Critical Reading

How To Answer A “Big Picture” Reading Question On The ACT Or SAT

Both the SAT and ACT ask these “big picture” reading questions, so lots of tutors and test prep companies try to prepare you to answer them. In this post, I’m reviewing the strategies that you’ve probably heard before…and sharing the simple and effective one that works for my students, which I bet you haven’t!

Conquer the SAT "Evidence Question"

Evidence Question Header.png

For my students studying for the SAT, no question tends to consistently frustrate on the Reading Section as much as the dreaded Evidence Question does! And because this special question type is usually linked to another question, you can easily have 12-18 of these in a single Reading section. Here’s how to quickly identify this question type, avoid the common pitfalls, and get it right!

Identifying Evidence Questions

The first step to understanding this problem type is to immediately recognize it. Simple, right? Well, once you know how to pick it out, it absolutely is. Here’s the template:

14. Blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah?

A) Lines 4-6 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

B) Lines 7-11 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

C) Lines 12-13 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

D) Lines 45-49 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)


Without reading actual words, can you see the syntax that this question has? It’s a Reading question with numbers in every answer choice, first of all! All the numbers begin with the word “Line.” There’s then a set of parenthesis, which contains quotation marks, a couple words, ellipses, more words, and finally, more (closing) quotation marks.

Now, if we take another step back, we will notice something else…

14. Blah blah, blah blah blah previous question?

A) Lines 4-6 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

B) Lines 7-11 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

C) Lines 12-13 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

D) Lines 45-49 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

Did you catch that? This evidence question (like most of them) actually links and works in conjunction with the question before it! Questions 13 & 14 are actually a question set! If you answer them together—the way I’m going to show you to do it—you get two correct answers for the work of only one question...and a whole bunch of helpful hints about the actual answers.

Not too shabby, huh? It certainly makes it worth your while to know how to ace this question type.



Avoiding the pitfalls of the Evidence Question

The issue most students have with Evidence Questions is that they answer the first one first, then go onto the next question, realize too late it’s an Evidence Question, and try to figure out which excerpts from the text made them figure out the answer to the previous question. The problem is, if you already answered the previous question, how are you going to go back in time to figure out which sentence clued you into that fact? Add to this the issue that you were blindly answering the first question in the pair, possibly having to reread or scour the entire passage to find it and waste valuable time! Especially since the Evidence Question TELLS YOU which four sentences in all the passage you’ll find your answer! Basically, the test-takers TOLD YOU where to look to get BOTH questions right. Don’t waste these valuable clues! Recognizing the Evidence Question right off the bat will save you time AND the potential for error.


Here’s how to rock the SAT Evidence Question!

1. Before you read the passage, glance at the questions for any that are Evidence Questions. DO NOT READ THEM. Just notice the syntax and acknowledge it’s an Evidence Question.


2. If the Evidence Question has “previous question” in it, you know it’s a 2-question set. STAR both of the questions. It should look like this:

*13. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah?

A) Blah blah blah

B) Blah blah blah

C) Blah blah blah

D) Blah blah blah

*14. Blah blah, blah blah blah previous question?

A) Lines 4-6 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

B) Lines 7-11 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

C) Lines 12-13 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

D) Lines 45-49 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)


3. Answer those starred questions as pairs, NOT individually.

Use whatever reading strategy you normally use on the section or passage. When you get to a starred question, you read it and ask yourself this question about it: is this looking for a specific answer or is this an open-ended question? Examples of questions with specific answers are “According to the passage, what does Kelly most fear about Rebekkah?” or “What happens immediately after the star implodes?” Examples of questions with open-ended answers are “Kelly thinks Rebekkah is…?” or “According to the passage, what is true about Soviet satellite countries?” 

Based on whether it's specific or open-ended, you'll answer it in one of two ways. I'll demonstrate both.


4. If the question clearly has one correct answer, you’ll pretend the answer choices to the second starred Evidence Question are the answer choices to your question.

Like this:

*13. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah?

A) Blah blah blah

B) Blah blah blah

C) Blah blah blah

D) Blah blah blah

*14. Blah blah, blah blah blah previous question?

A) Lines 4-6 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

B) Lines 7-11 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

C) Lines 12-13 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

D) Lines 45-49 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

So, you’ll read the first question, read the answer choices of the second question, and answer the second question in the pair. Then—and only then!—you'll summarize the quote in the answer you've chosen for the second question.

Here's the payoff: that will be the answer to the first question. For free. In a snap. 

One of the answers in the first question will match the quotation you've selected as the right answer for the second question. That's the right answer. And you didn't have to go wading back through the passage to find it. 

In this example, you’d read #13, read #14’s answer choices, answer #14, THEN answer #13.


5. If, on the other hand, the first question in the set is an open-ended one, we’d change things up just a little.

You’d still read the first and then read the answer choices of the second. But this time, you go back to the first question with that information. Based on only the four pieces of evidence in the second question's answer choices, which of the answer choices in the first question fits? If all you knew were those four sentences, what would the answer to the first question be? If those four sentences were about what Kelly thinks about Rebekkah, for example, what aspect are they focusing on? That's your answer.

Now you have to go back and answer the second question, right? So which of the four sentences in the second question's answer choices mentioned the element that you've identified in your answer to the first question? 

So in our example, you’d read #13, read #14’s answer choices, answer #13, THEN answer #14. Make sense?


Learning to recognize Evidence Questions gives you a leg up.

This question type is tricky, and no mistake: that's why the test makers use it, and it's why my students who grasp this technique make great gains in their scores. Evidence Questions can represent up to a third of the entire reading section: nailing them makes a HUGE difference in your score. If you can learn to see this type of question coming, it is worth your while to learn my technique for answering them. It saves you time, and gives you a way to avoid errors. And all you have to do is understand the way this type of question works, and actually take the hints the questions themselves are handing out.

If you need me to walk you through this technique (it's one among many that I teach my students based on my detailed work with the tests!) in person or on Skype, I'd be happy to. Reach out to me here and let's make sure you have every advantage possible going into test day. 

The 4 Best Ways To Improve Your Vocab: Part IV



Vocab Hack #4: Supplement With The Tried And True

The last installment of my 4-part Vocab Hack Series is a list of the more traditional tutor-approved methods for increasing vocabulary.  These might not be as much fun as the other methods, but I would be remiss to leave them out.  For your sanity, you probably only want to try one of them…

Try a Vocab-building book:

My favorite vocabulary book – if you are a fan of straight-up learning vocab – is Hotwords for the SAT by Barron’s.  The reason I prescribe this book so often is that it manages to teach 500 SAT vocabulary words by “clumping” them together into 32 or so clusters of words.

The idea is that instead of learning 1 word + 1 definition (= 2 things to memorize) for every word you learn, you instead learn 1 definition + a group of 12+ words that have that basic definition.

Thus, to learn a dozen vocab words the old way, you’d need to learn 12 words + their 12 meanings = 24 things to remember.  The Hotwords way, you would only need to remember the 12 words + 1 definition they all have in common = only 13 things to remember.

See how much time that saves?  In addition, you will surely know some of the words in each cluster, so you end up using the words you know as an anchor to remember the other words that are new.  Super easy peasy.

Try a Vocab-building website:

If you’re more into on-line stuff, there is a plethora of newly created resources out there, and I have known some students to have success with Quizlet.  Check it out, and if that’s not your style, Google “vocab games” and you’ll surely find something else worthwhile.

Get back to Latin:

Latin roots, that is.  You can find a standard list of roots, prefixes and suffixes in the back of most test-prep books, or for free if you Google.  You will instinctively know several already, and the ones you know will anchor the new ones.


And last but not least, for whatever reason, some students really love the feeling of completion that comes with flashcards.  My advice?  If you go this route, separate your cards into three piles: those you totally know already, those that might as well be Greek (or Japanese, if you, like me, ARE Greek), and those you kinda feel you should know but don’t.

  • The first pile: place somewhere conspicuous in your room, like on your nightstand or near your desk.  This makes it appear as if you are actively learning vocab words and the ‘rents tend to like this.
  • The Greek pile: put back in the box and abandon on the bookshelf.  If you get exceedingly bored of Dawson’s Creek, you can take these out at a later date.
  • The middle-of-the-road pile is the low-hanging fruit that will take the least amount of effort to turn into usable knowledge. LEARN THESE FIRST.  Then add them to the first pile of words you know.

And on that note, you should be all set to rapidly expand your vocab and rack up tons of extra point on the SAT and ACT!  And remember, if you found this at all helpful, do me a HUGE favor and tell three of your friends!



The 4 Best Ways To Improve Your Vocab: Part III


Vocab Hack #3: Watch Smarter TV and Movies

Let me tell you a little story. When I was your age, living in Dallas, Texas, I woke up one morning at the beginning of sophomore year and decided I wasn’t going to consume any culture that wasn’t “productive”.  In fact, I was convinced most books, shows, and movies were designed to make the masses dumber, so I tried to steer clear of anything that could potentially compromise my life’s Grand Plan.

I spent the next three years driving my friends and classmates crazy, refusing to read fiction, watch TV or see mainstream movies.  At the time, there were only two independent movie theatres in town – the UA Cine and the Inwood Theatre – and each only ever showed two movies concurrently.  I think I saw everything from The Red Violin to Existenz and Happiness.  Some were whoppers, but my self-righteousness persisted.

Jump cut to now.  I happily watch the likes of Vampire Diaries, Revenge, The Mindy Project, Glee, even reruns of MIOBI.  And I discovered something shocking: Not All TV Is Bad!  In fact, you if must spend time in front of the “boob tube”, I have discovered the singular most vocabulary-boosting show that will quench your thirst for teen melodrama:


I am soooo not joking here.  After missing the show when it first aired out of intellectual snobbery, I recently decided to make up for lost time. First of all, I was shocked at how eloquent and self-expressive the main characters are.  And just to test my hypothesis, I watched the majority of Season 2 with a pen and paper in hand only to discover that some episodes utilized up to 37 SAT-level vocabulary words! Not shabby for 43 minutes of indulgence.

So get thee to a Netflix account and introduce yourself to Dawson, Joey, Jen and Pacey!!

And finally, if the last three Vocab Hacks still haven’t gotten you where you desire to go, continue to Vocab Hack #4.

The 4 Best Ways To Improve Your Vocab: Part II


Vocab Hack #2: Scout Out Smarter Reads

The best best BEST way to increase your vocabulary is to consume a lot of high quality reads.  By “high quality”, you’re probably thinking about enduring the classics that you’re forced to read anyway for school, and you’re probably wondering if you should leave your screen right now to bang your head against a wall!

Please calm yourself ;) I’ll admit, I never got past page 41 of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, try as I did.  (Let’s not even talk about Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment … thank GOD for Cliffnotes and Sparknotes!)

However, not all reading material is excruciating.  The trick is to find things that ACTUALLY interest you.  And the best way to do this is by reading NON-FICTION. The next major advantage of consuming non-fiction is that you’re priming yourself for the SAT and ACT, both of which are composed of approximately 75% non-fiction passages.  Get used to them now, and you’ll be totally fine on D-Day. Whoops. I meant Test Day.

So what types of things can you read, especially if you don’t like to read?

Start small.  Try newspaper and magazine articles geared for people a few years older than you are.

  • Like fashion? Read Elle Magazine cover to cover. Especially the Ask E. Jean column, which tends to use colorful language like “driven witless” and “whipsawed by confusion.”
  • Like music? Read your favorite artist’s exposé in Rolling Stone or Spin.
  • If you like a variety of things, like theatre, sports, local news, travel and food, try the New Yorker, and read whatever you’d like! Or the New York Times, where several staff writers there are the Real Deal and have highly regarded books of their own.
  • Into politics? Make it a point to read high quality articles like those online in the Huffington Post or the Guardian, a well-written British newspaper.  Try perusing headlines and settling down on two inviting articles to read start to finish every week.

If you want to delve deeper into reading, graduate from non-fiction articles to non-fiction or memoire books about a topic with which you are fascinated.

  • Perhaps something funny? Try comedic authors David Sedaris or Tina Fey.
  • Want something insightful?  Try anything by Malcolm Gladwell. I especially loved Blink and Outliers.  Not only will the vocab soon become ingrained and more familiar, but there are two added benefits to these books: 1) You can read these books one chapter at a time without forgetting the point, as each segment tends to bring up an entirely new example, and 2) the statistics and scientific studies Gladwell brings up are AMAZING for essay examples!!!
  • Are you into art/music/theatre/sports? Try a biography of your favorite actress, musician, director, basketball player, etc.  Again, public figures make for killer essay examples.
  • By any chance are you obsessed with psychology/personality/astrology like I was (and still am)? Go to your favorite Barnes & Noble and look up Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs or Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey.  Basically, anything that categorizes people into “types” or signs or whatever is a GOLDMINE for personality-describing adjectives. Being able to psychoanalyze anyone and anything is super handy for dissecting the tone and attitudes of otherwise VANILLA reading passages. And this will also come in handy when it’s Personal Statement time ;)

Continue to Vacab Hack #3…

The 4 Best Ways To Improve Your Vocab: Part I



Unless you are one of the few in high school who completely escapes the daily grind with enviably high-brow literature that makes your English teacher weep with joy, you probably are somewhere in the “trying to grow your vocab” phase of life. This period of several years is necessary to transition from ‘tween words and phrases like, “I don’t wanna!” to more sophisticated means of expression, like “Given the undeniable circumstances of the situation, I prefer to refrain.” (I’m only half joking here. I knew people in high school who actually talked like that, at least between more colorful words ;)

Basically, you’re growing up, and your vocabulary needs to grow up, too.  And preferably ASAP, since you have standardized tests like the SAT and ACT coming up, and you NEED to nail those sentence completions and reading passages!

So, like most Test Prep Gurus and tutors, I do have some clichéd advice to expand your diction.  And I would never hold out on the tried and true methods, no matter how hackneyed and BOOOORING they might seem…

BUT! – keep reading! – I know a few more ways to get the job done that I think you, my darlings, would much rather prefer!  So in this 4-part series, I’m here to enlighten, and hopefully make your quest to raise your SAT Critical Reading and ACT Reading scores considerably more fun!

Let’s start with the easiest:

Vocab Hack #1: Surround Yourself With Smarter Peeps  

By “smarter”, I don’t necessarily mean you should ditch your crew if they aren’t up to snuff.  However, maybe you should consider adding some variety to your social circles.  This could be as simple as befriending upper classmen or chatting with your parent’s friends and your older relatives when you get the chance.  Maybe, just maybe, instead of shying away from crazy surgeon Uncle Andy, ask him about the grossest thing he’s ever seen on the operating table or why he prefers Fleetwood Mac to the Beatles.

Basically, partake in adult conversations with actual adults.  Bonus points if Tina Fey is your close family friend.

Very likely, you will begin to uncover more sophisticated ways of expressing yourself and hear some higher-echelon vocab in context and start to feel comfortable with it.

As a side benefit, you may just find yourself becoming more emotionally mature and perhaps even collecting cool stories about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that can come in handy as a “personal experience” essay example!

To continue reading Vocab Hack #2, click here.

From Listless to Ivy-Bound: How to Conquer the Infamous Sophomore Slump in 5 Easy Steps



After the novelty of high school wears off (that’d be Freshman year), you might feel as if you’re in a long tunnel with no light in sight, trudging along with seemingly no direction, no goal, no end.  But lots of drama. Welcome to the Sophomore Slump!

It’s not your fault that you might feel this way: popular culture emphasizes this pattern with every major movie, book series, or show that comes out…

For example:

Remember how subdued “New Moon” was in the Twilight series? Being the 2nd book – no longer the introduction to the crazy world of Edward/Bella/Jacob/vampires, yet not far along enough to see the bigger themes of saving hybrid babies, conquering Volturi, and general good vs. evil – one could say this edition has its own unmemorable version of the “Sophomore Slump”.

It was the same thing with Harry Potter.  We all remember horcruxes, quidditch, and Sirius Black, but how many of us would say Chamber of Secrets was our favorite?  How many of us even remember it at all?!

You see, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, being book (and movie) #2, had its own “Sophomore Slump”.

Need more proof of how this is a racket ingrained in our culture?  Ask any friend who is a middle child!  (Or ask yourself, if that’s you.)

So it must be settled then: Sophomore year is just inconsequential and pointless, right?

WRONG! And nothing could be further from the truth.

Sophomore year is a very special time, and this uniqueness actually comes from the origins of the word itself. 

“Soph” means “wise” in Ancient Greek. Think “Sophocles”, one of the 3 greatest Greek playwrights from ancient times.

The root of “more”, on the other hand, means “fool” – just like the word “moron” ;)

So as a Sophomore, while you are “wise” enough to not be a clueless Freshman anymore, you are also a –

JUST KIDDING!  You are NOT a “moron” – you just have room to grow.

What does this mean for you, right here, right now?

You need to turn this lackluster year into a launching pad for a superlative high school career that can open doors to your dream college.  Here’s how:

Step #1: Find Your Focus

You may have tried out lots of clubs and activities Freshman year.  Now that you have those experiences under your belt, you can “wisely” determine which ones you want to pursue seriously during the rest of high school.  Colleges love to see commitment, passions and initiative (read: leadership), so if you hated fencing last year, you still have time to start bowling and maybe make it to team captain by Senior year.

Step #2: Use Your Course-load To Your Advantage

Lucky for you, the coursework you’re taking this year is not going to match the demanding nature of what you’ll encounter next year as a Junior, so celebrate!  This means it’s easier this year to score killer grades than it might be next year.  So get them while they’re easy!  Nailing top grades Sophomore year pumps up your cumulative GPA, so even if you struggle in Junior year Trig, you’ll have your stellar Sophomore grades to help bring up your average.  Also, rocking out your coursework this year will catch the eye of your teachers: if they see you excel while your classmates are slacking off, they will give you the benefit of the doubt (and killer college recommendations) later on down the line.

Step #3: Consider Taking SAT Subject Tests and/or AP’s

This may or may not apply to you, but if you are taking any AP classes or otherwise demanding courses, see if there is a corresponding SAT II Subject Test that you can take at the end of this year, while it’s fresh on your mind.  If your score sucks, you don’t have to submit it, but if you do well, you can relieve some of the pressure you’ll have Junior year.

If you are already taking an AP class (or a few), aim to take the AP test at the end of the year.  During admissions, colleges only see the AP scores you earned Junior year and earlier, so an extra AP score (or 4) looks really REALLY impressive.

Step #4: Read, Read, Read!

Want to know the most foolproof way to get an SAT Critical Reading score above 750? BE A VORACIOUS READER. Reading high quality texts (the “classics”, articles from the New York Times, New Yorker magazine, for example) is the most painless way to expand your vocabulary naturally and learn to understand sophisticated writing styles… the same type of dry writing you’re probably going to encounter on Test Day.  If you never crack open a book except when you have to for school, you can still improve your score with lots and lots of elbow grease during your Junior and Senior years, but it is very doubtful that you will increase it to the really impressive 750+ range.

Step #5: Visit Colleges

Say what??  Yep, I said it.  I know you may not know which colleges you even want to apply to yet, but visiting during the summer between Sophomore and Junior years is one of the best ways to start figuring out what you like and what you hate.  I recommend scheduling a handful of college visits in June and July – not August, when everybody is scrambling last minute to check out schools before admission deadlines.  Also, do you really think it’s “wise” to wait until next year and miss out on several days of Junior year AP US History and Physics, when you’re already prepping for the SAT, the ACT, SAT II’s, and your demanding course-load is killing you??

I thought so.