As pretty much anyone with more than five minutes of SAT prep experience knows, Critical Reading passages are not exactly chosen for their phenomenal entertainment value. Ecotourism? Snooze. Whale play? Who cares. Copepods? Even I had to force myself to stay awake for that one. (Incidentally, when I was writing lots of reading material, I used a couple of passages that were so boring I actually had trouble mustering sufficient focus to write questions about them! Having to answer the questions may be bad, but I can assure you that writing them can be far, far more excruciating.)

So yes, while occasionally you’ll stumble across a passage on a topic that holds your interest for more than, say, a second-and-a-half, the majority of the time that just won’t be the case. Unfortunately, you still have to deal with the questions, regardless of how much of the passage you’ve tuned out, and if you spend too much time reading and re-reading, desperately trying to absorb everything that’s going on, you’ll already be behind time-wise when you start the questions. Besides, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend reading if you’re not really absorbing anything.

So what’s the solution? Stop trying to understand everything (at least for the first read-through) and just focus on something else: finding the main idea, the tone, and the stuff that the author indicates is important (explanations, italics, anything with the words “important” or the “the goal,” “the point,” etc.). If you actively look for something as you read, it’s a whole lot harder to tune out as you go through the process.

As I’ve written about before, the content of most Critical Reading passages is in some ways deeply irrelevant — that is, provided that you can grasp the basics, it doesn’t really matter what the author happens to be saying, only how s/he structures the argument. If you start reading for function, content becomes secondary.

So say you’re trying to slog through that awful passage about copepods (or something equally hideous), stop reading carefully as soon as you figure out what the basic idea is, and just start worrying about the role that each new paragraph plays — and that’s information you can get in the first couple of sentences. If you see “for example” or “for instance,” that means that the paragraph is pretty much going to support an idea; if you see “however,” or “despite,” that’s a pretty good indicator that the rest of the paragraph is going to refute an idea. Then you can just skim through the rest of it to make sure nothing new and important gets introduced.

If it helps you to do so, you can also write something like “support” or “refute” or “explain” next to the paragraph, just to keep yourself paying attention and give you an outline of the argument. Furthermore, when you get a question about why the author included a particular piece of information in that paragraph, all you’ll have to do is look at your note: if the point of the paragraph is to support, chances are the right answer will start with a positive word; if the point of the paragraph is to disagree, chances are it’ll start with a negative word. It won’t matter if you haven’t gotten every last detail — you’ll have the bit picture, which you can use to make a reasonable guess, and on the SAT that’s what really counts.

Will this give you the answer to every question? Of course not. I’m simplifying a bit here. But you might be surprised at how often working this way 1) keeps you focused, and 2) gets you close to the right answer, even if you’re not really certain you understood everything you read.