Decode Symbols, Similes, and Metaphors on the SAT

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

Appearances often deceive on the SAT. A reading passage may contain one or more symbols, similes, or metaphors (all types of figurative language) that have a deeper meaning. Questions about figurative language may resemble the following:

  • In the second paragraph, the author compares his trip to Yankee Stadium to a treasure hunt because . . .
  • The fly ball mentioned in Line 8 symbolizes . . .

The best strategy for answering symbol- or metaphor-based questions is to form a picture in your brain. Refer to the above questions and pretend that you’re playing a video of the trip to Yankee Stadium featuring the fly ball or the wait for a hot dog. Then ask yourself why the author wanted to place that picture in your brain. Perhaps the trip to the ballpark (on your internal video) is bathed in golden light and accompanied by mellow violins. The comparison to a treasure hunt may show you that the author was searching for his lost youth, which he found unexpectedly at a baseball game. Or, when you run the video of the fly ball smacking into the author’s forehead, you may realize that the incident embodies the shock of his realization that baseball is no longer the idyllic sport he once played.

The SAT-writers use metaphor-based questions to check whether you can grasp the big picture. Don’t focus only on the detail; instead, look at the context to see what the detail represents.

Try your hand at a figurative language question, based on the following excerpt from a story by Virginia Woolf.

Sample passage

“Fifteen years ago I came here with Lily,” he thought. “We sat somewhere over there by a lake and I begged her to marry me all through the hot afternoon. How the dragonfly kept circling round us: how clearly I see the dragonfly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe. All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say: the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe. And my love, my desire, were in the dragonfly; for some reason I thought that if it settled there, on that leaf, she would say “Yes” at once. But the dragonfly went round and round: it never settled anywhere — of course not, happily not, or I shouldn’t be walking here with Eleanor and the children.

  1. In this passage, Lily’s shoe most likely represents

A. Lily’s desire to protect others

B. Lily’s reluctance to settle down

C. Lily’s love for the narrator

The fourth sentence tells you that Lily’s shoe “moved . . . impatiently.” The narrator sees the dragonfly and the shoe together and notes that the dragonfly “never settled anywhere.” The shoe and Lily’s mood are clearly related, so Choice (B) is the right answer here.