Don't Go to the SPA!
What’s wrong with a nice, rejuvenating day of relaxing massage, hot tubs, saunas, and skin treatments, you ask? Nothing. I don’t mean that kind of spa. I mean the “Sucker Punch Answer.” A sucker-punch answer (“SPA”) is a wrong answer choice that looks right for just long enough for you to pick it, feel confident enough not to check the other answers, and go merrily on your way, having picked the wrong answer.
SPAs are often Answer A. For example, when I took the PSAT (NMSQT), the first math question was – 23 = ? I picked “6” because it was the first answer. Don’t worry; I still qualified for a National Merit Scholarship, but still, it’s a stupid mistake that haunts me to this day. (*shakes fist to sky and yells “Why six? WHY? ;-)”*) Basically, just look at all the answers and double-check your work. It doesn’t take much time (you can shave time off by memorizing the instructions for sections ahead of time and knowing the math facts at the beginning of math sections, along with other things), and can gain you extra points.
For a verbal question, a SPA is often a fact you know is true about the subject of a passage you just read, but is not actually IN the passage. Perhaps a passage on geology mentions metamorphic rock, but doesn’t mention how it is formed, but an answer choice says “pressure is key to the formation of metamorphic rock” is an answer choice. Answers that aren’t stated or obviously implied in the passage(s) mentioned in the questions are NEVER the right answers, even if they are factually correct. This is how knowing something about a question topic can hurt you.
Remember, the makers of the SATs and other standardized tests cannot afford to be seen as asking questions that are unfairly biased against students from different social classes, ethnicities, and the like. That means they really can’t assume any particular student has read any particular author, has had any particular life experience (other than perhaps school attendance or retail shopping), or knows any particular subject other than the grammar of Standard American English and the mathematics covered by the end of 10th grade in most U.S. high schools. Therefore, they can’t ask you anything that you can’t get from the passage. Make sure your answer is in the passage, not just correct.
Don’t Listen to SKA. No, I don’t mean ska music – get as skanky as you want! I mean the Smart Kid Answer, or SKA. One popular SKA for math questions is “It cannot be determined from the information provided.” This one is a popular choice for students who don’t know how to solve a problem, but figure “Ooh! I’ll bet the smart kids know why there’s not enough information to solve this problem! It’s like when I BS-ed my math teacher by saying a step in my proof was ‘for obvious reasons!’ Wooohoo!” Most of the time, you’ll be wrong when you choose this answer, unless you know for sure that the other answers are wrong or exactly what information you need that you don’t have. In other words, it’s a really bad guess; if you think another answer might be right, choose that one instead.
For a verbal question, a SKA may be something that you’ve read or heard before, that you vaguely remember having some connection to the subject of a passage. For example, one review book for the SSAT, ISEE, etc. had a short passage question where the author wrote of his search for an emotional connection, one he later found with his wife, then his fear the emotional connection would end if she died before him (how cheery!). One question asked what the main subject of the passage was, and the SKA was basically “the author’s fear of intimacy.” Now that’s something a young student may have heard of on TV, seen in the press, or on the Internet, etc., so he or she would be tempted to pick that one. However, from reading the passage, we know that’s the exact opposite of the right answer, which would have to be that the author sought, found, and fears LOSING intimacy (the right answer was something like “the author’s desire for a personal connection” – they can make right answers look wrong, too!).
For a sentence completion or other vocabulary question (it depends on the test you’re taking), the SKA is the word you don’t understand. I know it’s tempting to think “Ah, it’s the word I don’t know, so the smart kids know this one’s the right answer!” That may be correct, but more likely, it’s a SKA, and it’s a trap. Don’t pick it unless you’re sure that none of the words you recognize (including secondary, less-often-used meanings) are wrong.
The best way to avoid verbal-question SPAs and SKAs is to learn as much vocabulary as you can before the test, and to read the passages very carefully. If it’s not in the passage, it’s not right. If it’s not a word you know, make sure none of the words you DO know are all completely wrong. That should keep you out of the SPA and away from the SKA!
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Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.