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.

If you keep getting down to two Critical Reading answers and always pick the wrong one…

If you keep getting down to two Critical Reading answers and always pick the wrong one…

Here are some things to consider:

  • Are you going back to the passage after you get down to those two answers? If so, are you looking for key transitions/punctuation marks/ explanations, etc. or are you just aimlessly rereading without a clear idea of what you’re looking for?
  • Do you ever start/stop reading halfway through a sentence? If so, make sure you back up to the beginning of the sentence or keep reading until the end; otherwise, you’re likely to miss important info.
  • Do you confine yourself to the lines you’re given in the question, or do you read a little before/after as well? Or, conversely, do you read too far ahead and lose sight of the what the lines referenced actually say. Function questions often require information in the sentence or two before the line reference; other question types can usually be answered from the lines given.
  • Do you consider whether the answer you’re choosing makes logical sense in the real world? (e.g. an answer stating that no scientific advances have recently been made is simply at odds with reality).
  • Do you work from the more specific answer and check whether it is directly supported by the passage?
  • Does one of the answer choices contain a synonym or synonyms for a key word in the passage? It’s probably right. Correct answer rephrase the passage. If an answer uses words verbatim from the passage, it’s probably wrong.
  • Do you ever pick answers that are too extreme, or that are beyond the scope of what can be determined from the passage? (e.g. the passage talks about one painter and the passage refers to painters in general.)
  • Pay careful attention to the topic of the passage — the correct answer will often refer to it, either by name or rephrased in a more general fashion (e.g. Frederick Douglass = an individual). Incorrect answers often refer to things that the passage mentions but that are not its main focus.
  • Do you try to answer questions in your own words before you look at the answers, or do you rely only on the answer choices? This technique is not about trying to get ETS’s exact wording — it’s about anticipating what sort of information will be present in the correct answer so that you don’t get distracted by plausible-sounding wrong answers.
  • If you are answering questions in your own words, keep in mind that you’re looking for the idea you’ve come up with. The actual phrasing might be very, very different from what you’re expecting, and may be written in a form you don’t immediately connect to what you’ve said. Part of what makes the SAT so challenging is the fact that you can’t always anticipate the angle that a correct answer will come from. Some questions can be answered correctly in multiple ways, but the correct answer that appears on the test will not always be the most obvious correct answer.
  • Do you read too far into the questions and start to impose an interpretation or make assumptions that the passage does not directly suggest? You need to read literally, not speculate about what the author could be saying.
  • Do you avoid choosing answers simply because they’re confusing? Whether an answer makes sense to you has no effect on whether it’s right or wrong.

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 (-).