Troublesome, Tricky Traps

The idea that there are trap answers (“attractors”) on the SAT is hardly new. As far as I know, this sneaky fact was first pointed out by Adam Robinson, one of the founders of The Princeton Review. Furthermore, SAT traps have decreased in frequency since Robinson explained how to spot them in the early 1980’s. All SAT-takers owe a debt of gratitude to Adam and the Princeton Review, since the test is now fairer and less tricky.

Trapped #1

As you probably know, the questions on the SAT are arranged in order of difficulty (except for those on the Reading and Writing passages). At the beginning of each section or subsection (i.e. where questions of a particular type appear), the questions are easy, but the questions that follow are progressively harder. Adam Robinson explained that an average student (whom he called Joe Bloggs) tends to get the easy questions right, has mixed results on the medium questions, and misses all of the hard ones. So if you’re trying to solve a hard question, and you think an answer would look correct to Joe, it’s probably a trap. By avoiding these trap answers, you can raise your score.

Now, I’m not saying that you can get into Harvard solely by avoiding traps. But traps aren’t hard to find (Joe, and those who aren’t as smart as Joe, must be able to see them for them to be useful to the test-makers). So let’s have a quick look:

Math traps:

There are a few types of traps on the math sections. The answer that “would be right if the question were easy” is one.

Q. Joanne drives to work at an average speed of 20 miles per hour, and returns home along the same route at 40 miles per hour…

I’ll cut that question short. If it’s anywhere near the end of the section, don’t answer 30 miles per hour.

Q. An item is normally sold at 20 percent less than retail cost. If another 10 percent is taken off…

No – not 70 percent! Trap!

Other traps are based on the numbers and variables given in the question.

Q. If 2 students each have 3 textbooks…

2 and 3 are easy, low integers. So answers that contain only easy, low integers are traps. On the other hand, if the numbers in a problem are 13.6 and 4/5, Joe would never guess an answer like 2 (so you should).

If a hard problem looks very complicated, guess a simple answer. If it looks easy, guess a crazy-looking answer.

Reading traps:

Joe likes words that are associated with the sentence topic (or a person in the sentence). So if a sentence is about a scientist, don’t choose “research.” Others: warrior – conquer, America – democracy, etc.

Also, the easier words are usually wrong on hard sentences. In fact, the hardest word is a very good guess.

On Reading passages (Critical Reading), avoid answers that sound too similar to the words in the passage. Also don’t go for anything too obvious. If a question asks why something acts as a barrier, don’t chose the answer about walls. As mentioned earlier, the questions don’t go from easy to hard here.

Venus Flytrap at Hirt's Gardens


Writing traps:

There aren’t so many traps on Writing sections. But answers that seem easy and/or obvious on early questions are wrong on the later ones. For example, shorter answers are usually correct on Improving Sentences, but that isn’t so on the hard ones.

Guessing techniques aren’t voodoo. If you avoid what seems to be a trap on a practice test, and that answer turns out to be correct, don’t abandon the technique. Traps are usually wrong. On the other hand, don’t become so obsessed with traps that you don’t do your best to solve questions properly. And finally, remember NOT to eliminate traps on easy questions. Obvious answers are routinely correct on easy questions – that’s why they’re easy.


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