How To Master SAT Reading Citation Pairs

Most SAT Reading passages have two sets of “Citation Pair” questions. This question type – which, as the name suggests, is composed of two questions – is easy to recognize: the first question (the “Base Question”) usually appears to be a Non-Citation Question, while the second question (the “Citation Question”) asks you to choose the “best” evidence for the answer to the Base Question, providing four citations from which to choose.

On the surface, SAT Citation Pairs appear straightforward: just choose one of the four citations to support your previous answer. How hard can it be, right?

Well, I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that Citation Pairs are often more complicated than they appear. The College Board has very specific, counterintuitive standards for what constitutes the “best evidence”. The SAT Reading Test is also very fond of nitpicking and hair-splitting. Finding the correct answer often requires subtle analysis of technical, sometimes even seemingly petty, nuances in the language of the question, answer choices, and/or passage. Citation Pairs are certainly no exception to this rule. However, the good news is that I have developed a step-by-step process for quickly and accurately finding correct answers on even the thorniest Citation Pairs.

To get us started, I’ll outline the basic process for Citation Pairs. You must memorize this process and use it consistently on Citation Pairs. Does that mean if you don’t follow this process precisely on 100% of Citation Pairs that you’re guaranteed to get them all wrong? No. I wouldn’t go that far. Of course, there are always exceptions to everything. However, when my test prep students miss one or both questions of a Citation Pair, it almost always turns out that they were not following this process and that the miss could have been avoided if they had done so.

Process for SAT Citation Pairs:

Before Skimming the Passage:

Pre-Step: Before your initial skim of the passage, mark all of the Citation Pair questions.

After Skimming the Passage (when you’re answering questions and come to a Citation Pair):

Step 1: Eliminate all citations that aren’t responsive to the Base Question.

Step 2: Find a “perfect match” between one of the citations you did not eliminate in Step 1 and one of the Base Answers.

A “perfect match” is one that is A) Explicit/Direct and B) Complete.

IMPORTANT: To maximize your chances of achieving your highest potential SAT Reading score, you MUST memorize the above process. Being vaguely familiar with it is not enough. If you truly want to succeed, it must be MEMORIZED, word for word.

Note that the above process calls for evaluating the citations first. This is in line with the general process we should be using on every SAT Reading question. That is, we should not select answer choices based on our intuitions about the passage, our impressions of the passage, or our memory of the passage (and only then look for supporting evidence, almost as an after-thought). Rather, we should find the answer in the passage first. After we find the answer in the passage, we use it to judge the answer choices. We eliminate three answer choices that do not accurately paraphrase or summarize the answer in the passage, and we confirm that the remaining answer choice does accurately paraphrase or summarize the answer in the passage.

Let’s apply the Citation Pair process outlined above to an actual SAT Reading Citation Pair:

Example Question: Official SAT Practice Test 9, Reading Questions 16 and 17

Now let’s apply the above process to a real Citation Pair from an official SAT. (Hopefully, you already have a copy of the “Official SAT Study Guide“. That book is a MUST HAVE, because it is the only book with official SAT exams, and you should never, ever work with fake practice tests! If you don’t yet have a copy, I strongly suggest you get one now.)

Let’s assume that for this passage we’ve already done the pre-step: marking the Citation Pair questions. (To mark Citation Pairs, I draw a line from the Base Question to the Citation Question. But you can mark them any way you please. The reason we mark them ahead of time is so we don’t accidentally waste time working on the Base Question in isolation, not realizing it’s part of a Citation Pair.)

Step 1: Eliminate all citations that aren’t responsive to the Base Question.

Note – often, we will not be able to eliminate three citations in Step 1. It is not unusual for two (or sometimes even three) citations to be relevant to the Base Question. Note also that the correct citation on a Citation Pair isn’t always the best evidence available in the passage. It’s just the best evidence available in the answer choices of the Citation Question. In other words, sometimes the four citations in a Citation Pair do not even include the strongest, most obvious evidence from the passage to support the correct Base Answer. If this ever happens, don’t let it confuse you. Your only job is to choose the best evidence from the four citations you’re given as options, not necessarily the best evidence from the passage as a whole.

With those preliminaries out of the way, on to the example question …

From this particular Base Question, we know that at least one of the four citations in the Citation Question must state that a certain stimulus prompts people to think of specific information sources. To get this Citation Pair correct, we’ll first need to evaluate which citation(s) tell us what that stimulus is. What is it that makes people inclined to think of specific information sources? Any citation that doesn’t give us a potential answer to that question cannot be correct and thus must be eliminated. Let’s go through the citations and see how many we can eliminate:

Citation A directly mentions specific information sources (e.g., Google) and says that people tend to think of these in response to being asked hard trivia questions. This definitely seems relevant to the Base Question, so we’re not going to eliminate it.

Citation B doesn’t directly say anything about specific information sources or what might cause people to think of them. But this citation is just one detail in a larger discussion about the “two other experiments”, which started on Line 45. We should check the nearby context to make sure that this citation isn’t actually part of a broader point about what makes people think of specific information sources. The discussion of the “two other experiments” goes from Line 45 to Line 51, As it turns out, the answer is no. That discussion doesn’t talk about what makes people think of specific information sources. This citation is therefore not relevant to the Base Question and is eliminated in Step 1.

Citation C mentions that the participants recalled statements best when told their work wouldn’t be saved. It mentions people remembering specific information (the statements). However, it doesn’t say anything about what prompts people to think of specific information sources. Neither is this citation a detail in a broader discussion of that topic. Thus, Citation 3 is not relevant to the Base Question, and we should eliminate it.

Citation D is the last sentence in the paragraph’s discussion of a “fourth experiment”, which starts on Line 53. This citation describes participants remembering computer folders in which statements were saved. It says that people were better at remembering the “folder locations” than the statements themselves. Does a folder location count as a specific information source? If so, this citation could be relevant to the Base Question. This possibility seems even more plausible when we look at the immediate context. A few lines above, on Lines 55 – 56, we learn that the participants were told the statements were going to be saved in “specific folders”. That sounds a lot like a “specific information source”, right? Because this citation seems like it might be referring to specific information sources, we might choose not to eliminate it.

However, this citation also has a flaw in terms of its relevance to the Base Question. Can you see it? Read the Base Question again. It asks us not merely to find a part of the passage that mentions people thinking of specific information sources. Rather, the Base Question essentially asks: “People tend to think of specific information sources in response to what?” Does Citation D itself directly address this? No, it does not. That’s a red flag.

Still, many students choose not to eliminate this citation in Step 1 because the immediate context does seem to mention a stimulus for thinking of the folder locations. Potentially, everything described in Lines 54 – 59 could be what prompts people to recall the folders. So, while Citation D is not as unequivocally responsive to the Base Question as is Citation A, I think a plausible case can be made that it is relevant enough to the Base Question that it should not be eliminated in Step 1.

Step 2: Find a “perfect match” between one of the citations you did not eliminate in Step 1 and one of the Base Answers.

Before we can do Step 2, a reminder of what, precisely, is meant by a “perfect match”.

A perfect match is

  1. Direct
  2. Complete

By “direct”, I essentially just mean that you should be using Hyper-Literal Reading. You should not need to “interpret” a citation to make it match a Base Answer. You should not need to “read between the lines” or speculate about what the author was “really trying to say”. Guessing about an author’s hidden intent is never relevant on SAT Reading, including on Citation Pairs. Instead, what we’re looking for is a Base Answer that accurately paraphrases or summarizes what is explicitly, directly stated in a citation.

By “complete” I mean that, for example, a Base Answer that expresses three distinct ideas finds a perfect match in a citation that also expresses all three of those ideas. A citation that only expresses one or two of those ideas is not a perfect match.

Now we’re ready to apply Step 2 to our example Citation Pair. After doing Step 1, we’re left with Citation A and Citation D. Let’s look for a perfect match between one of these citations and one of the Base Answers. We’ll start by comparing Citation A to the Base Answers.

Base Answer A bears no resemblance to Citation A. It might end up being a great match for Citation D, but it’s eliminated as a match for Citation A.

Base Answer B is also way off. It’s not even close to expressing the same ideas as Citation A.

Base Answer C doesn’t actually mention trivia questions. However, it does talk about being asked to “provide facts”, which is exactly what you do when answering trivia questions. The Base Answer also mentions that the people don’t know the facts that they’re being asked to provide (“are not already familiar to them”). That would satisfy the citation’s claim that the trivia questions are “difficult”. (After all, if you know the answer to the trivia question, no matter how hard others might find that trivia question, it is by definition not a difficult trivia question for you.) Base Answer C thus seems like it might well be a perfect match, so we’re not going to eliminate it … yet.

Base Answer D it totally unrelated to Citation A. It’s eliminated as a match for Citation A.

Now, let’s go through the same process for Citation D:

Base Answer A seems like a potential match for Citation D. At least, many test takers seem to think so. The citation itself doesn’t say anything about people being required to memorize details. That’s definitely a red flag, but not necessarily fatal if you think that work is being done by the immediate context (see below). Neither does the citation itself say anything explicitly about those details being made inaccessible (e.g., it says they’d be stored in folders but doesn’t explicitly state that those folders wouldn’t be accessible to the participants). Again, not ideal, but not a definite deal breaker if the immediate context has already made this clear.

The reason students tend to like this match is that

  1. they believe the citation does mention people thinking of specific information sources (the folders where the statements are stored), and
  2. they believe the citation’s immediate context explains that people think of those folders in response to being required to memorize details (the statements).

Above, in our discussion of Step 1, we already conceded that it might be reasonable to count the folders as specific information sources. But let’s examine the relevant context to see if it really says what Base Answer A says. As we already noted, the relevant context to Citation D is the rest of the discussion about the fourth experiment, which begins on Line 53/54. Can you find anything in that context that states that participants were “required to memorize details”? Nope. It simply does not say that. Nowhere does it state that the participants had to memorize the statements. It merely says that the participants had to type the statements and that the participants were told the statements would be saved in specific folders. Next – after they finished typing the statements – they were asked to recall the statements. The passage doesn’t say the participants had been required to memorize the statements. It says only that they were later asked to remember them. There is a difference between being asked to memorize something and being asked to remember something! We are asked to remember things all the time but rarely were we first asked to memorize those things!

Base Answer B is totally unrelated to Citation D. There’s no mention whatsoever – in the citation itself or in the immediate context – of the participants being asked to develop any type of system.

Base Answer C is also not a perfect match for Citation D. Nowhere does the citation itself or the immediate context state that the participants were asked to provide “facts”. They were asked to recall the statements, but it doesn’t say that those statements were necessarily “facts”. It could be that the statements were opinions. It could be that they were bald-faced lies. It could be that they were made up nonsense. We have no idea about the content of the statements because the passage does not say.

Okay, but what about the folders? Participants were asked to remember the folder names. Isn’t that being asked to provide a fact? Even if you think so, note the rest of Base Answer C: “… facts that were not already familiar to them.” This is directly contradicted by Citation D’s immediate context. On Lines 55 – 56, the passage states that the participants had already been told that the statements would be saved “in specific folders”. It was only after the participants had been told the folder names that they were then asked to recall them. In other words, the passage makes clear that, when the participants were asked to recall the folder names, they had already been made familiar with those folder names. (After all, if the participants had not already been made familiar with the folder names, remembering those names would obviously been impossible. In which case, asking the participants to “remember” them would’ve made no sense whatsoever!)

For all the above reasons, we conclude that Base Answer C is not a perfect match for Citation D. Far from it!

Base Answer D and Citation D bear no resemblance to one another, whatsoever.

Thus, we have our winners: Citation A is a perfect match for Base Answer C!

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