Mastering ACT and SAT Reading General Questions

Identifying General Questions

General questions are common on both SAT Reading and ACT Reading. I describe them as “general” because, instead of focusing on particular words, phrases, or sentences from the passage, these questions ask about the passage as a whole. For example, they may ask for the main point, main theme, main purpose, primary purpose, central claim, or central problem of the entire passage. Some General Questions ask which answer summarizes the passage or which answer “describes what happens in the passage.”

(Note – not all questions requiring analysis of the whole passage should be treated as “General Questions” as described in this article. Questions about how a passage is organized, such as Passage Shift Questions, require different tactics. Thus, they get their own category. The same is true for Chronology Questions. Time Trap Questions sometimes ask you to describe the narrator or identify the “point of view.” Such broad wording might make you think you should treat them as General Questions. However, the tactics for General Questions aren’t particularly effective against these question types. In the near future, I’ll be publishing articles explaining exactly how to handle each of the above question types.)

General questions occur on many (but not all) ACT and SAT Reading passages. On ACT Reading, you rarely get more than one General Question (and sometimes none). On SAT Reading, you will sometimes get two. I’ve even seen SAT Reading passages with three General Questions, though this is rare.

When a General Question appears on a passage, it always shows up first. As we will soon see, this has important implications for the tactics you should use for this question type.

The Big Lie

There are a lot of false rumors floating around the murky world of test prep. One of those myths is that General Questions are fundamentally different than the other question types you encounter on SAT Reading and ACT Reading. The ubiquity of this untruth is unfortunate because it leads to many lost points.

The biggest mistake people make on General Questions is abandoning the use of standard strategy and tactics. Because these questions ask about the passage as a whole, test takers are often led to believe that Fact-Checking and Hyper-Literal Reading don’t apply and that they must instead rely on their overall impression of the passage. However, as with all other SAT and ACT Reading questions, interpretation and intuition have no place on General Questions. As we will see, Fact-Checking and Hyper-Literal Reading very much still apply.

Tactics for General Questions

  1. Do General Questions last.
  2. Do not go straight from reading the question to perusing the answer choices. Instead, look for the answer in the passage first – just as you would on every other question type.
  3. Follow the steps in the Bird’s Eye Analysis to identify the main idea/s, primary purpose, main theme/s, etc. in the passage before selecting an answer choice.

Do General Questions Last

No matter how many General Questions a reading passage has, they will always be presented first. Question: do you think that’s a coincidence? No way. That leads to another question: since it’s obvious that the test writers make a point to present General Questions first, why do you think they do so? Do you think it’s because the test writers believe that answering General Questions first is likely to help your score? Or do you think it more likely that it’s because test writers know that attempting to answer General Question first is likely to hurt your score?

When General Questions do appear on a passage, they always appear first, before the other questions. Why do you think this is the case?

Hopefully, the answer is obvious: the test writers aren’t in the business of helping test takers get higher scores. Since the makers of the test clearly want you to tackle General Questions first, it’s pretty safe to assume that doing so isn’t in your best interest.

General Questions Tend to be Hard

But we don’t have to assume. There are clear reasons why it’s better to resist taking the bait and doing General Questions first and instead do them last. When will you have a better understanding of the passage as a whole: before or after you’ve answered the rest of the questions, which force you to dive into the details of various parts of the passage? Obviously, you’ll have a better understanding of the major ideas and organization of the passage after you’ve answered the other questions!

General Questions Tend to be Slow

Another advantage of answering General Questions last is time management. Even when you’re using the correct strategies and tactics, it will still usually take you longer to do them than most other questions, and you will still be a bit more likely to miss them.

Even for test takers at the top of their game, General Questions tend to be “low points per minute” questions (i.e., not a favorable ratio of time invested versus probability of scoring a point). From a time-management perspective, this means that when you’re forced to guess, you should do so on General Questions. You may lose the point, but at least you gained an outsized chunk of time in return.

A Side Note On Guessing

A major key to SAT Reading and ACT Reading time management is being strategic about where you do your guessing. Of course, it’d be great if you never had to guess. But the reality for most students is that sometimes it’s necessary. (Silver Lining: Neither the SAT or ACT penalize you for guessing. That is, points are only added for correct answers; points are never deducted for incorrect answers.)

Sadly, most test takers handle guessing in an irrational, non-strategic manner. They sense that they’re running out of time, begin to panic, and start racing wildly through whatever questions happen to come next. That’s too bad, since some of those questions are probably easy and could’ve been correctly answered with just 30 to 60 seconds of calm, orderly application of correct strategy and tactics.

The bad news is that you may sometimes be forced to guess by the extremely tight timing of ACT Reading, and even the relatively generous timing of SAT Reading. (Or you may find yourself racing through some questions so quickly that it’s tantamount to guessing.)

The good news is that, by employing correct strategy and reserving your guesses for low-points-per-second questions (e.g., General Questions), you can at least guess in a way that’s most advantageous to you. Guessing is never ideal, but planning for it and being strategic about it is much better than just guessing on whatever random questions happen to come your way (some of them likely easy) after you’ve decided it’s time to panic.

Okay – now, back to the tactics for General Questions:

Look for the Answer in the Passage First

There’s not much more to be said about this step. Looking for the answer in the passage before looking for the correct answer choice should always be your default approach on both SAT and ACT Reading. But a lot of students seem to believe it’s okay (or even necessary) to abandon their normal approach on General Questions. That’s not true, and this “tactic” is simply meant to remind you of that fact.

Bird’s Eye Analysis

Literally speaking, a “bird’s eye view” is a view from high in the air. Figuratively speaking, this idiom refers to a broad, top-down perspective, one that provides the observer with a sense of the “lay of the land” – the big picture. SAT Reading General Questions test your skill at performing such high-level textual analysis.

Now that we understand what doing a bird’s eye analysis means, here are the steps for performing such an analysis:

  1. Read the title. It’s always listed in the background information provided above each passage.
  2. Read the first sentence or two, and last sentence or two, of the first paragraph. (Or, if the first paragraph is short, read the whole thing.) Often, thesis statements appear here.
  3. Take note of any questions asked near the beginning of the passage. These often indicate main ideas.
  4. Read the last sentence or two of the entire passage.
  5. If the main idea/s still isn’t clear to you, read the topic sentence of each body paragraph in the passage.

That’s it, my friends! If you memorize the above three tactics for General Questions and the five steps of the Bird’s Eye Analysis, and if you apply them consistently, you can master this question type.

Of course, the devil is in the details, as the saying goes. Learning a set of tactics isn’t the same thing as learning how to effectively apply those tactics in a variety of contexts. As always, practice makes perfect. Just make sure you’re practicing with official exams only. The only book with official ACT exams is “The Official ACT Prep Guide.” The only book with official SAT exams is “The Official SAT Study Guide.” If you don’t yet have a copy of the official guide for your test, it’s imperative that you get one now. Don’t work with fake practice tests!

Also, as with any skill, mastery of ACT and SAT Reading can often be attained much more quickly with the help of a good coach.

Good luck!

Review Questions

  1. What are the three tactics for General Questions?
  2. What are the five steps of the Bird’s Eye Analysis?
  3. What are the two main reasons for saving General Questions for last?
  4. Should all questions asking you to analyze the whole passage be treated as “General Questions”?

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