How to Study SAT Critical Reading

How to Study SAT Critical Reading


A Quick Anecdote

First, I should mention that this story is a bit tweaked for dramatic effect (read: not completely true), but the main point of the story is untainted by the details I’m adding.

A few years ago, I was working with class of around ten SAT students through a difficult reading comprehension passage and its questions. One of the students, David, was a normally enthusiastic high-scorer, the kind of guy who finishes all the practice material first then seems to enjoy helping his friends get through tough spots. At least, that was definitely true about his attitude toward the math and writing sections of the test.

But rather than tear into the passage and questions we were doing, David pulled out a blank piece of paper and started doing origami. When I asked him why, he said: “Reading comp is subjective. And I’ll memorize the vocabulary words at home.”

A part of me was angry, of course. It was cheeky and a bit arrogant. But I also got it. SAT Critical Reading questions don’t jump out as being something you need practice with—not nearly as much so as the math or writing ones do. When you get a math question wrong, after you look at the solution you might think, “Ohh. Right. Next time, I’ll do that.” When you get a reading comprehension question wrong, you might look at it twice and think “Bull.”

But once you’ve spent enough time with the test, it becomes clear these answers aren’t subjective; they’re based on the text, and they follow strict rules.

And what about sentence completions? It’s true that your vocabulary is one of the most important parts, but the test is more than that. It’s also about strategy, understanding what the test-maker wants and how to get there.

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It takes practice to really understand how these questions are written and what they ask of you, (as it does for any section of the SAT). Vocabulary flashcards alone aren’t enough! You’ll need a three-pronged attack to hit the best SAT Critical Reading score that you can:


1) Learning Skills and Strategies

What you basically want to learn is A) what makes wrong answers wrong and B) what makes right answers right. Okay, so that doesn’t mean a whole lot in and of itself. In order to get what I mean, you’ll need to do a little bit more reading.

Once you do start to see the patterns, what the SAT makers want from you, you’ll start to see your scores go up.

But that means more than just reading the blog posts linked above. Learning the test means both getting those lessons—whether that’s via a teacher, a book, a blog, or an online resource like Magooshand doing practice alone. If you do nothing else to prepare for SAT critical reading, you should still do this.


2) Reading, Reading, and More Reading

There’s no way around it: SAT Critical Reading is largely a test of how comfortable you are with difficult texts. This isn’t just literacy, and it’s not just vocab; it’s having so much experience with the written word that you can understand the author’s exact intentions. The way people write isn’t really how they speak. Thoughts are strung together a bit differently and expressed with structures or phrases that might sound too stiff or formal for a conversation.

Diving into that style of English—written English—pays off. I’m not talking about Dr. Seuss, here, but I’m also not talking about reading the constitution or your biology textbook. I mean that you should be reading articles from the New York Times, say, or Harper’s. Or hey, lighten it up a bit and spend your time on McSweeney’s. Whatever it is, make sure that it’s advanced enough that you sometimes have to reread a paragraph to really get it and that you don’t know every word on every page. Challenge yourself.


3) Memorizing Vocabulary

Gung-ho SAT students often focus too much on vocabulary. But at the same time, it would be a huge mistake not to study it at all. After all, you’re going to see 19 sentence completion questions out of the total 67 questions in Critical Reading sections. Those add up to a pretty hefty chunk of your overall CR score, nearly 30%. And there will be a few vocab questions in the passage-based questions, too.

And as you do build your vocabulary, soaking up words like “lugubrious,” “laconic,” and “lucre” (the L section seems to be disproportionately large in my mental dictionary), make sure that you’re actually retaining what you learn. Review, and review often. Use mnemonics. And use those new words in your writing, too. Not only will that help bump up your essay score, but it will also make those words stick.


The Moral of the Story

It wasn’t that same day, but after I talked with David about the above—especially trying to see how reading comprehension questions are structured and how to beat them—there was a clear change in his attitude. I can’t say it was definitely because of anything I said, although I like to think so. Instead, I imagine it was because once he got a little bit more exposure to the test, his interest in the reading section snowballed.

With the right mix of experience and training, the Critical Reading section, like the other SAT sections, becomes just another type of puzzle waiting to be solved.


And don’t forget to take a look at the other posts in this series:


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  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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2 Responses to How to Study SAT Critical Reading

  1. Sani July 29, 2014 at 11:01 pm #

    Hi Lucas,

    I took the TOEFL last Saturday and I think I did pretty well on the reading section, so thanks a lot ! I have started to study for the SAT. I did some research about preparation books. I checked college confidential and I’m going crazy with all the recommendations. As far as I understood the most popular books for critical reading are Rocket Review, Grammatix, Barron’s and Gruber’s. Since English is not my first language, which of these do you think is better for me?

    Thanks a lot !!

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas August 2, 2014 at 1:26 am #

      Hi Sani,

      If you’re going to buy a book for the SAT, start with the Official Guide. There is no better reading comprehension practice you can buy. It comes with ten practice tests, which means there is a lot of practice material in there. We don’t Gruber’s. Barron’s is good, but not perfect. I’m afraid I haven’t used Rocket Review or Grammatix, so we just ordered those books for future reference. We’ll review them on the SAT blog, eventually. For now, though, I buy the official guide! If you definitely want more practice from a book, then Barron’s is not a bad choice. But if you just want that book for strategy, not practice, then you’re better off with our free SAT ebook. 🙂

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