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Illustrator CS6's "direct selection" tool allows you to draw a rectangle which selects select objects that overlap or are contained in the selection rectangle.

But what if I want to only select objects which are fully contained in the rectangle, without including other objects that are not fully contained in that rectangle?

For example, if I have 10 small red circles on top of a large background gradient, how can I select only the circles without the background gradient?

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The simple approach is to lock ahead of time what you don't want to select. You can do this in the Layers panel, but the fast approach is using keyboard shortcuts.

Ctl/Cmd-2 locks whatever obects are selected. Alt/Op-Cmd-2 unlocks anything that is locked.

Alt/Opt-click on the blank "lock" area (beside the eyeball) for a layer will lock all the other layers (and unlock them again -- it's a toggle), so if you work with multiple layers, as you should, that can be a very fast way to lock and unlock entire sets of objects at the same time. Alt/Opt-click on the eyeball hides all other layers or makes them visible if they've been hidden.

Google "Illustrator keyboard shortcuts" and dig around. Mordy Golding's blog is a great resource for this kind of info.

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