New SAT Reading: Common Wrong Answers

Although the SAT is perhaps less tricky than it was in the past, that doesn’t mean you don’t still need to be on your guard. The New SAT Reading section is in some ways even better at luring you into tempting wrong answer choices because many of them seem so plausible. The new SAT is all about close and careful reading, so tread cautiously when it comes to the answer choices and always go back to the passage.


New SAT Reading Wrong Answers


Here are some of the reasons wrong answers on the new SAT are just so darn tantalizing:

1. The answer is true based on information in the passage

Sometimes an answer choice is wrong because it doesn’t actually answer the question being asked. Sure, you can find supporting text for this wrong answer choice, but since it is not answering the specific question being asked, it’s not the right answer.

2. The answer sounds plausible

This is particularly true on the new SAT Reading test. Many of the answer choices will seem to be “on theme” with the main idea of the text. You may even think you remember reading a wrong answer choice in the passage. This is where careful reading comes in. You should always be going back to the text to backup your answer; you may find that the passage says something a little bit different from what you remembered, meaning this wrong answer is related, but not a precise recollection of the test.

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3. The answer relates to the SAT Reading passage (but distorts its meaning)

Be careful! Did the passage actually say what the answer choice is saying? Or did it just talk about something similiar? Or did it talk about the opposite of what the answer choice says? Again, always go back to the text and stay true to your overall understanding of the main idea and author’s purpose.

4. The answer uses words and phrases from the SAT Reading passage (but incorrectly)

Sometimes you are going to struggle with understanding a part of the passage. If a question deals with this part of the passage, you’ll often find yourself going straight for the answers in the hope that they will offer some guidance. Doing so, however, is dangerous—the SAT is waiting for you.

It will often take words that appear in the passage and throw them into an answer. But if you are not processing the entire answer choice, and are just grasping on to those familiar words, you are likely to become trapped.

5. The answer is too specific or too general

Particularly for big-picture questions such as the main idea of the passage or a paragraph, or the purpose of a passage or section, make sure you don’t pick an answer choice that only mentions part of what the entire paragraph/passage addresses or something that is far bigger than the scope of the passage.

6. The answer seems ok (but not the best)

This one is specific to the Command of Evidence questions you’ll find on the new SAT, the ones where you have to pick the best lines of evidence in the text to support your answer to another question. Be careful to check all of the answer choices! You might come across an answer choice that seems to be decent support for the answer to the previous question (or at least you can rationalize that it is), but there might be a BETTER line to quote. So make sure you look at all of the options, even though it may feel tedious.

7. The answer is almost referring to the right line

This one is also specific to the Command of Evidence questions on the new SAT. The answer choices will look something like this: A. Lines 32-35 “The witch….her prey.” Sometimes you might see another answer choice that looks like this: B. Line 32 “The monster…the muffins.” In this case the same line number appears in both answer choices, because their respective text share a line, and if you aren’t being careful you might pick the wrong one, even though you correctly identified where the answer was. So be super careful you are looking at the right lines.

Below is a short paragraph with an SAT question following it . Your goal is to read the passage and answer the question (duh!), but, more importantly, to determine which wrong answer choices fall into which category above. Once you’ve done this, look at the analysis below the passage to see if you are right.

SAT Reading Practice Passage for the Redesigned SAT

Arvo Part’s famous musical composition Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten begins and ends in silence. After three beats of stillness, one musician rings a bell three times with the slow solemnity of a death toll. The sounds of silence and death give way to the pure voice of strings which flows along in their wake. After a sublime, sorrowful opening in A minor, the violin beckons the warmer C major scale into the pulse of the piece. The strings follow one another on a quest for the deepest note, until finally each holds a long, steady low C, then breaks into silence. It is just one of Part’s modern compositions in the classical style, and it perfectly reveals the man and his music.

SAT Reading Practice Question

The main purpose of the paragraph is to:
A. explain the purpose of Part’s music.
B. describe the experience of listening to Part.
C. explain how Part’s musical composition reveals his personal feelings.
D. demonstrate the importance of silence in music.

SAT Reading Question Explanation and Analysis

First of all, the answer is B. The paragraph describes the movements of a piece of music, focusing on the listener’s subjective experience as he or she listens to the “slow solemnity of a death toll” followed by the “pure voice of strings” and so on.

Now let’s talk about what makes each of the other answer choices wrong, and why they are such common wrong answers on the SAT:

A. Yes, the paragraph is about “Part’s music,” but go back to the text and look carefully. Is an answer ever given as to its purpose? I would put this answer choice in category 2: “sounds plausible.” You have to go back to the passage and think carefully.

C. There is a phrase at the end of the paragraph that might make this one tempting: “reveals the man and his music.” And there are sensory words throughout that might seem to reflect feelings: “sublime,” “sorrowful” etc. But the paragraph does not say anything about Part’s personal feelings. And it does not say that the feelings the music might evoke in listeners are Part’s personal feelings, so be careful of inferring too much. This is a category 3 error: it is based in the passage but distorts its meaning.

D. Silence is mentioned several times, making this a tempting answer choice. But be careful! This paragraph is specifically about Part’s music, not music overall. This means this wrong answer choice fits into category 5; it’s too general.

When you practice SAT Reading, and review your practice tests, train yourself to look for the patterns in wrong answer choices. Doing so will help you avoid making these mistakes on the real deal.



  • Kristin Fracchia

    Dr. Kristin Fracchia has over fifteen years of expertise in college and graduate school admissions and with a variety of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, with several 99% scores. She had a PhD from the University of California, Irvine, an MA degree from The Catholic University, and BA degrees in Secondary Education and English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Club Fellowship from the University of California, Irvine. She’s worked as a high school teacher and university professor, as an independent college and graduate school admissions counselor, and as an expert tutor for standardized tests, helping hundreds of students gain acceptance into premier national and international institutions. She now develops accessible and effective edtech products for Magoosh. Her free online content and YouTube videos providing test prep and college admissions advice have received over 6 million views in over 125 countries. Kristin is an advocate for improving access to education: you can check out her TEDx talk on the topic. Follow Kristin on LinkedIn!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

2 Responses to New SAT Reading: Common Wrong Answers

  1. Stephen February 9, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

    Hi, Kristin. Are the Arvo Part paragraph and its corresponding questions taken directly from an SAT exam? While I agree that the final sentence is unrelated to the description of the listening experience, I’m curious why that final sentence would be included. Surely, a writer doesn’t compose in a way to intentionally disorient his or her reader.

    • Kristin Fracchia
      Kristin Fracchia February 12, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

      Hi Stephen, this excerpt and question are not from an official SAT, but intended to model a new SAT question. I would argue that the SAT uses “real-word texts” on the test, and since real world texts are not always perfectly organized, this could potentially be a paragraph from an SAT passage. However, it is taken a bit out of context since we do not have the entire passage here. Students on the SAT would have the benefit of seeing the entire passage and the SAT would expect them to answer a question like this in the context of that entire passage. So the last sentence may be leading into the following paragraph, and with the context of the entire passage, students might be able to more easily see what the function of this paragraph is. Regardless, as far as the SAT is concerned regarding wrong answers, “main ideas” need to be evident in more than just one sentence, so C wouldn’t be correct. Hope that is helpful context!

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