10 tips for acing SAT reading

10 tips for acing SAT reading

Note: this article is part of a two-part series. See also this post, which covers the multiple-choice grammar section.


1) Take a moment to understand the question before you jump to eliminate any answers

This is especially true when a question is worded in a complex/confusing way. High scorers often lose points because they don’t take a few seconds to think about what complicated questions are really asking. As a result, they are either unsure of what they’re looking for, or thinking in the wrong “direction” when they go to look to look at the choices. Then they get confused.

Good rule of thumb: if you find yourself saying “Huh?” after you read a question or answer, you need to take a few moments 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 guess on a question or two; you cannot afford to rush and get two or three questions wrong per set. Figure out where your weak spots are, and learn to work around them. 

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. Your goal is to leave yourself as much time as possible to work through the hardest questions. 


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 an answer or two. 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 elements can make you suddenly notice things you missed the first time around.


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. “extreme” answers are usually 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 include a word like always or never. 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.

A tip for students using “The Critical Reader”

I recently came across an inquiry from someone using the The Critical Reader to study for the SAT. The student in question had been getting all the exercise questions right in the book itself, but when he took full practice tests, he started making mistakes. How should he proceed?

While I don’t know exactly what was happening when the student took those tests, I can wager a pretty good guess.

Because The Critical Reader is organized by question type, each set of exercises focuses on a particular concept and follows a chapter focusing on that same concept. Not only is the strategy information is still pretty fresh for most people when they look at the questions, but they already know what concept every question will be testing.

When they go to take a practice test, however, that scaffolding is suddenly taken away. All the question types are mixed up together, and there’s no predicting what will come next. In addition, it is necessary to recall many different strategies and nuances of the test in rapid sequence, without any prompting about which ones are necessary. That’s a big strain on working memory. Most likely, the student was simply reading the questions and choosing answers without really considering what category each question fell into and what sort of approach would be required to answer it most effectively.

So if you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s my advice: You essentially have to create a bridge between the book and the test. Choose a couple of Reading sections and don’t worry about time. Go through each question and label it with its category (function, tone, inference, etc.).

Now, before you do each question, stop and review the strategy you need for it, e.g. remind yourself to read before and after the line reference for function questions, play positive/negative, and remember to mark off all the “supporting evidence” pairs.

Work this way for a couple of sections, or even a full test —  however long it takes for the process to become more automatic. The goal is to practice identifying which strategies are necessary and get used to applying them when no one (me) is holding up a sign telling you what to look for.

When the process feels more automatic, take a timed test and see what holds. Then repeat as necessary.

Read (around) the lines you’re given before you read somewhere else

A couple of times recently, I’ve been working with students when the following scenario has occurred:

-Student encounters question asking them to determine the purpose of the information in, say, lines 47-53.

-Student glances briefly at lines 47-53, can’t figure out the answer immediately, and then proceeds to jump to the beginning of the passage and reads somewhere around line 20. Or, worse yet, ignores lines 47-53 entirely and starts reading around line 20. Or keeps going until s/he hits line 65.

Student: Is it (C)?

Me: Ok, why do you think that?

Student: Well, in line 20 the author is kind of like talking about-

Me: Whoa, wait a second. Why are you looking over there? The question asked you to look at lines 47-53.

Student: But isn’t the guy like basically saying the same thing here?

Me: Number one, no he actually isn’t, and number two, what on earth possessed you to look in line 20 when the question told you exactly where to look?

Student looks mystified.

Me: I know I told you to look at the end of the first paragraph for number 14, but that was a primary purpose question. It was asking you for the big picture, and the author is usually going to give you that in the intro (that’s the point of an introduction!) But if it’s not a “big picture” question, you need to stick to the lines they give you because the question isn’t asking you to consider the context of the whole passage, just that immediate area of the passage. You might be able to get the answer by knowing the point, but it also might have nothing to do with the point. So you have to check those lines out first and work from there.

This is inevitably one of those I-don’t know-whether-I-should-laugh-or-bang-my-head-against-the-wall moments. These are smart kids, yet these conversations drive home to me just how much mental gymnastics the SAT requires. Think about the main point. Now don’t think about the main point. Think about where key information in the passage is likely to be located. No, only worry about the lines you’re given in the question. Think about the “point of view” in context of the passage. No, think about it in isolation. There’s so much flipping back and forth that it’s a wonder anyone can keep it straight.

But let me try to make it simple. Unless you’re dealing with a “big picture” question (main point, primary purpose, one that doesn’t include a line reference), start by assuming that the answer is located somewhere in the close vicinity of the lines you’re given. That doesn’t mean the answer will always be in the lines referenced; it might be a little bit before or a little bit after. But it’ll almost certainly be close by. And even though it might true that information from the other end of the passage might be related, you won’t need to look all the way over there to find the answer.

So if you find yourself looking all over the passage when the question tells you (approximately) where the information you need to answer the question is located, know that you’re probably costing yourself a lot of time. And even if you’re getting the questions right, you’re probably making the process a lot more complicated that it needs to be.

The answer isn’t always *in* the passage

A while back, a student who was trying to raise his Reading score came to me with complaint: “Everyone always says that the answer is right there in the passage,” he told me. “But I feel like that’s not always the case.”

He was right, of course. He’d also hit on one of the many half-truths of SAT prep, one that frequently gets repeated with the best of intentions but that ends up confusing the heck out of a lot of people.

As I’ve written about before, most SAT prep programs spend a fair amount of time drilling it into their students’ heads that the only information necessary to answer Critical Reading questions can be found in the passages themselves, and that test-takers should never, under any circumstances, use their own knowledge of a subject to try to answer a question. They’re right (well, most of the time, but the exceptions are sufficiently rare and apply to so few people that they’re not worth getting into here).

In trying to avoid one problem, however, they inadvertently create a different one. The danger in that piece of advice is that it overlooks a rather important distinction: yes, the answer can be determined solely from the information in the passage, but the answer itself is not necessarily stated word-for-word in the passage.

A lot of the time, this confusion stems from the fact that people misunderstand the fact that the SAT tests, among other things, the ability to move from concrete to abstract. That is, to draw a connection between specific wordings in the passage and their role within the argument (emphasize, criticize, assert, etc.). The entire POINT of the test is that the answers to some questions can’t be found directly in the passage.

Correct tend to either describe what is occurring rhetorically in the passage or paraphrase its content using synonyms (“same idea, different words”). You need to use the information in the passage and then make a cognitive leap. It’s the ability to make that leap, and to understand why one kind of leap is reasonable and another one isn’t, that’s being tested. If you only look at the answer choices in terms of the passage’s content, they won’t make any sense, or else they’ll seem terribly ambiguous. Only when you understand how they relate to the actual goal of the question do they begin to make sense. In other words, comprehension is necessary but not sufficient.

While knowing all this won’t necessarily help you figure out any answers, it can, at the very least, help to clarify just what the SAT is trying to do and just why the answers are phrased the way they are. If you can shift from reading just for content to reading for structure — that is, understanding that authors use particular examples or pieces of evidence to support one argument or undermine another — the test starts to make a little more sense. And if you know upfront that the answer is unlikely to be found directly in the passage and that you need to be prepared to work it out yourself, you won’t waste precious time or energy getting confused when you do look at the choices. And sooner or later, you might even get to the point of being able to predict some of the answers on your own.

Just because an answer is confusing doesn’t mean it’s wrong

One of things I’ve noticed recently is that when doing SAT Reading, a lot of students are very quick to cross out answers that sound excessively abstract or complicated without trying to understand them fully. I do understand the impulse: if you think you pretty much understand what a passage is saying and an answer does not, at first glance, seem obviously related to anything directly stated by the author, it would stand to reason that it’s probably not the answer. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t always work that way.

One of the things I try make as explicit as possible when I start working with someone is the fact that SAT Reading questions often require you to first determine information very, very literally, then take a step back and re-cast that same information in much more general or abstract terms. That’s why the answers are often worded in ways that are 1) completely unexpected, and that 2) often seem to bear little relationship to what’s actually being stated in the passage.

In general, a good rule of thumb is that you should never eliminate an answer simply because you find it confusing or don’t really understand what it means. Likewise, you should never pick an answer just because you do understand what it’s saying. I cannot emphasize this enough: your ability to understand an answer has exactly zero impact on its likelihood of being either correct or incorrect. Zero.

Practically speaking, that means that if you are stuck between an answer you do understand and an answer you don’t, the latter must be correct — regardless of how little sense it makes to you — if the former doesn’t work.

So when you come across an answer that seems to be worded in a highly abstract manner, the first thing you need to do is try to figure out what it’s actually saying. Ideally, you should have already gone back to the passage and formulated an answer in your own words, in which case you need to think hard about whether the answer on the page might simply be a more general version of what you came up with. If you haven’t gone back to the passage…well, you might have to do it by process of elimination. But if you’re willing to entertain all the possibilities and resist jumping to conclusions, that can be very effective as well.

A summary of my reading method

1) Read the passage slowly until you figure out the point

Usually the point will be stated somewhere close to the end of the introduction or at the beginning of the second paragraph (first body paragraph). Once you figure out the point, focus on the first and last sentence of each body paragraph, then read the conclusion carefully. Underline the last sentence. For short passages (GRE), focus on the first and last sentences of the passage.


2) If something confuses you, skip it and focus on what you do understand

When a lot of people encounter a confusing section of a passage, they stop and read it repeatedly, often without obtaining a clearer understanding and wasting huge amounts of time in the process. You should avoid falling into a this type of rereading loop at all costs. If you don’t understanding something fully the first time you read, force yourself to keep moving and focus on the parts that are clearer. What confuses you might not be important anyway.


3) When you finish the passage, write the tone and the point

Try to limit the point to 4-6 words, symbols, etc. OR, if you see the point directly stated in the passage, underline it and draw a big arrow/star, etc. so you remember to keep referring back to it. For the tone, you can write an adjective (e.g. skeptical) or just positive (+) or negative (-).