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Lucas Fink

SAT Paired Passages: It’s a Trap!

The simplest type of SAT trap

If you’ve spent much time practicing SAT math, you’ve probably noticed some answer choices that you almost picked before realizing they didn’t answer the question. Some of the clearest examples of these are in algebra questions that deal with both an x and a y variable, but the question asks only for the value of one of the two. Let’s say that’s y. Pretty much without fail, you’ll see one answer choice that gives the value of x. If you’re rushing your work, it’s pretty easy to forget which variable you want and get it wrong.

The first “It’s a trap!” moment can be a great teacher. You might start toward the answer choice that solved for x, but then happen to notice that the question stem asks for y. At which point, a little picture of Admiral Ackbar should pop-up in the minds of anybody well versed in memes.


The traps in SAT reading

On every SAT, you’ll get two sets of paired passages: one set of paired paragraphs and one of longer excerpts. In every case, those two passages will be about the same topic, but they’ll will express two clearly distinct views on it. They may be in direct disagreement, or they may be related in a more subtle way.

But in every case, the author of passage 1 will say some things that are definitely not said by the author of passage 2 and vice versa. As was true in the math questions, then, you have two separate variables. You’ll have to watch for which variable the question is asking you to solve for, so to speak.

For example, let’s say our first passage is about the life of Einstein, and includes these sentences:

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A list of Albert Einstein’s accomplishments in physics would not necessarily be an enormously long one—there are other physicists who had similarly prolific careers—but it would include a series of monumental developments in science. That one man could have influenced our modern era to such an extent is bound to inspire awe.

And our second passage includes these:

It is often believed, regrettably, that progress in the sciences is largely driven by the efforts of rare geniuses, although the truth is quite the opposite. Unique characters such as Einstein, the perennial favorite, are singled out, and folk history credits them with more than they are warranted. Progress comes only with the collaboration of many.

Then you might get a question that looks like this:

The author of passage 1 would most likely agree with which of the following statements about Albert Einstein?

  1. The public image of him is skewed.
  2. He believed that scientific developments were crucial for social development.
  3. He did not accomplish as many things as he could have.
  4. The respect he is given is validated by his accomplishments.
  5. His hair looked like sleeping bag stuffing.

Two of the above choices are simply not there in the reading—remember to go back and find the evidence so you don’t fall for them.

And one of them might have had your internal Ackbar crying out. That’s answer choice (A), to be clear, which would be a perfectly fine answer if the question had been asking about passage two. The correct answer, then, would be (D), which agrees with the right passage.

Answer (E) was not a real SAT type answer. Just making sure you’re reading closely.


The moral of the story

Even if this seems simple here, don’t just think it can’t happen to you. It’s especially likely to crop up in the paired long passages, which tend to have more questions focused on individual authors’ views.

Always double-check that you are looking back at the right passage. Don’t make the simple mistakes that you can avoid.


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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