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7 SAT Reading Tips You Need To Know

The following is a list of tips and tricks for the SAT Reading Test.

Find the reading style that is right for you.

Whether you read in full or skim, choose the approach that allows you to finish the test in time.

By far, the biggest challenge on the SAT Reading Test is finishing in time. For most students, the test would be easy with unlimited time. However, you have to read six passages, and answer over fifty questions, in a little over an hour, which is a hard slog. If you’re a bookworm, and happen to read at a particularly high level, where you’re able to make your way through the passages quickly without sacrificing understanding, then you’ll probably be able to read all the passages in full and answer all the questions without running out of time.

But, for most students, doing this will probably be a stretch within the 65 minutes you are allotted for the Reading Test. So, you might want to consider skimming in order to save time. Skimming involves reading the first and last paragraphs of the nonfiction passages in full, in order to glean the main idea and the general structure of the argument. Then, you read the first sentence of each body paragraph, so that you understand the point that each body paragraph makes. For the Fiction passage, you should always read it in full, because these passages are not written with a predictable structure.

When you skim, you’ll have to go back and read additional parts of the passage in order to answer the line-cited questions. So, you should go ahead and answer the more general questions (those without line citations, that pertain to the passage as a whole) last, after you have read the maximum amount of the passage.

Skimming is not ideal—it’s always best to have read everything before answering the questions. However, if this is simply not possible for you, it’s your best option for finishing the test in time.

Rank the passages in your order of strength and complete them in that order.

If a particular type of passage is toughest for you, read it last, in case you run out of time and are left to guess.

If there is a certain type of passage—Fiction, Social Studies, History, or Natural Science—that you struggle with, you’re likely to get more questions about it wrong. So, whatever section is your worst, you should finish last. After all, it’s best to be left guessing at the end of the test on questions you would have gotten wrong anyway.

So, at the beginning of the test, rank your passages in your order of strength, completing your best passages first, and your worst last. If you’re not sure which passages are your best and worst, completing a few practice tests will give you a good idea. And, when you work this way, make sure that you don’t absentmindedly bubble in the scantron incorrectly. That mistake would turn this strategy into a surefire disaster!

Look for what’s wrong with answer choices.

Three out of four answer choices are wrong. Identifying problems with answer choices will help you narrow down to the correct answer.

If the College Board wrote wrong answer choices in ways that made them obviously wrong, then the SAT would be an easy test, and not a very useful tool in assessing college readiness. So, instead, the test makers write wrong answers in ways that make them very tempting to choose. On the Reading Test, wrong answers will either be text taken verbatim from the passage, and then changed very slightly in order to be made incorrect; address a supporting detail rather than a main point; or make a claim that relies upon an assumption in order to be correct. As I always tell my students, every time you make an assumption on the SAT, you will get the answer wrong.

Yet, many students, who are otherwise inclined to answer a question correctly, take a look at the incorrect answer choices, and then allow their minds to wander, arguing to themselves that these answer choices could be correct if this or that were the case. Any time you catch yourself doing this type of thinking, know that you are on the wrong track. This mindset means that you are about to make an assumption.

Correct answer choices can always be supported—every single word of them—with direct evidence from the passage. In order to avoid falling for wrong answers, ask yourself what is wrong with the answer choices, rather than what is right with them. For example, is there a word like ‘every’ or ‘always’ that makes an answer choice too extreme to be correct?

Another way to avoid this type of thinking is to read a question, and then come up with an answer in your head before looking at the actual answer choices. Then, when you do take a look at the answer choices, match the answer that you came up with on your own with whatever answer choice is closest. Most times, you’ll be right on the mark—and you won’t have had your thinking polluted by the temptations of the incorrect answer choices.

Read some Jane Austen or Henry James.

Becoming familiar with older styles of writing will help you on the Fiction and History passages.

Modern writing is relatively straightforward, with points made without many stylistic flourishes (things like lots of imagery, or metaphorical language). Therefore, many students are thrown off when reading some of the Fiction and History passages, some of which were written pre-1920. Writing in these times used lots of images and metaphors to make points, and due to this feature, it is often rather thick. Students today find this sort of molasses-like prose difficult to work their way through.

You can prepare yourself for tackling these types of passages by doing some reading of pre-1920s writing and familiarizing yourself with it. Some great authors to read for this purpose are Jane Austen (author of Pride and Prejudice) and Henry James (author of The Bostonians). For the History passages specifically, you can try reading some speeches from the Civil War era, or from the Suffragette movement. Many of the History passages on the New SAT are related to the Civil War, and things like slavery and the abolition movement, or to the struggle for women’s rights, including the right to vote. Any reading that you do of speeches from figures like Abraham Lincoln or Susan B. Anthony would be good preparation for the SAT Reading Test.

Take notes!

Taking notes while you read will improve your focus and understanding of the passages, and prevent you from wasting your time re-reading.

Because the SAT Reading Test is a time crunch, many students are resistant to the idea of taking notes while they read. Many prefer simply underlining as they read. However, there’s a risk of underlining absent-mindedly, so that by the time you’ve reached the end of the passage, you have forgotten why you underlined something. Or, you might underline too much, thus rendering all of your underlining useless. Note-taking, on the other hand, requires you to be actively engaged with the text, so that you will understand more of what you are reading, and also have a record of the most important points the passage makes for when it comes time to answer the questions.

For the Fiction passage, I recommend writing three to four words each on the following four topics: plot, character, setting and tone. For the rest of the passages, all of which are non-fiction, I recommend writing one sentence describing the main idea of the passage, and then three to four words describing what each body paragraph says. Then, when it comes time to answer the questions, you’ll have a handy ‘table of contents’ that tells you where information is in the passage.

Our short-term memories are extremely taxed during the SAT, and can only hold a little bit of information at a time. If you have notes, you don’t have to worry about this. After all, as the Chinese say, “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”

Always read a few lines before and a few lines after cited lines.

You need to know the full context in which a word is used, or point is made, in order to understand its full significance.

For the context vocabulary and other line-specific questions, don’t just read the lines that are cited when you are answering the question. Make sure you read about two or three lines above and two or three lines below the citation, as well. Doing this will ensure that you have the full context of whatever you’re reading about when you answer the question. The cited lines alone are oftentimes not enough to give you the proper context.

Do command of evidence questions in reverse.

If you’re struggling with these questions, use the lines cited in the command of evidence questions to find the answer to the first question.

If you are struggling with answering a particular question, and notice a command of evidence question (where you are asked to cite the lines that provided your answer to the first question) following it, then go ahead and do the questions in reverse. Read each of the four sets of lines provided by the command of evidence question in order to find the answer to the first question. Then, you can answer both questions together. Remember, this method should only be used when you are struggling, as it is relatively time-consuming to work this way.

Clay Cooper

Clay has scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, ACT, PSAT, LSAT, and ISEE, among other standardized tests. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.