Eliminate, Don't Vindicate; Nullify, Don't Justify


vindicate (v.)

  1. Clear (someone) of blame or suspicion
  2. Show or prove to be right

In this post, I'll explore the mental approach you need to have in order to do well on the reading section. When it comes to this section, students are too concerned with how to read the passage. Should I look at the questions first? Should I read the passage first? Should I take notes as I read? Should I skip certain lines and only read the topic sentences? These questions aren't as important as you think. A lot of my students read the passages in different ways yet still obtain scores of 750-800.

The key to doing well is not how you read the passage, but how you approach the questions. I'll be talking about question types and anticipating answers in future posts, but this post will focus on how to process the answer choices.

Given any answer choice, you have two ways to evaluate it:

  1. You come up with a reason it's right.
  2. You come up with a reason it's wrong.

Obvious, right? Both are equally valid ways of approaching an answer choice. Sometimes, you just know for sure what the answer is and you can logically and easily justify it. But it's when you're dealing with the tough questions, when you're stuck between two or three answers, that you're most likely to forget about the second way: instead of asking why it's right, ask why it's wrong.

Why exactly is this second approach so effective? And how exactly do we put it into practice? Read on.

Your Mind and Rationalization

The human mind is exceptional at justifying things, especially when it fixates on them. Stare at a product long enough, and you'll come up with reasons to buy it. Get into a bad relationship, and you'll find reasons to stay ("It's hard to find someone better..."). Work in a crappy job for crappy pay, and you'll tell yourself it's not that bad ("Well, my coworkers are nice...")

Analyze any answer long enough, and you'll conjure up reasons to choose it.

This tendency to rationalize is well documented in psychology as the confirmation bias.

English psychologist Carl Wason demonstrated this mental inclination in the following experiment:

You're given an initial string of numbers. For example,


Your goal, as one of the subjects, is to figure out the rule governing the sequence of numbers by only asking whether other sequences fit the rule. So you might test,

12-14-16 or 6-8-10

After you've confirmed that both those sequences fit the pattern, you now feel confident. "Increasing even numbers," you proudly exclaim. But you would be wrong.

"The rule is any three increasing numbers."

You see, you never thought to test 3-7-22 or 5-11-12 because you were so caught up in what you thought was right. Your mind only bothered to confirm your initial assumption rather than try to deny it.

In fact, only one in five people in Wason's study was able to guess the correct rule. The results are definitive—in our desire to be right, we naturally overlook, if not outright ignore, the things that might prove us wrong. We choose an answer we like and find ways to make it correct. After all, who likes to prove themselves wrong?

SAT Reading and the Confirmation Bias

The confirmation bias occurs especially on the reading section, which lends itself to "interpretation" (or should I say "misinterpretation") more so than the writing and math sections. I've seen students pull out the most ridiculous explanations to justify an answer choice.

For example:

During a recent lesson, a student and I came across a question about the tone of the passage. The passage as a whole was quite jovial, describing a family trip somewhere.

Despite the overall togetherness and cheerfulness being expressed, however, my student for some reason fixated on just one particular line—the description of the clouds. The clouds were described as dark and grey, and because she saw them as symbols of gloominess and foreshadowing (a common occurrence in literature), she chose to circle "ominous" as her answer. That was her justification even though it was an insignificant part of the passage and there was no concrete indication elsewhere that things were ominous. Under the natural impulse to confirm an answer rather than reject it, she blew a small detail out of proportion.

Reviewing the passage during the lesson, she couldn't believe that she chose that answer.

The lesson is this—when we're in the middle of the test, under time pressure, it's extremely easy to fall into our own mental traps.

On a previous exam, I too became a victim of my own rationalizations. Once the section was over and I could catch a breath, I realized immediately that I had made a mistake. The passage described a researcher in the Suriname jungle who was struggling to study and categorize the overwhelming number of species there. The last paragraph described how things in the jungle didn't turn out the way they did in the lab, and how it left her with more questions than answers.

The last question went something like this:

The tone in the last paragraph can best be described as
(A) thrilling
(B) comprehensive
(C) problematic
(D) ...

I was about to choose C (the right answer), when my mind started to rationalize. Jungle...mystery...animals....exploration.....It's gotta be (A) thrilling!!!

And of course, I was dead wrong.

There was no indication that the researcher (or more importantly, the author) was thrilled by anything. The whole passage was about how tough her research was. My mistake was imposing my own feelings onto the passage, instead of taking a step back, slapping myself awake, and seeing the passage for what it was, not what I wanted it to be.

It's this ability to question your own choices, to play devil's advocate with yourself, that will help you improve your reading score.

The best test-takers don't necessarily know the right answer; they're just really good at spotting the wrong ones.

Practical Considerations

So what can you do to guard yourself against your own mind?

Anytime you feel yourself falling into that dark hole of rationalization, that uneasy feeling that only comes from having to force things to make sense, it's time to stop and try one of two things:

  1. Falsify the answers rather than justify them.
  2. Take a break and answer another question first.

It's having a certain level of self-awareness and a willingness to shift your perspective that will help you break your own mental games. These things don't come overnight. The ability to catch yourself over-rationalizing is something you hone through practice, as is the ability to quickly eliminate answer choices.

If you keep these things in mind as you practice, you'll soon find that it's often easier to eliminate an answer than to justify it. Sometimes, eliminating four answer choices turns out to be quicker than directly picking the right one.


First, just one simple reason for why an answer is wrong completely overrides any convoluted reason you might have for why it's right. And there are many simple reasons an answer choice may be wrong:

  • Too extreme
  • Too general
  • Too narrow
  • Totally off topic
  • Doesn't answer the question
  • Doesn't relate to the line references
  • Not based on the author's intended meaning/purpose
  • Based on your own assumption, not the author's

Second, crossing out answer choices moves you forward.

Let's say you're stuck between two answers.

You come up with a reason for each one to be right. Where are you now? Still stuck with the same two answers.

But now you come up with a reason for one of them to be wrong. And just like that, you have the answer.

It's like deciding between two shirts you want to buy. Maybe you like the brand of the first and the style of the second, but if you find that one of them is the wrong size, boom!—the decision is made for you.

Most people refer to this as basic process of elimination (big deal...), but they go about it the wrong way. A lot of students cross out answers that "sound wrong" or "sound less right." Those are lazy reasons to assess an answer with. There will always be a better, more specific reason an answer choice is wrong and most of the time, it will be a simple one from the list above.

Think about it. There MUST be a legitimate reason for each wrong answer to be wrong, despite what you may claim is your "interpretation". Otherwise, there would be multiple correct answers and the College Board would have to fight off many angry students (more than they already do).

So be conscious of your reasons.

And one final tip—once you've eliminated an answer, physically cross it out. Doing so reinforces that decision in your mind (commit!), allowing you to put your focus on the remaining choices.

In Short

Don't over-justify and over-rationalize. Keep your answers grounded in the passage and nothing more. And remember that sometimes it's better to eliminate, not vindicate; nullify, not justify.