How to Take Notes on SAT Critical Reading Passages, Faster

One of the most important things you can do to raise your critical reading score on your SAT is to improve your reading strategy. There’re a few ways reading the passage often goes wrong—forgetting to look at the big picture, for one—and the best way to avoid all of them is to refine your notes.

And yes, you should be taking notes. Without them, you’ll have a hard time staying focused.


Messy notes are good notes

While it may be true that legible handwriting is a bonus for the SAT essay, it has no place in your notes. Your fastest, sloppiest writing is the best writing here, because you’re the only one that needs to be able to read it.  Think about that for a moment. If you’re the only one that needs to understand it, how messy can it get?

Let’s conduct a little experiment. Get a pencil and paper. Without looking at what you’re writing, copy some nonsense sentences (courtesy of Gertrude Stein) as quickly as you can. Don’t look at what you’re writing and don’t erase anything. Just write, and do it fast. You only need a couple of sentences.

When you’re done, put it to the side. We’ll get back to it later.

Finished? Okay. You may keep reading.


Use abbreviations

You should abbreviate as much as you can. The number one argument against notes for SAT reading is that it takes too long. Well, guess what? It doesn’t have to take long at all. Just don’t write out the word “hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia” (the fear of very long words); make up an abbreviation. How about “hipp.”? Again, you’re the only one who has to understand it.


Draw pictures and symbols

If you’re at all artistically inclined, use that to your advantage.

Let’s say the author of a passage seems to really like his iPhone. Why write that out? Instead of jotting down “auth. loves phone,” you could just as easy make a little doodle in the margins.



(Once again, my skills in Microsoft paint are mind-blowing, don’t you think? )

Depending on how you think and how comfortable you are with drawing, these kinds of visual notes might be a much better option during your SAT. If you’re not taking the test until a couple months from now, give it a whirl.


The results of the penmanship experiment

Let’s take a look back at that nonsense you jotted down a couple minutes ago. Or better still, you could look at them in another five minutes. How much of it can you read? Most people will be able to understand every word they wrote, even if it looks like it was written by a cat that’s eaten too much catnip.

You only need to be able to read your notes for about ten minutes. After that, they’re basically trash. Don’t waste time making them pretty.



  • 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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