Since I’ve recently published 7 skills you need to get an 800 on SAT Writing, I thought it was only fair to publish a companion piece for Critical Reading. I’ve covered a lot of this information in bits and pieces in various times and places, but here I’ve tried to provide a compendium of the most important strategies/processes/pieces of advice I’ve consistently seen high scorers benefit from most. While the advice in this piece can be applied by people at a very wide range of levels, it is geared toward students who are seriously trying obtain perfect Critical Reading scores and thus presupposes a fairly high skill level as well as a familiarity with the SAT.
1) Take a moment to understand the question before you jump to eliminate any answers, especially when the question is worded in a complex/confusing way.
A while back, I made a decision to stop getting into arguments about how many questions, if any, students should eliminate before they guess. Why? Well, 1) because the SAT isn’t a guessing game and shouldn’t be treated like one (for the next few months, at least); and 2) because I see students eliminate correct answers upfront all the time. There is absolutely no exception for high scorers. In fact, sometimes the only questions they get wrong are the ones on which they crossed out the right answer right away. In almost every case, they did so because they hadn’t taken a few seconds to think about what the question was asking or the answer was saying.
Good rule of thumb: if you find yourself saying “Huh?” after you read a question or answer, you need to stop and clarify.
2) Keep moving through the passages – and the questions
Reading and re-reading confusing sections of a passage is one of the biggest causes of time problems. If you find yourself starting to loop over the same section, you must resist the temptation to reread over and over again. That section might only be relevant to a single question – or no questions at all. If you spend a lot of time on it, you’re likely to end up rushing later in the section and losing easy points.
As you work through the questions, you should be doing something – anything – to work toward the answers at all times. If you’re so confused that you can’t even figure out how to start working through a question, leave it and move on. You won’t get the answer by sitting and staring. Very rarely do high scorers have time problems because they’re spending too much time on every question; more often it’s a couple of questions that drain all their time. If you’re spot-on everywhere else, you can afford to skip a question or two; you cannot afford to rush and two or three questions wrong per section.
As a general rule, you should spend the minimum amount of time possible on easy questions while still working carefully enough not to make any careless errors. This is particularly true for the first few sentence completions – they are usually very straightforward, and there is absolutely no reason to spend a lot of time on them. Your goal is to leave yourself the maximum amount of time possible to work through the hardest questions. You might need it, and you might not, but better to be safe.
If you spend 10 or 15 seconds on just enough easy questions, you could easily end up with 5 or more minutes to answer the hardest ones. On rare occasions, you may actually need that much time. Again, we’re talking details – that will likely apply to no more than 1-2 questions per test, but if you’re seriously aiming for an 800, you should plan ahead so that you’ll have the time when you need it.
3) Do not EVER eliminate an answer because it confuses you
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. There is absolutely no relationship between your understanding of an answer and whether that answer is right or wrong. If you’re not sure about an answer, leave it.
4) Be willing to go back and forth between the question and the passage multiple times.
The answer will most likely not reveal itself to you if you just sit and look at the choices. You may need to go back and forth between the question and the passage four or five times, checking one specific thing out at each go. Do not – I repeat, do not – rely on your memory.
5) Read before/after the line references
A line reference tells you where a particular word or phrase is located – it does not tell you where the answer is. The answers could be in the lines cited, or it could be before/after. If you’ve understood the question and the section of the passage referenced, and still can’t find the answer, there’s a good chance you’re looking in the wrong spot.
If you’re dealing with a function/purpose question, there’s about a 50% chance the answer won’t be in the exact lines cited, but regardless of the question type, do not ever start or stop reading in the middle of a sentence.
Likewise, if you’re asked about something close the beginning/end of a paragraph, back up or read forward as necessary. Main ideas are usually at the beginnings/ends of paragraphs – when in doubt, focus on them.
6) Answer questions in your own words
If you’re a strong reader, spot an answer immediately, and are 100% certain it’s right, it’s fine to pick it and move on. When things are less clear-cut, however, it would strongly behoove you to get a general idea of what information the correct answer will contain, keeping in mind that it might be phrased in a very different way from the way you’d say it. Even doing something as simple as playing positive/negative can make the right answer virtually pop out at you.
To reiterate: you cannot rely on the answers already there 100% of the time. They are there to sound plausible, even if they’re no such thing. Defend yourself.
7) Practice keeping calm when you don’t know the answer right away
If you stand a serious chance of scoring an 800, there’s a good chance that you’re pretty good at recognizing correct answers. There’s also a pretty good chance that most of the questions you’re getting wrong are the ones you aren’t sure about in the first place. When this is the case, one of the biggest challenges tends to involve managing your reactions when you encounter questions you aren’t sure about right away. This might only happen three or four times throughout the test, but that’s enough to cost you.
From what I’ve observed, many students who fall into this category have a tendency to freeze, then panic, then guess. Learning to keep calm is a process; you have to practice it when you’re studying in order for the there to be any chance of your doing it during the actual test.
Stop, take a moment, re-read the question calmly, and make sure you’re crystal clear on what it’s asking. Once, you’ve fully processed what you’re being asked, you can probably get rid of a couple of answers. As you work through the question, you might find yourself getting a clearer idea of what it’s asking for. If you don’t, pick one specific aspect of each remaining answer to check against the passage. If you’re stuck between a general and a specific answer, start with the more specific one.
When you go back to the passage, pay attention to strong language and major transitions and “interesting” punctuation (however, therefore, but, colons, questions marks) since key information tends to be located right around them. If you’re unsure about what you’re looking for, focusing on these things can give you an “entry point” into the question.
8) Be willing to reconsider your original assumption
Sometimes you’ll understand a question, answer it in your own words, look at the answer choices… and find absolutely nothing that fits. When this happens, you must be willing to accept that the answer is coming from an unexpected angle, back up a couple of steps, and re-work through it from a different standpoint.
Reread the question carefully, make sure you haven’t overlooked something, get rid of answers that are clearly way off, and look at the remaining options anew.
9) Ask yourself what you’re missing
When you can’t figure out the answer, you must be willing to turn things back on yourself and ask yourself what it is you’re not seeing. Thoughts that start with, “But I think that the author is saying xxx…” will not get you to the answer. If you’ve understood the question and the answers and can’t connect one to the other, the answer must be coming from an angle you haven’t considered. You might need to read more literally, or you might have to consider an alternate meaning of a word. Embrace that fact, because fighting the test won’t change it.
10) Remember that the SAT can break its own “rules”
It’s undoubtedly a good idea to know some of the more common patterns of the test (e.g. answers with “digression” are wrong, answers with “qualify” are usually right, “extreme” answers and answers implying that the author doesn’t care are wrong). If you’re seriously shooting for an 800, though, you must be willing to consider that on very rare occasions, there are exceptions. Sometimes the correct answer may be “awe” or “apathetic” or “digression.” You must find a balance between using the patterns of the test to your advantage and not getting so stuck on them that you let them override what’s actually going on in the passage.