SAT Reading Strategies: How to Answer Purpose Questions

Every student who’s ever taken the SAT has had that dreaded feeling of being stuck between several answer choices, all of which can be made to “look right in some way.” It’s almost as if the passage is playing games with you, with some lines supporting one answer choice while other lines point to another answer. While there is no easy way around this issue (the SAT would be really easy if you could just pick the right answer, wouldn’t it?), there are certain approaches that will help you clarify your thinking when confronted with several answer choices that “all look right.”

One approach that applies specifically to purpose questions is to question the answer choices. Especially the key terms.

Purpose questions usually come in the form of, “lines…primarily serve to…” The answer choices to this question type will almost always include key terms that you need to assess. Let’s take a short passage as an example. My comments are in red:

Some people like to act like things come easy to them. Take Cynthia Procter, for instance. If there’s a test tomorrow, she’ll say something like, “Oh, I guess I’ll watch television tonight,” just to let you know she ain’t thinking about the test. Oh, brother. When I pass her house, she is practicing the scales on the piano over and over. Then in music class she always lets herself get bumped around so she falls accidentally on purpose onto the piano stool and is so surprised to find herself sitting there that she decides just for fun to try out the ole keys. And what do you know – Chopin’s waltzes just spring out of her fingertips. A regular prodigy.

Lines 3-7 (“When…fingertips”) serve primarily to
(A) highlight a point about friendship Is there a friendship here?
(B) expand on an opinion about artistic interests What’s the opinion?
(C) respond to a challenge about the narrator’s integrity Is the narrator being challenged? Is the narrator’s integrity brought up?
(D) support an observation about a particular behavior What behavior?
(E) rationalize the narrator’s role in misunderstanding Is there a misunderstanding?

Notice how for each answer choice, I’m questioning the key terms with a sense of doubt and trying to define them in the context of the passage.

Now let’s try to answer the questions we posed. If you can’t answer the question affirmatively, that’s a strong sign the answer choice is incorrect; it means that the answer choice is not grounded in the passage.

(A) highlight a point about friendship Definitely no friendship here.
(B) expand on an opinion about artistic interests The author clearly has an opinion of Cynthia Procter, but NOT about the piano or any other artistic interests.
(C) respond to a challenge about the narrator’s integrity The narrator is not being challenged nor is integrity even brought up.
(D) support an observation about a particular behavior The behavior could be “acting like things come easy to them,” (line 1) and Cynthia and her piano is a supporting example. This could be the answer…
(E) rationalize the narrator’s role in misunderstanding There is no misunderstanding here and no indication of a role.

By asking and answering these simple questions, you’re forcing yourself to stay true not only to the passage but also to the answer choices, which are just as prone to misinterpretation as the passage itself. You’re looking over each answer choice with a watchful eye, questioning whether it’s backed up concretely by the passage or by some unsupported interpretation that your mind made up. You have to be truly conscious of what your answers mean and why you’re choosing them.

To do well on the reading section, you have to be a skeptic.

The answer, by the way, was (D). While this question may be on the easier side, this technique works extremely well even for the more difficult questions.

Let’s have you do one:

The package that arrived yesterday contained foliage from the most famous tamarind tree in India, the tree that spreads over the tomb of the legendary singer Tansen, who brought on the rains just by singing about them, and whose golden voice caused the Emperor Akbar to proclaim him one of the nine gems of his court. Even today, Tansen’s reputation is such that singers travel to his tomb to pluck foliage from the branches to make into throat concoctions, hoping their voices will become as pure as that of their illustrious predecessor, he who had caused the palace lamps to light up just by singing the Deepak Raag four centuries ago.

The narrator refers to the “rains” (line 2) and the “palace lamps” (lines 6) primarily to
(A) explain the purpose of a practice What practice? Do the references explain its purpose?
(B) illustrate the depths of a passion What passion? Do the references illustrate its depths?
(C) dramatize the magnitude of a talent What talent? Do the references dramatize its magnitude?
(D) emphasize the soundness of a belief What belief? Do the references emphasize the soundness of it?
(E) show the consequences of a decision What decision? Do the references show its consequences?

Again, if you can’t answer a question clearly and succinctly, the corresponding answer choice is very likely incorrect.

This question’s not too difficult either but that’s not the point. If you see the answer right away, you might think this whole exercise is stupid, but go through each choice and the defining questions that I’ve posed anyway.

Perfect scorers never lose sight of the passage. They keep their answers grounded in the passage by putting the answer choices to the test.

I guarantee you that making this a habit will help you think through the tougher questions in the longer passages (which I’ve avoided to make this post as short as possible).

Hope you’ve found this post helpful, and as always, more articles are on the way. Stay tuned by subscribing!!

5 thoughts on “SAT Reading Strategies: How to Answer Purpose Questions

  1. Can’t believe I just found this website… This is exactly what I need!!!!! I have always just wanted to have some clear explanations on how to do well on the crit read, but I’ve heard of almost everything already out there. This was new and supppppeeerrr helpful. Thank you so much!

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