When I used to tell students to write down every step of their reasoning process on Reading questions, their typical reaction was, “But doesn’t that take too much time?” While perfectly understandable, that thinking is based on the assumption that writing things down on a standardized test is somehow akin to writing in, say, English class. It isn’t. As a matter of fact, it’s not even close. It’s not about thinking things over leisurely or making them sound nice or being original. It’s about keeping yourself actively and sharply focused on the information you’re looking for, and it needs to be done fast. So in the service of that end, here are some general rules:

1) Keep it very, very short

Five or six words tops for your main point, three or so for anything else. Note-taking should not noticeably cut into the time you spend either reading or answering questions. That means:

2) Abbreviate like there’s no tomorrow.

Draw symbols, arrows, whatever you need to get the point across fast. Vowels and full words are your enemies. No one is grading you on your eloquence. The only thing that matters is that you understand what you mean and are able to use that information effectively.

Compare, for example, the following two versions of the main point for an imaginary passage about the effect of World War II on women’s roles in American society

Way too long: World War II had a positive effect on the lives of American women because it expanded their traditional roles by allowing them to find jobs outside of their homes for the first time.

Good Length: WWII + b/c women ? jobs

The first version takes up a lot of time to write, the second one virtually none. Guess which one is more effective at keeping you focused.

3) Write down arguments, not facts

Let’s go back to that pretend WWII passage and imagine that it’s about Rosie the Riveter (come to think of it, this might actually be in a real passage somewhere). You can’t just write “Rosie the Riveter;” that tells you nothing.

Instead, you want to write something like, “RR impt b/c inspired US wmn” (Rosie the Riveter was important because she inspired American women).

4) Circle transitions, not nouns

Transitions such as “however” and “furthermore,” and “because” tell you why information is important. Simply underlining the information itself will tell you nothing and will probably do little to help you answer the questions. Do not ever circle any form of the verb “to be.”

5) Focus on the argument of the overall passage, not the individual paragraphs

You don’t need to to write the argument of every paragraph when you do an initial read-through. Figuring out where a particular paragraph fits into a passage’s overall argument in something you can deal with when you encounter a specific question about that paragraph. At absolute most, you could do something like +, +, – for two paragraphs that support a point and one that contradicts it, but anything more will get