How to make inferences (not assumptions) on the SAT/ACT Reading sections

In the Reading section of the SAT and ACT, some of the trickiest questions occur when students are asked to make inferences about the content of a passage or an author’s intent. These questions can be tricky because the student must use the text as a foundation from which to draw a conclusion. Doing this combines comprehension of the text with sound logical principles, which is something rarely taught or practiced in schools. At ArborBridge, we make sure to equip our students with the necessary tools and approaches to tackle these questions.

Infer, but do not assume.

Assumptions and inferences both involve going beyond what is actually written in a passage. An assumption, however, is more flimsy and thus more likely to be wrong. An inference will be rooted in evidence and be the most logical conclusion that can be drawn from the available information.

Consider the following statement:

“I’m going to the grocery store.”

Based on this statement, it’s tempting to automatically assume that the speaker will go to the store in order to buy groceries, because that’s why people usually go to a grocery store. We make the assumption that the speaker will purchase something. While it’s possible that the speaker is going merely to browse, experience and logic tell us that this assumption is probably true.

However, “probably true” is not a high enough degree of certainty to comfortably and decisively pick an answer to a question on the SAT Reading section. We need additional evidence because it’s possible that the speaker is going to the store not to buy groceries but to use the ATM, to meet with a friend, etc. Therefore, it is not a valid inference to say that the speaker is going to get groceries; we can only credibly say that the speaker is going to the grocery store for some reason.

Now, consider this similar statement:

“I’m going to the grocery store. We’re out of milk, and I want some cereal, as well.”

The speaker explicitly states three things: that she is heading to the store, that there is no more milk, and that she wants some cereal. In this case, we can infer that the speaker is likely to purchase some milk (because there is currently no milk and because the speaker wants cereal, which pairs with milk) and cereal while she is at the grocery store. These are inferences, not mere assumptions, because there is more evidence for these conclusions, making them more logically sound than the assumption we mentioned earlier.

Be careful.

For our purposes, any inference you make on the Reading section must still be rooted in the text. You must see explicitly-stated evidence that allows you to make a valid inference. One common trap that students fall into is to make an inference that is too flimsy or too much of a stretch. Ask yourself, “is there an alternative explanation that is consistent with the text?” If so, think twice about using that inference as the grounds for answering the question.

Now that you know what a valid inference is, you are much better equipped to deal with these questions in the future. Just make sure that any conclusions drawn are rooted in the text, which is always the ultimate authority for its respective questions.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions about your individual test prep plans, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.

About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

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