Rephrasing is the Key

The reading passages inficted on SAT and ACT takers are almost always written in a dry, painfully formal style. For many students, part of the challenge is just staying awake while reading these passages! Rephrasing will help keep you awake and will make hard questions easy. It will also improve your speed once you get to the point where you do it automatically.

You don't necessarily always have to do rephrases. After all, if you get a question correct and you do it quickly, why bother rephrasing? So try this. After you do some practice, try the rephrasing trick out on the questions you got wrong and see if it helps.

Here's an excerpt from a College Board practice passage about the internet:

As one media company executive notes, "With many of these Web sites generating new content every hour and exponentially larger audiences, on-line news sites represent a dynamic and vital outlet for news."

This is your typical verbose SAT sludge. What is the guy saying? Can you (quickly!) sum up the whole sentence in a few words?

Sure you can! The exec is saying, Web news is cool. If you automatically rephrase as you are reading, think how easy it will be when they ask you about the exec's attitude toward the net. Is it Anxiety, Distrust, Ambivalence, Excitement, or Curiosity?

Duh. Obviously the answer is Excitement. In this case, you would probably get the right answer whether you rephrased or not. However, habitual rephrasing can do wonders for your speed because it clears up the sludge.

The SAT and ACT do not test deep thinking, they test speed. The rephrasing trick helps you zoom through a passage, skimming through words like "exponentially," "dynamic," and "vital" and replacing them with "cool."

Let's try a harder example. (By the way, this works the same way with ACT questions, I just happen to have the SAT book open now. As this part of the site grows, I'll add ACT examples — Matt.) Here's a paragraph from a College Board practice passage about women in the workplace:

Even those with very high professional aspirations accepted subordinate status as assistants if doing so seemed necessary to gain access to research positions — and too often these were the only positions offered them in their chosen careers. Time and again they pulled back from offering any real resistance or challenge to the organizational stucture that barred their advancement. But we must remember that these women scientists were few in number, their participation in decision-making positions was virtually nil, and their political clout was minimal. Thus they could easily become highly visible targets for elimination from the staff, especailly if their behavior was judged in the least imprudent.

Yuck. You may or may not know what "imprudent" means exactly. But don't worry, you can still rephrase the above paragraph into a single easy-to-understand sentence. When they ask you what the bit about being eliminated if you were "the least imprudent" means, it'll be easy.

So what's your paraphrase? Everyone's will be a little different. The four sentences in the gobbledegook above boil down to:

Society to women — you get to be the assistant, forget about advancement, you have no power so keep your mouth shut or else.

That's probably all you'll need to answer any question the test-makers throw at you about that paragraph. Remember, the people making up these questions are not great writers or famous journalists or even top professors. They are rather ordinary people whose job it is to make up simple questions that seem hard.

Here's their question:

The statement that women could be eliminated from their jobs if their behavior was "the least imprudent" (line 47) suggests primarily that they

(A) were more likely than their male colleagues to be rebellious

(B) participated in the creation of the standards by which the performance of researchers was judged

(C) could gain advancement if they avoided political confrontations about their rights as women

(D) were judged by a standard different from the one used to judge their male colleagues

(E) were as critical of their colleagues as their colleagues were of them

To be honest, none of these answers is particularly good. The SAT makers hide behind their infamous "pick the best answer" instruction. That way they can make the test more "difficult" by giving questions in which the answer they want has some problems with it and you have to pick the one that isn't as bad as the others. By the way, the folks who make the ACT don't use this particular trick very often; they mostly rely on the "rush factor" to get people to make mistakes.

Fortunately, if you've rephrased the paragraph including all the key information from all four sentences, you can eliminate every answer except D. Looking at the rephrase, there's nothing about rebelliousness so (A) is out; (B) is the opposite of what is true; (C) is another opposite although it is tempting because the bit about avoiding political confrontations is true; and there's nothing about the women being critical so (E) is out. That leaves (D) which isn't completely wrong and is therefore the "best" answer.

It is of only marginal use to figure out what would be a good answer. Our job, after all, is to get you a high score on the SAT or ACT, not to improve these flawed tests. However, just for fun, we'll give an answer that actually is what the author meant when he used the word "imprudent."

The statement that women could be eliminated from their jobs if their behavior was "the least imprudent" (line 47) suggests primarily that they

(Correct Answer) were expected to accept their subordinate status without protest.

The people making the SAT are not professional writers. As a group, I'd say their reading comprehension skills are pretty good, but far from excellent. Any decent professional writer is far better at writing and at understanding the written word than the SAT and ACT makers. Their questions are simple and amateurish. The fact that the test-makers have a lot of power does NOT make them especially competent or intelligent. I'm a professional writer so I'm in the "smarter than the test-makers" category but that doesn't mean I automatically get every question right. To get to the point where I rarely get burned, I've had to develop tricks like rephrasing and I've had to develop the discipline not to be thrown when none of the answers are especially good. The rule is: "think some but not too much."

Let's do an example of a fill-in question where rephrasing is also useful. Here's an example from a College Board practice fill-in. By the way, all of the examples used here are from the front section of "The Official SAT Study Guide." I didn't use any questions from the actual practice tests because those questions should be reserved for timed practice.

Misrepresentative graphs and drawings ----- the real data and encourage readers to accept ----- arguments.

(A) obscure . . legitimate (B) distort . . spurious (C) illustrate . . controversial (D) complement . . unresolved (E) replace . . esteemed

There's no need to rephrase this short sentence. But you can put your own words into the blanks. Your words don't have to be perfect, they just have to get the idea across. You might say, Misrepresentative graphs and drawings screw up the real data and encourage readers to accept stupid arguments.

At this point you might be able to find the answer immediately but we'll go through the logic anyway. Eliminate (C) and (D) because "illustrate" and "complement" are nowhere close to "screw up." For (E) you might think "replace" could be right but "esteemed" definitely doesn't mean "stupid." The words "obscure" and "distort" in (A) and (B) fit well with "screw up" but "legitimate" definitely doesn't mean "stupid." So the answer is (B). Of course you could just go directly to (B). The point here is that even if you didn't know what "spurious" meant, you could still get the right answer.

Let's do a harder one where it is worthwhile to rephrase the whole sentence. Remember, your rephrase doesn't have to be perfect or elegant.

Despite its apparent ----, much of early Greek philosophical thought was actually marked by a kind of unconscious dogmatism that led to ---- assertions.

(A)liberality . . doctrinaire (B) independence . . autonomous (C) intransigence . . authoritative (D) fundamentalism . . arrogant (E) legitimacy . . ambiguous

Here's the informal rephrase with "answers" inserted.

Even though Greek philosophy seemed open-minded they ended up with a lot of dogmatic assertions.

Right away you can see that "liberality" is closest to "open-minded" and "doctrinaire" fits nicely with "dogmatic" so the answer is (A).

Sometimes the sentence is just too hard to rephrase with answers but you still want to rephrase to clear it up. Here's an example

The art of Milet Andrejevic often presents us with an idyllic vision that is subtly ----- by more sinister elements, as if suggesting the ----- beauty of our surroundings.

(A) enhanced . . pristine (B) invaded . . flawed (C) altered . . unmarred (D) redeemed . . hallowed (E) devastated . . bland

You can try this without rephrasing and if you are sure of your answer then you can just go to the next question. If you are unsure, try rephrasing. Here's mine:

The art looks pretty but has some nasty stuff snuck in there too. It shows that what might look pretty really isn't so pretty.

Now you can go back to the sentence and their answers and see which ones go with "stuff snuck in there" and "really isn't so pretty." The word "invaded" from (B) and "altered" from (C) could fit. So you go to the second word. It can't be "unmarred" because that would mean it really was pretty ("unmarred" means "not messed up"). The word "flawed" from (B) fits with "really isn't so pretty" so that's the answer.

Try rephrasing on questions you get wrong. With a little practice you might find yourself subconsciously rephrasing. -- CTT