The SAT reading section is probably the most daunting reading you’ll have to do during your high school career, especially if you’re new to it. Throughout your SAT reading prep, you should encounter a lot of different passages and questions types. We will discuss these below and how you can use SAT reading tricks to tackle these easily. The passages are incredibly dense and challenging to comprehend and the questions are equally difficult. That being said, if you know what you’re doing from the get go, develop thorough SAT reading strategies, and most importantly, keep a cool and level head, you will be able to ace the SAT reading portion. There’s no one best strategy for SAT reading, but you can use any number of these to help you score higher.
The best SAT reading test strategies take time to develop and hone. It will be difficult to just expect to ace the reading section of the SAT with only a few days of prep. The best practice, according to our insiders at top universities and colleges, is to start at least three months before the day of the exam so you have enough time to prepare. There are a lot of tricks for SAT reading, it's just up to you to make sure you have enough time to master them.
The SAT reading test is comprised of four types of reading passages:
Let’s break down what exactly these sections are. Literary Narratives are passages that are excerpted from larger stories and novels. Historical Documents are primary source documents that describe an historical event, usually in the form of speeches, letters, essays, and editorials. Social Science passages involve the study of human relations and social interaction, and usually take the form of journal articles related to anthropology, psychology, and other disciplines. Finally, Natural Science passages deal with the study of the natural world, so lots of biology, chemistry, environmental studies, and physics.
Each exam has five passages, total, meaning that you’re guaranteed to see every type of passage and one repeat, which will either be social or natural science. For the first science passage, you’ll see a graph or chart, meaning you’ll have to be at least familiar with some basic data analysis. The second repeated science passage will be a comparison between two shorter passages.
Unlike real life reading, the SAT reading passages can feel simulated and unnatural. They also have a bunch of unnecessary and filler words that you need to be able to selectively ignore, otherwise you’ll run out of time. Instead what you should aim to do is to skim each passage first, then go answer the questions.
What do we mean by skim? It doesn’t mean to go through and read the passages without thinking. It means knowing what to read and what not to. A common strategy that students use all the time is to cross out sentences that seem unnecessary. So, how do we know what sentences are important?
The first and last sentences of paragraphs give us important information and context on what the body of the paragraph is about. Transition words and phrases can also give us a clue that the sentence is important. The SAT reading questions tend to ask about shifts in tone or mood, and a good way to know you have a change is through transition phrases.
The best way to figure out what's important is to just practice a bunch of passages and get used to what you’re noticing and seeing a lot of in practice.
When you read through the passage again, you should start to write short summaries in the margins. These don’t need to be long, in fact they shouldn’t be. About five to ten words that get the gist of what the paragraph is about and enough for you to reference and identify it when you’re answering the questions.
Focus on big ideas, logic, tone, and depending on the passage type, narrative progression. Remember, the most important thing to take from these summaries is the concepts, not technical details like grammar. You should be able to answer the general questions about the passage from your summaries alone.
The SAT also has more specific questions that require more details than your summaries can provide. To answer these, we need to use a strategy involving keywords. Look for keywords in the question that you don’t understand or are shaky on, and look for them in the passage.
It can be tempting to look at the answer choices immediately after reading the question. Instead, try and answer the question as if it were a free response. This is better than simply guessing from the multiple choice options because it actually trains your brain to recognize the patterns that are appearing.
This will also allow you to avoid answer traps that can seem tempting, but can cost you dearly on your exam score. Use your summaries and keywords to help figure out the answers to the questions without using the answer choices. Even if you’re not even close, the logic will help you recognize the correct answer.
Many times on the SAT there are answer choices that might appear to be correct on first glance, but are actually wrong for a variety of different reasons. Here are some common answer traps you’ll encounter on the SAT.
In the SAT reading section, students are given 65 minutes to answer 52 questions. One of the biggest time wasters that students do is constantly looking up at the timer after every single question. The passages are each 10 or 11 questions, so you should pace yourself with about 13 minutes per session, or 1.3 minutes per question. Use these time breaks to pace yourself and check when you finish each section.
This is not a hard rule. It's ok to change the budget and the amount of time you spend on each type differently. If you’re having trouble with science passages but are extremely good at history, try budgeting 16 minutes for science and reducing the history time to 10. Furthermore, if you’re getting way too far behind, consider skipping some questions to try and get back on pace. If you have leftover time, go back to the ones you skip. Or better yet, guess and move on.
You don’t need to answer all the questions correctly to get a 1600. You can generally miss 1 or 2 questions depending on the SAT equating calculations for that specific exam. Equating is oftentimes incorrectly called a curve, but the difference is that its calculated before the exam is taken and compares the difficulty of the questions to the difficulty of past SATs.
Here is an example of equating on the SAT.
As you can see, both 57/58 and 58/58 on the math section would have given a student an 800, or a perfect score.
On the day of the exam, you might forget something, or you might lose your train of thought at the last minute. This is ok. Stay calm, and try to remember what you were thinking and the concept. But, if you absolutely cannot remember, guess and move on. The SAT, as of 2016, no longer has a guessing penalty. You might’ve heard people give you the advice of no to guess, but that’s outdated. Please guess if you don’t know, but only if you absolutely do not know the answer and are taking too long.
A ¼ chance of getting the answer correct is infinitely better than a 0 chance, so don’t be afraid to guess. You might end up pleasantly surprising yourself, and there’s no downside if you don’t know the answer either.
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