ACT / SAT Reading Tips: Wrong Answer Traps

Any college admissions test (SAT or ACT) that tests reading comprehension faces the challenge of writing questions that can fool educated high school students.  These tests have to be creative with their wrong answer traps, but using ACT and SAT reading tips, students can learn to avoid them.

How The Test Is Written

Think about it.  If any student reading on a high school level easily answered every reading question, all test takers would have great scores.  Instead the test has to be written to mislead at least some test takers. A majority of students approach questions, whether in math, reading, or writing, with an eye for what “sounds right.”  This habit of looking for the response that “sounds right” is a strategy test writers use against students. Here’s how it works.  The test writer constructing an SAT reading question had to come up with four potential, yet wrong, answers.  The correct answer is easy to write, but try developing four WRONG choices.  An answer choice cannot be used on a test unless some students will select it.  So ridiculous wrong answer choices won’t appear on the SAT or ACT.  All options will have some appeal to the literate, logical test taker.

Common Wrong Answer Traps for ACT / SAT Reading

Here’s a page from the test writer’s playbook.  These are common methods for tricking students into selecting wrong answers on reading passages:

Straight from the passage . . .  the wrong part

In an attempt to save time many students read the entire passage and begin answering questions from memory.  This works on easier questions, but with so many details, it becomes easy to mix things up.  These wrong answers are pulled directly from the reading, but are not the specific information the question seeks.  Students remember the details, but miss the fact that they came from the wrong part of the passage. ACT / SAT Reading Tip:  Remember this is an open book test!  Go back and check the passage before you answer.  Make sure the information matches the specific selection the questions references.

What vs. Why

Instead of answering WHY an example was provided or topic was discussed, a wrong answer will simply describe WHAT the topic or example was. ACT / SAT Reading Tip:  Read the question carefully and make sure you answer what was asked.  Read the questions carefully when you begin and re-read it before you select your final answer.

90% Perfect; 10% Wrong

It sounds right.  In fact, this answer choice sounds better than the correct choice.  Unfortunately, it has a little flaw hidden somewhere in the misleading wording.  These wrong answer traps are the baited hook waiting for unsuspecting test takers.  Just like the bass in the lake who sees only the juicy bait, but doesn’t stop long enough to see the hook and line, students eagerly select these choices thinking they have found the right answer. ACT / SAT Reading Tip:  Read carefully.  Examine every word in an answer choice.  If one little word is “off”, the entire answer choice is wrong.  Additionally, looking for the flaws (or “hooks”) in answer choices will keep you from be distracted by the shiny, “sounds good” bait.

True, but doesn’t answer the question

These are mean.  The answer choice can be a complete and correct paraphrase of the passage, one you can go back and put your finger on, but it is still wrong.  Why?  Because although the answer is true, it technically doesn’t answer the question. ACT / SAT Reading Tip:  Again, make sure to read the question carefully before you begin.  Also, before bubbling in your choice, ask yourself, “Does this answer the question?”  Is this the reason for the decision?  Was this the primary argument against?


Understanding common wrong answer traps on the ACT and SAT reading can help students change their test taking habits from looking for what “sounds good” to reading carefully and searching out the distractors.  ]]>

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