Mastering SAT Reading Time Trap Questions

Though Time Trap Questions are somewhat rare on SAT Reading, it’s important to be prepared for them because they can be dangerous. As the name suggests, these questions can easily chew up a lot of time if not handled correctly. In addition to being inherently time-consuming, these questions also tend to be more analytically challenging than standard question types. In this article, I lay out a step-by-step method for mastering this daunting question type.

Identifying Time Trap Questions

The wording of this question type varies widely. However, all Time Trap Questions have a common characteristic: they are essentially Non-Citation Questions that lack a locator. In other words, Time Trap Questions provide test takers with neither a passage citation nor a specific key word/phrase/idea with which to locate the answer in the passage. Here are a few examples:

“Which choice best describes what happens in the passage?”

~ Official SAT Practice Test 1, Question 1.

The above question provides no clue about where in the passage we should look for the answer. It could be anywhere.

“Throughout the passage, the narrator is portrayed as someone who is”

~ Official SAT Practice Test 9, Question 3.

The entire passage is written by the narrator, so there’s no way to narrow down the location of information about how the narrator is “portrayed.” Even if there were a discrete section of the passage where the narrator dedicated several lines to describing herself (there isn’t), it wouldn’t help. The question requires that the description must be consistent “throughout the passage.” So, where to start looking? Should we just reread the entire passage, trying to take note of how the narrator is portrayed? Who has time for that? Are you beginning to understand why we call these “Time Traps”?

“Which statement provides the best description of a technique that Smith uses throughout the passage to advance her main point?”

~ Official SAT Practice Test 9, Question 33

“Which choice best describes the relationship between Passage 1 and Passage 2?”

~ Official SAT Practice Test 9, Question 49

Again, neither of these questions provide us with information that could help us narrow down the precise location of the answer in the passage.

“Which concept is supported by the passage and by the information in the graph?”

~ Official SAT Practice Test 2, Question 51

“Which choice is supported by the data in the first figure?”

~ Official SAT Practice Test 3, Question 19

Those last two involve graphs instead of passage text, but the principle is the same: the question doesn’t tell us what to look for in the graph. It is very common for Infograph Questions to also be Time Traps. However, these aren’t as much of a concern because SAT infographs don’t usually contain a lot of information, unlike reading passages.


As you may have gathered from the above examples, the peculiar design of Time Trap questions presents us with a dilemma. These questions don’t provide any helpful guidance about where to find the answer in the passage text. This means we can’t use the Default Analysis Method, which calls for looking for the answer in the passage before evaluating the answer choices.

The solution? Use the Inverse Analysis Method.

The Inverse Analysis Method

This approach is the reverse of the Default Analysis Method for answering questions. As a reminder, the Default Analysis Method calls for:

  1. Reading the question
  2. Ignoring the answer choices and instead finding the answer in the passage
  3. Using the answer in the passage to eliminate three answer choices that fail to match it.
  4. Using the answer in the passage to verify that the remaining answer perfectly matches the one answer choice that you did not eliminate.

For most question types on SAT and ACT Reading, the above method is vastly superior, since it protects you from three of the biggest score killers: faulty memory, subjective interpretation, and confirmation bias. However, Time Trap Questions are an exception to the rule. Because of the way this question type is designed, it is impossible to use the Default Analysis Method. Instead, you should use the Inverse Analysis Method:

  1. Read the question.
  2. Read the answer choices, and select the one that sounds most plausible.
  3. “Fact Check” your favored answer choice by finding at least one statement in the passage that explicitly expresses the idea in that answer choice. (Note that I said to find at least one specific statement. That’s the bare minimum. If you can find two or three, all the better.)
  4. If your chosen answer doesn’t survive the Fact Check, start over at Step 1.

Note the main difference between the two methods: in the default method, you find the answer in the passage first, then find an answer choice that restates the answer in the passage. In the inverse method, you first select an answer choice, then find evidence in the passage to support it.

Keep in mind – even if your favored answer choice does survive the fact check, that does not in and of itself guarantee that the answer is correct. That’s because many (though not all) Time Trap Questions require that the idea/s expressed in the answer appears throughout the passage. The fact that an idea appears once in the passage doesn’t necessarily mean that it appears throughout the passage, as Time Trap Questions sometimes require.

(Note – ideas that appear consistently throughout a passage are not necessarily a passage’s main idea. For example, a character in a fiction passage may be repeatedly described as a female pirate. Does this mean that her being a pirate is the passage’s main point? No. So, don’t get confused – Time Trap Questions are not the same as General Questions.)

Does the Inverse Analysis Method Really Work?

If choosing the most plausible sounding answer and doing the fact check doesn’t guarantee a correct answer, what’s the point? Well, it’s true that passing the fact check doesn’t necessarily guarantee your answer choice is correct (especially if the Time Trap requires an idea to occur throughout the passage, and you only found one piece of supporting evidence, as opposed to two or three). On the other hand, failing the fact check proves that your answer choice is wrong. After all, if you can’t find even a single sentence in the passage that expresses the idea in your answer choice, how could that idea be expressed in the correct answer? It couldn’t be!

You might think it unlikely that test takers would choose an answer that isn’t expressed in the passage at all. However, unlikely as it may sound, it is very common for test takers to have complete confidence that they’ve chosen the correct answer on a “throughout the passage” Time Trap Question, only to discover that, when I press them to find a single shred of direct evidence in the passage, they can’t! So, while doing the fact check doesn’t always guarantee a correct answer, it does prevent you from making a common, and avoidable, type of error.

Do Time Trap Questions Last

Even when you’re using the Inverse Analysis Method, Time Trap Questions tend to be slow. They are “low-points-per-second” type questions. For this reason, you should save them for last. I suggest doing them right after you do any General Questions. But if you prefer to do them just before any General Questions, that’s fine, too. As long as you do them after the other question types. This makes for good time management, as it helps to ensure that you’re prioritizing the faster, “higher-points-per-second” type questions.

Review Questions

  1. What are the two ways in which Time Trap Questions are dangerous?
  2. What identifying common characteristic do Time Trap Questions have?
  3. Why is the Default Analysis Method generally superior to the Inverse Analysis Method? (3 reasons)
  4. How is the Inverse Analysis Method different than the Default Analysis Method?
  5. Why doesn’t the Inverse Analysis Method guarantee a correct answer on all Time Trap Questions?
  6. What’s the advantage of using the Inverse Analysis Method on Time Trap Questions?
  7. Why should you do Time Trap Questions last?

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