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 key terms in the answer choices.

Purpose questions usually come in the form "...mainly serves to..." They ask you for the purpose behind a particular portion of the passage. What's the point of it? Why is it there? Here are some purpose questions from past exams:

  • The first paragraph mainly serves to
  • The first paragraph of Passage 1 primarily serves to
  • In context, what is the main effect of Smith's use of the word "tyrant" in lines 40 and 83?
  • In the last sentence of Passage 2, the author uses the phrase "five years and $500 million" primarily to
  • In context, the reference to remembering a relative's birthday mainly serves to

The answer choices to these types of questions will always include key terms that you need to assess. Let's use 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.

In context, the author's description of Cynthia in music class mainly serves 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's the behavior?

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 in red that we just posed. If you can't answer a question confidently in concrete terms, the corresponding answer choice is probably wrong; 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 author has observed that Cynthia has a certain behavior: "acting like things come easy to them." The description of Cynthia in music class supports that observation. This is definitely the answer.

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.

Don't think that this technique only works for the easy questions. It works extremely well on the difficult questions too. In fact, the more difficult a question is, the more you should be questioning and defining the key terms in each answer choice.

Now let's have you do a question on your own:

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" and the "palace lamps" primarily to
(A) explain the purpose of a practice. What practice? Do the "rains" and "palace lamps" explain its purpose?
(B) illustrate the depths of a passion. What passion? Do the "rains" and "palace lamps" illustrate its depths?
(C) dramatize the magnitude of a talent. What talent? Do the "rains" and "palace lamps" dramatize its magnitude?
(D) show the consequences of a decision. What decision? Do the "rains" and "palace lamps" show its consequences?

Again, if you can't answer the red clarifying questions in concrete terms, the corresponding answer choice is probably wrong.

This question's not too difficult but that's not the point. If you see the answer right away, you might think this whole exercise is stupid, but do it anyway. Go through each choice and answer my clarifying questions.

Click here for the answer.

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

Making this a habit will help you think through those situations when you're stuck between multiple answer choices.

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