Mastering SAT Reading Non-Citation Questions

SAT Reading Non-Citation Questions are easy to identify. Aside from General Questions, this question type is the only one that does not cite specific lines from the passage. (General Questions are easy to distinguish because they ask about the passage as a whole and, when they appear, they are always presented first, before the other questions.)

Non-Citation questions are common. For example, on Practice Test 10 of the Official SAT Study Guide, questions 2, 6, 8, 17, 29, 31, 32, 33, 39, 40, and 43 are all Non-Citation Questions. (By the way, if you do not yet have a copy of the SAT official guide, you need to get one, asap. If you’re serious about improving your SAT score, you must have this book because it’s the only book with authentic SAT exams, and you must ALWAYS work with real SATs. Never use fake SAT practice tests!)

Many test takers mistakenly believe that, if an SAT Reading question does not cite specific text, that means the answer isn’t explicitly spelled out in the passage. From this (mistaken) assumption, they incorrectly conclude they must therefore rely on their impressions or interpretations of the passage. However, do not be misled – the lack of a citation in an SAT Reading question does NOT mean that the answer isn’t spelled out in the text. It is. Absolutely 100% of the time. In every single, solitary case. Without exception.

In this sense, Non-Citation Questions are no different than any other SAT Reading question. Think of it this way: Non-Citation Questions actually do have a “citation” (i.e., there actually are specific lines in the passage that explicitly answer the question). It’s just that, instead of providing you with the citation, these questions force you to do an extra step: find the “citation” yourself.

Despite surface appearances, the only real difference between Citation Questions and Non-Citation questions is that the latter involves an extra step: searching the passage to locate the “citation” yourself.

How NOT to approach Non-Citation Questions

Before discussing the most effective method for locating the “citation” on Non-Citation Questions, let’s review some typical “strategies” that are definitely NOT effective:

  • Attempting to re-read the entire passage or large chunks of the passage. (There’s not enough time!)
  • Chaotically jumping around to different sections of the passage, frantically searching for something that sounds plausible, without having a crystal clear idea exactly what you’re looking for.
  • Perusing the answer choices, choosing one that sounds plausible, then haphazardly glancing over the passage and glomming on to any bit of text that seems to support your chosen answer (hello Confirmation Bias!)
  • Perusing the answer choices, choosing one that sounds plausible, then bubbling it in without even going back to the passage at all.

Again – you absolutely do NOT want to rely on your memory of the passage or your impressions of the passage in order to guide you to a plausible-sounding answer, and then see if maybe you can find some text in the passage to support it. This is exactly backwards. On every Reading question, the College Board makes a point to include at least one WRONG answer that will sound plausible even to sharp students with strong reading comprehension skills. There are many ways to make wrong answers sound plausible:

Answer choices that are reasonable interpretations of the passage

Answer choices that are very close to being correct, being disqualified by just one or two ideas.

Answer choices that contain common logical errors that are very hard to spot (which is why they’re common!)

And many more!

The Proper Method for Solving Non-Citation Questions

So, what is the best tactic for finding the answer in the passage on Non-Citation questions?

Here’s the key: you must use “locators”. When I say “locators”, I’m simply referring to key words or ideas from the question stem. Ideally, these locators should be unique. For example, if a passage is about optimal growing methods for roses, the word “rose” would not work well as a locator. That word is likely to appear very frequently in the passage, so it wouldn’t help you to locate the particular part of the passage that answers the question.

What If There’s No Unique Locator?

The majority of Non-Citation Questions provide unique locators that make it possible to quickly find the answer in the passage. However, some Non-Citation Questions provide NO unique locator. For example, what if the passage was all about roses, and you came across a Non-Citation Question that read as follows:

Which answer choice best reflects the author’s opinion about roses?” (Note – this isn’t a real SAT question. I made it up to provide an example.)

Well … the entire passage is about roses, and most if not all of the passage also reflects the author’s opinion, so in such a case, we’d find ourselves stuck without any useful locators. You will sometimes see Non-Citation Questions of this sort on SAT Reading. I call such questions “time traps” because solving them usually burns a lot of time. The best you can do with these questions is

  1. Try to quickly rule out a couple answer choices that are clearly implausible (as I’ve noted, a dangerous move that should only be used in extenuating circumstances).
  2. For each remaining answer choice, look for a unique locator, try to find it in the passage, and see if it is responsive to the question.

Because the “time trap” variety of Non-Citation Questions can easily take a full minute or more, I strongly suggest saving them for last (of the passage – don’t put them off until the very end of the test, which would force you to go back and re-orient yourself to the entire passage). This is for the sake of time management. Whenever possible, you want to prioritize the easier, faster questions over the more difficult, slower questions – maximize average points per minute! Saving Non-Citation “time traps” for last gives you the option of guessing on them if you’re running overtime. While most of us hope to avoid ever having to guess on a question, sometimes it’s necessary. If you do have to guess, it’s better to do so on hard, slow questions.

Summing Up Non-Citation Questions: The Pros and Cons

The bad news about Non-Citation Questions is that they involve an extra step: using locators to find the specific text in the passage that answers the question (i.e., the part of the passage that would be the citation on a Citation Question).

However, there’s a silver lining. The good news about Non-Citation Questions is that, once you’ve gone to the trouble of finding the “citation” in the passage, the analysis required to match that passage text to the correct answer choice is often pretty basic. Of course, there are sometimes exceptions. But most of the time, the test rewards you for successfully executing the additional step by making the rest of the process relatively easy.

Now that you know the correct way to attack Non-Citation Questions, let’s walk through an example.

Example Question

This is example is taken from a real SAT exam. It’s Reading Question 33 from Practice Test 10 of the Official SAT Study Guide. Open the book and take a look at this question. What do you think would make a good locator?

The question asks what the passage says about the size and resources of the United States. So, would “United States” make a good locator? Well, we know that the answer in the passage definitely will be a statement about the United States, so that might seem like a good topic for which to search. The problem is that the entire passage is about the United States. Using this term as our locator isn’t going to narrow things down for us much, if at all.

What are some other possible locators from this question? How about “resources” and “immensity”? Assuming you’ve skimmed the passage, you probably don’t remember exactly where the author talked about these topics. But even if your memory of the passage is hazy (it almost always will be), you’ll probably feel fairly certain that these two narrow concepts probably only appear in one, or maybe two places. If we find the spot in the passage where the author talks about the resources and huge size of the US, the answer to the question is very likely to be nearby.

Take a second to scan the passage now. Can you locate the precise lines where the author mentions the resources and immensity of the US?

Did you find it? Line 2 describes the US as “a land that can feed and clothe the world”. That’s a direct reference to resources (food crops, beef cattle, cotton, etc.). And the reference to “immensity” is right next door, on Lines 3 and 4, where the author asserts that America’s “coast lines would enclose half the countries of Europe”. In other words: the US is huge!

Does that prove that the answer to the question is in this location? No. The passage might talk about America’s resources and large size again elsewhere. So, even though we’ve found the first place in the passage that mentions the topic of the question, we won’t know for sure if we’re in the right spot until we find an exact match between the answer choices and the idea being expressed in this part of the passage.

Let’s take a look at that now. We’ve found a part of the passage that says something about America’s resources and immensity. Exactly what does it say? And are there any exact matches for that in the answer choices? According to Lines 1 and 2, this land that can feed and clothe the world and whose coast lines would enclose half of Europe is a “… land that God has given us.” In this context, “us” means Americans. Read the answer choices. Do any of them express that idea?

Yes. Answer Choice C states that the resources and immensity of the US is a “divine gift” given to Americans.

Review Questions

How do you identify Non-Citation Questions?

How do you distinguish Non-Citation Questions from General Questions?

Are Non-Citation Questions rare or common?

“Since Non-Citation Questions don’t provide a citation in the question stem, that means the answer is not clearly expressed on specific lines from the passage.” True or False?

What’s the key to finding the correct answer to Non-Citation Questions?

What’s a “time trap” Non-Citation Question?

How should you handle a “time trap” Non-Citation Question?

What’s the major disadvantage of Non-Citation Questions?

What’s an advantage of Non-Citation Questions?

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