The SAT reading section is a daunting task for many students who are new to it. The passages are dense, and the questions are tricky. However, if you have a solid strategy in mind, you’ll be able to tackle it effectively. Here are my top 10 SAT reading tips to help you improve your score:
- Get familiar with the types of SAT reading passages.
- DON’T read every sentence.
- Do a preliminary skim of the passage before looking at the questions.
- Write a summary in the margins for each paragraph as you progress.
- Use keyword skimming for more specific questions.
- Predict before looking at the answer options.
- Get familiar with the common wrong answer traps.
- Keep a different strategy in mind for each SAT reading question type.
- Use time checkpoints to stay on track.
- When in doubt, choose the “boring” answer.
SAT Reading Tips for a High Score (2022)
1. Get Familiar With the Types of SAT Reading Passages
There are four different types of SAT reading passages:
- literary narrative
- historical document
- social science
- natural science.
The literary narrative passages are parts of novels or stories. The historical document passages are primary source documents, which take the form of speeches, letters, or editorials. Social science is the scientific study of human society and social relationships, so social science passages will be articles related to subjects such as anthropology, economics, or psychology. On the other hand, natural science is the scientific study of the physical world. Natural science passages will usually be related to chemistry, physics, or biology.
You will see a total of five passages in the test. Literary fiction and historical documents will each appear once. Additionally, there will be either one social science passage and two natural science passages, or vice versa. One of the passages you encounter will be paired with a graph, and another one of the passages is actually a pair of two short passages.
Now that you know what to expect, you’ll want to ingrain that knowledge with regular SAT reading practice using quality prep materials!
2. DON’T Read Every Sentence
SAT reading is very different from the way we usually read in real life. You don’t want to read every single sentence of the passage, because it’s too time-consuming and completely unnecessary–a bad combination. Another common tactic used by students is to skip directly to the questions. This is also less than ideal, as you will have no context for the questions, and context is key to reading comprehension. What you should do instead is skim the passages.
3. Do a Preliminary Skim of the Passage Before Looking at the Questions.
The first thing to do before looking at the questions is an initial skim of the passage. To be clear, when I say “skim”, I don’t mean to simply read every sentence quickly. Skimming on the SAT entails reading only the important sentences and skipping the rest (cross sentences out, if necessary).
How do we know whether a specific sentence is important? The first and last sentences of every paragraph are usually important because they tend to give us a gist of what the paragraph is about. (One important exception: the first sentence of the overall passage is often just a catchy hook, lacking any substantial content.)
Transition words and phrases are important to look out for. Any sentences that feature contrast transitions (e.g., however, nevertheless, in spite of) or conclusion transitions (e.g., therefore, in conclusion, ultimately).
Transition words and phrases can also act as clues that a sentence is NOT important. Any sentences with transitions that indicate detail (e.g., in detail, for example, for instance) or continuation (e.g., furthermore, additionally, in addition) are sentences that you should avoid for now. At this point of the process, you’re just trying to get a broad understanding of the passage without wasting time on the specifics.
4. Write a Summary in the Margins for Each Paragraph As You Progress
As you go through the passage, stop after every paragraph and write a short summary of the paragraph in the margins. How short? Ideally, summaries should be no more than five words. You don’t even need to use words, as long as you can understand what you wrote! It’s not easy to condense several sentences into a few words, but embracing this challenge will help you to really internalize and retain your summaries, often to the point that you don’t need to revisit them while answering questions.
When you’re creating your summaries, focus on the big ideas, logical or narrative structure, and tone. Furthermore, remember that relationships between concepts and points of view are far more important than any technical stuff you may encounter. You should be able to answer all of the broader questions attached to the passage from just your summaries.
5. Use Keyword Skimming for More Specific Questions
There will be questions that pertain to specific details in a passage. You may remember that I said to ignore the details when doing your initial skim. So, how do we answer these more specific questions without rereading the passage? This is where keyword skimming comes in.
Pick the most unique word in the question and scan for it in the passage. You can use your summaries to narrow in on the paragraph that likely contains the answer to the question. You DON’T need to read —simply look out for the “shape” of the word (i.e., its length and which letters stick up or down). It’s kind of like “Where’s Waldo?” or “I Spy”!
6. Predict Before Looking at the Answer Options
Instinctively, students tend to read the answer choices immediately after reading the question. Reject this instinct! On the SAT reading section, it’s more effective to make a prediction of the correct answer before looking at the choices. Even vague predictions are better than nothing.
Making a prediction first can help to focus your thinking so you don’t fall into wrong answer traps (more on that later). As I said before, you can answer the broad questions using just your summaries; make predictions based on what you jotted in the margins.
For the specific questions, keyword skim and read the sentences that feature your keyword. Then, you can take what you learned to predict the answer. If you’re still stuck after reading the answer choices, revisit your prediction. Ask yourself which choice is closest to your prediction and go with that one.
7. Get familiar with the common wrong answer traps.
Wrong answers are traps made to appear correct. Here are the most common traps you’ll see on the SAT:
- Too broad — the answer choice is technically correct, but it fails to capture the meaning or content of the passage.
- Too narrow — the answer choice contains a detail or idea that is mentioned in the passage but can’t be generalized to the whole.
- Too extreme — is overwhelmingly positive/negative or states/implies that something is “all”, “none”, “never”, “every”, etc.
- Assumption — could very well be true, but not necessarily, given the text of the passage.
- Half right, half wrong — is correct about one detail or passage but incorrect about the other
- One word off — is almost perfect, but one word ruins it
- Wrong detail — misattributed something mentioned in the passage
- Opposite — has a sneaky “not” thrown in, or it’s correctly answering the wrong question (e.g., in “EXCEPT” questions)
8. Keep a Different Strategy in Mind for Each SAT Reading Question Type
- Main Purpose questions typically ask what the passage/paragraph is about or why it was written. These are big picture ideas, so you can make predictions from your summaries.
- Line Reference questions ask about the intended meaning or purpose of specific sentences/phrases/words. These questions deal with little picture ideas, and they give you the location in the passage, so you can just go to the line reference to predict. It helps if you use the surrounding sentences for context.
- Key Words questions ask about specific details of the passage, where the answer will always be explicitly stated. You aren’t given a line reference for these, so you’ll usually have to keyword skim to make your prediction.
- Inference questions deal with notions that are implicitly stated in the passage. You’re looking for something that isn’t mentioned in the text but must be true, given what is in the text. These are often the hardest questions to answer; they’re difficult to predict, so you might want to use the process of elimination.
- Evidence-Based Reasoning questions are usually paired with Inference questions but are sometimes standalone. These questions ask what part of the passage proves that the inference is true, and the answer choices are line references. If you were able to figure out the answer to the Inference question, then you should have a pretty good idea of the answer to the Evidence-Based Reasoning question. If not, think about the implications of each answer choice and whether it fits with the one alluded to in the question.
- Vocabulary in Context questions deal with the author’s use of a word in the context of the passage; they are NOT asking for the definition of the word. For these questions, your prediction doesn’t have to fit perfectly with the answer choices. Consider how you would use the answer choices and substitute them for the word in question. It is also very helpful here to have a broad knowledge of words with several different meanings.
- With Graph questions, you will be reading and interpreting graphics, and relating them back to the passage. Take note of the graph’s title, axis/column/row titles, keys/legends/labels, and trends. You can use them as keywords to scan for in the passage. It’s often useful to annotate the graph and mark what you’re solving for.
- Comparison Passage questions ask about the relationships between the paired passages. Answer the individual passage questions before the ones asking about both passages. Skim the first passage and answer its corresponding questions before attending to the second passage.
9. Use Time Checkpoints to Stay on Track
In the SAT reading section, you have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions. Instead of wasting time constantly checking the clock or not paying attention to your pace at all, you can use time checkpoints to help yourself to stay on track. Because the questions are divided almost evenly amongst the five passages, you have built-in checkpoints at your disposal. 65 minutes divided by 5 passages gives you an average of 13 minutes for each passage and its 10 or 11 corresponding questions.
|# of Passages Completed||Time Left on the Clock|
I want to emphasize that this is an average; it’s okay to spend more time on some passages and less on others. Adjust your checkpoints to your specific strengths and weaknesses. For example, you can save more time for whichever passage type is your least favorite. (If it’s your least favorite, it’s probably also the one that takes you the longest time to get through.) If you find yourself significantly behind schedule (more than a few minutes), then consider skipping some questions to get back on track. You can come back and attempt them at the end if there’s still time.
10. When in Doubt, Choose the “Boring” Answer
Correct answers are rarely extreme in their implications or their tone, so pick the answer that is the least assertive and/or most neutral. If there’s a passage that you’re just not getting, or if you’re running low on time, you can use the process of elimination to increase your chances. Eliminate anything that isn’t “boring” enough.
Those are my top recommended SAT reading tips to help you prepare efficiently for the test. Know of any other tips? Leave them in the comments below!