‘main idea’ question in the hope that the other questions illuminate the meaning of the passage.
Of course, this is our only question here, so let’s attack it. The passage is about a certain personality type: the neurotic. It attempts to address certain questions: What has happened to the neurotic? Are they still with us? Has the meaning of the word changed? Has the neurotic not disappeared at all, meaning so many people have become neurotic that the term doesn’t seem so special anymore?
Now let’s find the best match with the answer choices:
(A) define a term that has fallen into disuse
Is the passage mainly concerned with defining what a neurotic is? Isn’t the passage more concerned with trying to figure out what happened to the neurotic? True, in answering this second question the author mentions how the definition of neurotic may have changed. He does not spend the entire passage trying to define it. So while tempting, this answer choice is wrong.
(B) describe the irrevocable disappearance of a trait
Watch out for words like ‘irrevocable.’ Do not just pretend that the word is not there, focusing instead on the other words. While the passage does focus on the disappearance of the neurotic, this disappearance is not ‘irrevocable’, meaning impossible to reverse. In fact, the author says that neurotics may be all around us.
(C) expand on a well-known metaphor
No metaphors are being used in this passage. Neurotic is an actual tag used to describe certain people.
(D) claim that a term has changed too often over the years to have any real meaning
Sure the word neurosis has changed over the years, “Neuroticism” is one of the “dimensions” of the so-called five-factor model of personality. However, nowhere in the passage does it mention that the term has changed too often over the years to have any real meaning.
(E) account for the apparent disappearance of a certain personality type
Has the neurotic truly disappeared? Well, the passage tries to account for this apparent disappearance. It should also be clear from the passage that the word ‘neurotic’ refers to a certain type of person, nervous company for nervous days.
So make sure to stay calm during the tough passage in SAT Reading Comprehension, and know that you can still answer more than half of the questions correctly without understanding every aspect of the passage. These are some of the tougher SAT question types you’ll face, so try not to sweat too much over them.