SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The Best Way To Practice SAT Reading

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Jul 2, 2015 9:00:00 AM

SAT Reading



Let’s get down to business, to defeat...the SAT Reading. How can you practice for the SAT Reading? Where can you find SAT Reading practice questions? Is it even possible to practice for the Reading section? Read on for the answers to these questions.

feature image credit: Mulan by mickey, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.


A Brief Breakdown Of SAT Reading

To start off, I’ll do a quick runthrough of the structure of SAT Reading. Feel free to skip over it to the Important Tips (™) (not actually trademarked, unless I can trademark things just by typing the symbol, in which case I just trademarked that). Also, a quick disclaimer: all of this information is for the CURRENT SAT. The SAT will be changing, among other things, the format and content of its reading section starting Spring 2016, so there is a whole separate guide for that.

Currently, the SAT Critical Reading section consists of two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section (which will always be section 8 or 9 of 10). Unlike Math and Writing, which have short answer and essay components, SAT Reading is comprised solely of multiple choice questions (each with 5 answer choices); there are no short answer SAT Reading questions.

Each of the three Reading sections contain a mixture of sentence completion questions (when you’re given a sentence with blanks and have to pick the word or words that best complete the sentence) and passage-based reading questions (read the passage or paired passages, answer questions about it/them). In total, there are 19 sentence completion questions and 48 passage-based reading questions. Of course, there's always the possibility that the SAT’s “experimental section” is a 25 minute Critical Reading section as well, which would thrown those numbers off a little. To read more about how the current SAT is structured, click here. For more on the format of SAT Reading, go to our article about what’s actually on SAT Reading.


Now that you have a better idea of what exactly is on SAT Reading, it's time to jump into tips for how to practice the SAT Critical Reading section in the best way.


SAT Reading Practice Tip 1: Use Official SAT Tests

When you are practicing for the SAT, you MUST use actual SAT questions. Why? Because only official SAT questions will test you the same way the test does. Part of what is so tricky about the SAT is that it takes concepts everyone knows (since it's standardized, it has to stick to standard knowledge) and then asks about them in weird ways. Therefore, the best way to ensure you get used to the weird ways of questioning is to do actual SAT questions. As PrepScholar co-founder Allen Cheng has said, “If you train yourself on questions that don't reflect what's on the SAT, you're going to learn the wrong patterns.”

So where do you find official tests? Well, for starters, we've compiled a complete list of all available free complete SAT tests. You can also buy CollegeBoard’s Official SAT Study Guide (the blue book) as well as their online SAT prep program to gain access to additional tests (more on that here). Finally, our very own PrepScholar test prep platform integrates up to 10 offical SAT practice tests as part of your personal study program.


SAT Reading Practice Tip 2: Practice Under Realistic Conditions

When you take the SAT, you’re going to have limited time, materials, and space to spread out (do not underestimate the effect of having to take a test on a tiny desk). You'll be switching back and forth between all the different sections of the test - you can’t just do all the Math questions, then all the Reading questions, then all the Writing questions - which means that you're going to have to get used to switching your brain from Math mode to Reading mode to Writing mode and back again. If doing each section all at once sound like it might be more up your alley, you might want to look into the differences between the SAT and ACT to see if the ACT might be a better match for you.

Bottom line: I recommend not only drilling reading questions and going through entire reading sections in isolation, but also taking least one full-length timed practice test so you can get used to switching from Math to Reading to Writing and back again.

Additionally, make sure to take at least one practice test at the same time of day you would be taking the actual SAT, so that you'll have a good idea of how tired you might be. If you're not a morning person, an 8 am test might mean you don't pay as much attention when reading a passage, especially as compared to studying and practicing Critical Reading questions and passages in the afternoon after school/after work.


SAT Reading Practice Tip 3: Review Your Mistakes Effectively

The most important part of studying that many students skip over is EFFECTIVELY reviewing mistakes. Learning from your mistakes isn’t just a saying - it’s the single most useful tool for improving your test score. Yes, it’s tempting to just look at a question and go “oh, I made a stupid mistake” and just move on (I mean, what person wants to dwell on what she got wrong?). KLAXON! KLAXON! Failing to review your mistakes is the biggest mistake of all. To see real improvement in your score, you really need to get down into the nitty gritty of WHY you made the mistake.

For instance, what kinds of QUESTIONS do you struggle with? Do you tend to have problems with sentence completion questions? Maybe you struggle when answering inference questions on passages (Line 42 primarily suggests that…), or finding the main point of a paragraph. Identifying the types of questions you struggle with most is necessary for creating the most helpful study plan - there's no point in wasting precious prep time practicing questions you already know how to answer.

If your problems are with sentence completion questions, you're in luck - we have an article on how best to tackle these questions on this very blog! Have problems with passage-based questions? I'm in the process of putting up a set of articles that each focus on a particular passage type - start with the already-posted article on vocabulary-in-context questions for now, and keep checking back over the next week for more skills articles. To tide you over until then, brush up your passage reading skills with our article on how best to read the passage on SAT Reading.

What about the kinds of MISTAKES you tend to make? Why did you make them? Don't just stop at surface explanations.

  • Surface reason: oh, I just ran out of time for this question because it was at the end of the section. I totally could have gotten it since it was asking about a detail that was really easy to find.

This response is not helpful, because it doesn't make you learn from what you did wrong (and if you don't learn from your error, there's nothing to stop you from continuing to mess up).

  • Nitty gritty: I ran out of time because I spent a solid minute reading and re-reading this one sentence that really confused me on my first skimming of the passage. How can I avoid this in the future? Make sure that I really only skim on my first read-through or read the questions first and do all the detail ones that don’t rely on having to read the whole passage.

Here's another example of possible reactions to getting a question wrong:

  • Surface reason: There were two answers that seemed like they were sort of right, and I went with the wrong one. Oh well.

A good start, but WHY did you go with the wrong one? Go deeeeeeper.

  • Nitty gritty: I didn’t read the question carefully enough to get what it was really asking. Because of this, when I went back to the passage I wasn’t able to eliminate four wrong answers. Next time, I will really focus on exactly what the question is asking and make sure I only answer the question based on the information in the passage, not based on my outside knowledge.

For even more detailed advice and suggestions on how to make sure you review mistakes in a way that improves your score, read my article on that very topic.


Action Plan

1. Get official tests to practice from. Learn the way the SAT asks you about concepts to avoid tripping up on questions you can answer.

2. Practice under realistic conditions. Don't neglect to do timed reading sections as well as full-length practice tests, so you can get used to switching from Reading to other subject areas and back to Reading again.

3. Mark questions you are unsure of when you are taking the test. This way, you’re not just reviewing questions you got wrong - you’re also reviewing questions you were shaky on.

4. Review your mistakes so you can pinpoint your higher level weaknesses and drill them. If there's a particular type of question you tend to mess up on, focus your studying on that skill type.

5. Do it all over again: never give up [your test prep], never surrender.

body_persistence.jpg'Persistence" in the dictionary by uberof202 ff, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

As you study, your weak areas may shift, so don’t hesitate to adapt your studying plan to fit your current skill level. For instance, if you had planned to spend a week studying each type of passage-based question, but find that after a couple of days you’ve already got the hang of answering questions that ask you to search for details in the passage, don’t waste your time spending five extra days on it - reallocate that time to an area that needs your attention more.

For more guidance and suggestions that might work for you, try reading our article on how to improve your SAT Reading score and how to get a perfect 800 on SAT Reading.


What’s Next

Want more tips on how to study for the SAT? Read our guide to improving your SAT score by 240+ points!

Keep an eye on the PrepScholar blog for articles targeted to each type of SAT Reading Question. Right now, you can read my articles for tips on how to answer sentence completion questions and vocabulary-in-context questions.

What's actually tested on SAT Reading? Find out here!

Interested in adding some tutoring to your test prep? PrepScholar Tutors might be right for you.


Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points? 

Check out our best-in-class online SAT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your SAT score by 240 points or more.

Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this Reading lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.

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