Are you scoring in the 600-750 range on SAT Reading + Writing? Do you want to raise that score as high as possible—to a perfect 800?
Getting to a perfect SAT Reading test score isn't easy. It'll require perfection. But with hard work and my strategies below, you'll be able to do it. I've consistently scored 800 on Reading on my real SATs, and I know what it takes. Follow my advice, and you'll get a perfect score—or get very close.
Brief note: This article is suited for advanced students already scoring a 600 on SAT Reading or above (this equates to a Reading Test Score of 30+ out of 40). If you're below this range, my "How to Improve your SAT Reading Score to a 600" article is more appropriate for you. Follow the SAT Reading tips in that article, then come back to this one when you've reached a 600.
Also, the SAT has a single 800 Reading + Writing score, combining the individual Reading and Writing test scores. Technically, when I mention a perfect Reading test score, I'm referring to a perfect 40/40 test score, which is essential to getting an 800 Reading and Writing score. In this guide, I'll use 800 and 40 interchangeably to mean a perfect Reading score. We won't talk about Writing here, but if you want to improve your Writing score too, check out my Perfect SAT Writing score guide.
Most guides on the internet on how to score an 800 are pretty low quality. They're often written by people who never scored an 800 themselves. You can tell because their advice is usually vague and not very pragmatic. It's not enough to be reminded of simple Reading tips like "don't forget to guess on every question!"
In contrast, I've written what I believe to be the best guide on getting an 800 available anywhere. I have confidence that these strategies work because I used them myself to score 800 on SAT Reading consistently. They've also worked for thousands of my students at PrepScholar.
In this article, I'm going to discuss why scoring an 800 is a good idea, what it takes to score an 800, and then go into the 11 key SAT Reading strategies so you know how to get a perfect SAT Reading score.
Stick with me—as an advanced student, you probably already know that scoring high is good. But it's important to know why an 800 Reading and Writing score is useful, since this will fuel your motivation to get a high score.
This guide has been updated for the current SAT, so you can be sure my advice works for the test you're about to take.
Final note: in this guide, I talk mainly about getting to an 800. But if your goal is a 700, these strategies still equally apply.
Understand the Stakes: Why an 800 SAT Reading + Writing?
Let's make something clear: a 1550+ on an SAT is equivalent to a perfect 1600. No top college is going to give you more credit for a 1590 than a 1550. You've already crossed their score threshold, and whether you get in now depends on the rest of your application.
So if you're already scoring a 1550, don't waste your time studying trying to get a 1600. You're already set for the top colleges, and it's time to work on the rest of your application.
But if you're scoring a 1540 or below and you want to go to a top 10 college, it's worth your time to push your score up to a 1550 or above. There's a big difference between a 1450 and a 1550, largely because it's easier to get a 1450 (and a lot more applicants do) and a lot harder to get a 1550.
A 1540 places you right around average at Harvard and Princeton, and being average is bad in terms of Ivy League-level admissions, since the admissions rate is typically below 10%.
So why get an 800 on SAT Reading+Writing? Because it helps you compensate for weaknesses in other sections. By and large, schools consider your composite score more so than your individual section scores. If you can get a perfect 40 in SAT Reading, you can get a 39 in SAT Writing (for a total of 790 in Reading + Writing) and a 760 in SAT Math and still be confident about your test scores. This gives you a lot more flexibility.
Harvard's 75th percentile Reading score is 780.
There's another scenario where an 800 in SAT Reading is really important. If you're planning to apply as a humanities or social science major (like English, political science, communications) to a top school.
Here's the reason: college admissions is all about comparisons between applicants. The school wants to admit the best, and you're competing with other people in the same "bucket" as you.
By applying as a humanities/social science major, you're competing against other humanities/social science folks: people for whom SAT Reading is easy. Really easy.
Here are a few examples from schools. For Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and U Chicago, the 75th percentile SAT Reading score is a 770 or above. That means at least 25% of all students at these schools have a 770 in SAT Reading.
But if you can work your way to an 800, you show that you're at an equal level (at least on this metric). Even if it takes you a ton of work, all that matters is the score you achieve at the end.
I'll be honest—SAT Reading wasn't my strong suit in high school. When I started studying, I was scoring around the 700 range. I was always stronger in math and science.
But I learned the tricks of the test, and I developed the strategies below to raise my score to an 800. Now I'm sharing them with you.
Know That You Can Do It
This isn't just some fuzzy feel-good message you see on the back of a Starbucks cup.
I mean, literally, you and every other reasonably intelligent student can score a perfect SAT Reading score.
The reason most people don't is they don't try hard enough or they don't study the right way.
Even if language isn't your strongest suit, or you got a B+ in AP English, you're capable of this.
Because I know that more than anything else, your SAT score is a reflection of how hard you work and how smartly you study.
SAT Reading is Designed to Trick You. You Need to Learn How
Here's why: the SAT is a weird test. When you take it, don't you get the sense that the questions are nothing like what you've seen in school?
I bet you've had this problem: in SAT Reading passages, you often miss questions because of an 'unlucky guess.' You'll try to eliminate a few answer choices, and the remaining answer choices will all sound equally good to you.
Well, you throw up your hands and randomly guess.
This was one of the major issues for myself when I was studying SAT Reading, and I know it affects thousands of my students at PrepScholar.
The SAT is purposely designed this way to confuse you. Literally millions of other students have the exact same problem you do. And the SAT knows this.
Normally in your school's English class, the teacher tells you that all interpretations of the text are valid. You can write an essay about anything you want, and English teachers aren't (usually) allowed to tell you that your opinion is wrong. This is because they can get in trouble for telling you what to think, especially for complex issues like slavery or poverty.
But the SAT has an entirely different problem. It's a national test, which means it needs a level playing field for all students around the country. It needs a solid test to compare students with each other. Every question needs a single, unambiguously, 100% correct answer.
There's only ever one correct answer. Find a way to eliminate three incorrect answers.
Imagine if this weren't the case. Imagine that each reading answer had two answer choices that might each be plausibly correct. When the scores came out, every single student who got the question wrong would complain to the College Board about the test being wrong.
If this were true, the College Board would then have to invalidate the question, which weakens the power of the test.
The College Board wants to avoid this nightmare scenario. Therefore, every single Reading passage question has only one, single correct answer.
But the SAT disguises this fact. It asks questions like:
- The author would most likely agree with which of the following statements?
- The first paragraph primarily serves to:
- In line 20, 'dark' most nearly means:
Notice a pattern here? The SAT always disguises the fact that there's always one unambiguous answer. It tries to MAKE you waver between two or three answer choices that are most likely.
And then you guess randomly.
And then you get it wrong.
You can bet that students fall for this. Millions of times every year.
Students who don't prepare for the SAT in the right way don't appreciate this. But, if you prepare for the SAT in the right way, you'll learn the tricks the SAT plays on you. And you'll raise your score.
The SAT Reading section is full of patterns like these. To improve your score, you just need to:
- Learn the types of questions that the SAT tests, like the one above
- Learn strategies to solve these questions, using skills you already know
- Practice on a lot of questions so you learn from your mistakes
The point is that you can learn these skills, even if you don't consider yourself a good reader or a great English student. I'll go into more detail about exactly how to do this.
One last point: let's make sure we understand how many questions we can miss to score an 800.
What It Takes to Get a Perfect 40 in Reading
If we have a target score in mind, it helps to understand what you need to get that score on the actual test. There are 52 questions in the Reading section, and how many questions you miss determines your scaled score out of 40.
From the Official SAT Practice Tests, I've taken the raw score to scaled score conversion tables from four tests. (If you could use a refresher on how the SAT is scored and how raw scores are calculated, read this.)
|Raw Score||Test 1||Test 2||Test 3||Test 4|
These grading scales are harsh. For tests 2 and 4, if you miss just one question, you get dropped down to a 39. This means your maximum Reading + Writing score is a 790.
For tests 1 and 3, if you miss one question, you're still at a perfect 40, but miss another and you drop down to a 39.
The scoring chart curve depends on the difficulty of the test. The harder the test, the easier the curve. But you can't predict what kind of test you're going to get on test day.
The safest thing to do is to aim for perfection. On every practice test, you need to aim for a perfect raw score for an 800.
Whatever you're scoring now, take note of the difference you need to get to a 800. For example, if you're scoring a 35 raw score, you need to answer six to seven more questions right to get to a perfect 40 and an 800.
As a final example, here's a screenshot from my exact score report from March 2014, showing that I missed one question and earned an 800.
(This was from the previous 2400 version of the SAT, but it had a similar grading scale).
OK—so we've covered why scoring a higher Reading score is important, why you specifically are capable of improving your score, and the raw score you need to get to your target.
Now we'll get into the meat of the article: actionable strategies and reading tips that you should use in your own studying to maximize your score improvement.
Strategies to Get a Perfect SAT Reading Score
Strategy 1: Understand Your High Level Weakness—Time Management or Passage Strategy?
Every student has different flaws in SAT Reading. Some people don't have good strategies for tackling the passage questions. Others don't manage their time correctly and run out of time before getting through all the questions.
Here's how you can figure out which one applies more to you:
- Find an official SAT practice test, and take only the Reading section. We have the complete list of free practice tests here.
- For each section, use a timer and have it count down the 65 minutes for the Reading section. Treat it like a real test.
- If time runs out for that section and you're 100% ready to move on, then move on. If you're not ready to move on, keep on working for as long as you need. For every new answer or answer that you change, mark it with a special note as "Extra Time."
- When you're ready, grade your test using the answer key and score chart, but we want two scores: 1) The Realistic score you got under normal timing conditions, and 2) The Extra Time score. This is why you marked the questions you answered or changed during Extra Time.
Get what we're doing here? By marking which questions you did under Extra Time, we can figure out what score you got if you were given all the time you needed. This will help us figure out where your weaknesses lie.
If you didn't take any extra time, then your Extra Time score is the same as your Realistic score.
Here's a flowchart to help you figure this out:
Was your Extra Time score a 35 or above?
If NO (Extra Time score < 35), then you have strategy and content weaknesses. All the extra time in the world couldn't get you above a 35, so your first angle of attack will be to find your weaknesses and attack them (We'll cover this later).
If YES (Extra Time score > 35), then:
Was your Realistic score a 35 or above?
If NO (Extra Time score > 35, Realistic < 35), then that means you have a difference between your Extra Time score and your Realistic score. If this difference is more than 3 points, then you have some big problems with time management. We need to figure out why this is. Are you using the best passage reading strategy for you? Does it take you too much time to get the answer for each question? Generally, doing a lot of practice questions and learning the most efficient passage strategies will help reduce your time. More on this later.
If YES (both Extra Time and Realistic scores > 35), then you have a really good shot at getting an 800. Compare your Extra Time and Realistic score—if they differed by more than 2 points, then you would benefit from learning how to solve questions more quickly. If not, then you likely can benefit from shoring up on your last content weaknesses and avoiding careless mistakes (more on this strategy later).
Hopefully that makes sense. Typically I see that students have both timing and content issues, but you might find that one is much more dominant for you than the other. For example, if you can get a 40 with extra time, but score a 35 in regular time, you know exactly that you need to work on time management to get a 40.
This type of analysis is so important that it's a central part of my prep program, PrepScholar. When a new student joins, he or she gets a diagnostic that figures out specific strengths and weaknesses. The program then automatically customizes your learning so that you're always studying according to where you can make the most improvement.
No matter what your weakness is, my following strategies will address all weaknesses comprehensively.
Strategy 2: Learn to Eliminate 3 Wrong Answers
This strategy was by far the most effective for me in raising my Reading score. It completely changed the way I viewed passage questions.
I spent some time talking above about how the SAT always has one unambiguous answer. This has a huge implication for the strategy you should use to find the right SAT Reading answer.
Here's the other way to see it: Out of the four answer choices, three of them have something that is totally wrong about them. Only one answer is 100% correct, which means the other three are 100% wrong.
You know how you try to eliminate answer choices, and then end up with a few at the end that all seem equally likely to be correct? "Well, this can work...but then again this could work as well..."
STOP doing that. You're not doing a good enough job of eliminating answer choices. Remember—every single wrong choice can be crossed out for its own reasons.
You need to do a 180 on your approach to Reading questions. Instead, find a reason to eliminate three answer choices. "Can I find a reason to eliminate this answer choice? How about this one?"
You have to learn how to eliminate three answer choices for every single question.
"Great, Allen. But this doesn't tell me anything about how to eliminate answer choices."
Thanks for asking. One thing to remember is that even a single word can make an answer choice wrong. Every single word in each answer choice is put there by the SAT for a reason. If a single word in the answer choice isn't supported by the passage text, you need to eliminate it, even if the rest of the answer sounds good.
There are a few classic wrong answer choices the SAT loves to use. Here's an example question.
For example, let's imagine you just read a passage talking about how human evolution shaped the environment. It gives a few examples. First, it talks about how the transition from earlier species like Homo habilus to neanderthals led to more tool usage like fire, which caused wildfires and shaped the ecology. It then talks about Homo sapiens 40,000 years ago and their overhunting of species like woolly mammoths to extinction.
So then we run into a question asking, "Which of the following best describes the main subject of the passage?" Here are the answer choices:
- A: The transition between Homo habilus and neanderthals
- B: The study of evolution
- C: How the environment shaped human evolution
- D: The plausibility of evolution
- E: The influence of human development on ecology
(We're using five answers for purposes of illustration—the SAT will only have four choices).
As you're reading these answer choices, a few of them probably started sounded really plausible to you.
Surprise! Each of the answers from A-D has something seriously wrong about it. Each one is a classic example of a wrong answer type given by the SAT.
Wrong Answer 1: Too Specific
A: The transition between Homo habilus and neanderthals
This type of wrong answer focuses on a smaller detail in the passage. It's meant to trick you because you might think to yourself, "well, I see this mentioned in the passage, so it's a plausible answer choice."
Wrong! Think to yourself—can this answer choice really describe the entire passage? Can it basically function as the title of this passage? You'll find that it's just way too specific to convey the point of the overall passage.
Wrong Answer 2: Too Broad
B: The study of evolution
This type of wrong answer has the opposite problem—it's way too broad. Yes, theoretically the passage concerns the study of evolution, but only one aspect of it, and especially as it relates to the impact on the environment.
To give another ludicrous example, if you talked to your friend about your cell phone, and he said your main point was about the universe. Yes, you were talking about the universe, but only a tiny fraction of it. This is way too broad.
Wrong Answer 3: Reversed Relationship
C: How the environment shaped human evolution
This wrong answer choice can be tricky because it mentions all the right words. But of course the relationship between those words needs to be correct as well. Here, the relationship is flipped. Students who read too quickly make careless mistakes like these!
Wrong Answer 4: Unrelated Concept
D: The plausibility of evolution
Finally, this kind of wrong answer preys on the tendency of students to overthink the question. If you're passionate about arguing about evolution, this might be a trigger answer since any discussion of evolution becomes a chance to argue about the plausibility of evolution. Of course, this concept will appear nowhere in the passage, but some students just won't be able to resist.
Do you see the point? On the surface, each of the answer choices sounds possibly correct. A less prepared student would think that all of these were plausible answers.
But plausible isn't good enough. The right answer needs to be 100%, totally right. Wrong answers might be off by even one word—you need to eliminate these.
Carry this thought into every SAT Reading passage question you do and I guarantee you will start raising your score.
Strategy 3: Predict the Answer Before Reading the Answer Choices
As we've discussed already, the SAT is designed to goad you into making mistakes by putting really similar answer choices next to each other.
In Strategy 2, we covered the strategy of ruthless, unforgiving elimination of answer choices.
Here's another Strategy that works well for me. Before reading the answer choices, come up with your own answer to the question.
Gaze into your crystal ball and predict the right answer.
This strategy is exactly designed to counteract the trickiness of the answer choices.
If you don't apply this strategy, your thinking process likely meanders like this:
"OK, I just read the question. Answer A is definitely out. B can kind of work. C...it doesn't exactly fit, but I can see how it might work." and so on. By now, you've already fallen into the College Board's trap of muddling the answer choices.
Take the opposite approach. While you're reading the question, come up with your own ideal answer to the question before reading the answer choices. This prevents you from getting biased by the SAT's answer choices, especially the incorrect ones.
If it's a "Big Picture" type question asking about the main point of the passage, answer for yourself, "What would make a good title for this passage?"
If it's an "Inference" question, answer for yourself, "What would the author think about the situation given in the question?"
Even if you can't answer the question straight away—for example, if you have to refer back to the line number to remember what the passage was saying—try to solve the question before looking at the answer choices.
The key here is that the passage must support your answer choice. Every correct answer on SAT passages needs to be justified by the passage—otherwise the answer would be ambiguous, which would cause problems of cancelling questions I referred to earlier.
Warning: this only works if you can read and understand passages well, and if you have prior experience with SAT Reading questions! That's why I don't recommend this strategy yet before you hit a 600 level since you're more likely to come up with the wrong answer choice in your head.
Strategy 4: Experiment With Passage Reading Strategies and Find the Best for You
In your prep for the SAT, you may have read different strategies for how to read a passage and answer questions. Some students read the questions before reading the passage. Others read the passage in detail first.
At your high level, I can't predict which method will work best for you. We're going for perfection, which means that your strategy needs to line up with your strengths and weaknesses perfectly, or else you'll make mistakes or run out of time.
What I will do, however, is go through the most effective methods. You'll then have to figure out through your test data which one leads to the highest score for you.
Passage Method 1: Skim the Passage, Then Read the Questions
This is the most common strategy I recommend to our students, and in my eyes the most effective. I prefer this one myself.
Here it is:
- Skim the passage on the first read through. Don't try to understand every single line, or write notes predicting what the questions will be. Just get a general understanding of the passage. You want to try to finish reading the passage in 3 minutes, if possible.
- Next, go to the questions. If the question refers to a line number, then go back to that line number and understand the text around it.
- If you can't answer a question within 30 seconds, skip it.
My preferred way to tackle a passage: skimming it on the first read-through.
This strategy is a revelation for students who used to close-read a passage and run out of time.
This skimming method works because the questions will ask about far fewer lines than the passage actually contains. For example, lines 5-20 of a reading passage might not be relevant to any question that follows. Therefore, if you spend time trying to deeply understand lines 5-20, you'll be wasting time.
By taking the opposite approach of going back to the passage when you need to refer to it, you guarantee reading efficiency. You're focusing only on the parts of the passage that are important to answering questions.
Critical Skill: You must be able to skim effectively. This means being able to quickly digest a text without having to slowly read every word. If you're not quite good at this yet, practice it on newspaper articles and your homework reading.
Passage Method 2: Read the Questions First and Mark the Passage
This is the second most common strategy and, if used well, as effective as the first method. But it has some pitfalls if you don't do it correctly.
Here's how it goes:
- Before you read the passage, go to the questions and read each one.
- If the question refers to a series of lines, mark those lines on the passage. Take a brief note about the gist of the question.
- Go back to the passage and skim it. When you reach one of your notes, slow down and take more notice of the question.
- Answer the questions.
Here's an example passage that I marked up, with questions coming first. Notice that beyond underlining the phrase referenced in the question, I left clues for myself on what's important to get out of this phrase.
(questions not relating to specific lines aren't shown above)
In the hands of an SAT expert, this is a powerful strategy. Just like Method 1 above, you save time by skipping parts of the passage that aren't asked about. Furthermore, you get a head start on the questions by trying to answer them beforehand.
But there are serious potential pitfalls to this method if you're not careful or prepared enough.
Here's one: when you first read the questions before the passage, you won't have enough time to digest the actual answer choices (nor will they make sense to you). So you have to make your best guess for what the question is asking when you're writing a note along the passage.
In some cases, this can lead you astray. Take this example from above:
When I read the question, I saw that it asked me to find how Woolf characterized the questions I marked in lines 53-57.
The problem is how broad the question is. How something can be characterized gives a wide range of options. Here are a number of plausible characterizations as I read the text:
- important, life-changing ("have to ask ourselves")
- communal ("we")
- detail-oriented ("on what terms?")
- urgent ("here and now")
- progressive and future-looking ("where is it leading us")
There's a lot of flexibility in interpretation here, since the questions really do touch upon all these characterizations.
It turns out "important" and "urgent" are the right interpretations, for answer choice C.
But when I'm reading the passage and see my note, I can waste a lot of time coming up with potential options that aren't even correct answer choices. In the worst case, it can bias me toward the wrong answer.
Critical Skill: You need to have so much experience with the SAT Reading section that you can anticipate what the question is going to ask you for your notes to be helpful. If you're not sure of this, you can easily be led down the wrong track and focus on the wrong aspect of the passage.
Passage Method 3: Read the Passage in Detail, Then Answer Questions
This method is what beginner students usually use by default, because it's what they've been trained to do in school. Some beginner books like Princeton Review and Kaplan also suggest this as a strategy.
It's my least favorite method because there are so many ways for it to go wrong. But for the sake of completeness, I'm listing it here in case it works best for you.
Here's how it goes:
- Read the passage in detail, line by line.
- Take notes to yourself about the main point of each paragraph.
- Answer the questions.
As you might guess, I don't like this method for the following reasons:
- By reading the passage closely, you absorb a lot of details that aren't useful for answering questions.
- The notes you take aren't directed toward helping you answer the questions.
- By interpreting the passage ahead of time, you risk being led astray.
But this might work especially well for you if you're very good at reading for understanding, and if you have so much expertise with the SAT that you can predict what the test is going to ask you about anyway.
Choose Which Works Best for You, Based on Test Data
Because I can't predict which one will work best for you, you need to figure this out yourself. To do this, you need cold, hard data from your test scores.
Try each method on two sample test passages each, and tally up your percentage score for each. If one of them is a clear winner for you, then develop that method further. If there isn't a clear winner, choose the one that feels most comfortable for you.
As part of our PrepScholar program, we give you advanced statistics on your score performance so that you can experiment with methods that work best for you.
Next strategy: Understand your mistakes.
Strategy 5: Understand Every Single Mistake You Make
On the path to perfection, you need to make sure every single one of your weak points is covered. Even just one mistake will knock you down from an 800, as we saw in the score charts above.
The first step is simply to do a ton of practice. If you're studying from free materials or from books, you have access to a lot of practice questions in bulk. As part of our PrepScholar program, we have over 7,000 SAT questions customized to each skill.
The second step—and the more important part—is to be ruthless about understanding your mistakes.
Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed that question, you will make that mistake over and over again.
I've seen students who did 20 practice tests. They've solved over 3,000 questions, but they're still nowhere near a perfect SAT Reading score.
Why? They never understood their mistakes. They just hit their heads against the wall over and over again.
Think of yourself as an exterminator, and your mistakes are cockroaches. You need to eliminate every single one—and find the source of each one—or else the restaurant you work for will be shut down.
Here's what you need to do:
- On every practice test or question set that you take, mark every question that you're even 20% unsure about.
- When you grade your test or quiz, review every single question that you marked, and every incorrect question. This way even if you guessed a question correctly, you'll make sure to review it.
- In a notebook, write down:
#1: the gist of the question
#2: why you missed it, and
#3: what you'll do to avoid that mistake in the future.
Have separate sections by question type (vocab questions, big picture questions, inference questions, etc).
It's not enough to just think about it and move on. It's not enough to just read the answer explanation. You have to think hard about why you specifically failed on this question.
By taking this structured approach to your mistakes, you'll now have a running log of every question you missed, and your reflection on why.
No excuses when it comes to your mistakes.
Always Go Deeper—Why Did You Miss a Reading Question?
Now, what are some common reasons that you missed a question? Don't just say, "I didn't get this question right." That's a cop out.
Always take it one step further—what specifically did you miss, and what do you have to improve in the future?
Here are some examples of common reasons you miss a Reading question, and how you take the analysis one step further:
Elimination: I couldn't eliminate enough incorrect answer choices, or I eliminated the correct answer.
One step further: Why couldn't I eliminate the answer choice during the test? How can I eliminate answer choices like this in the future?
Careless Error: I misread what the question was asking for or answered for the wrong thing.
One step further: Why did I misread the question? What should I do in the future to avoid this?
Vocab: I didn't know what the key word meant.
One step further: What word was this? What is the definition? Are there other words in this question I didn't know?
Get the idea? You're really digging into understanding why you're missing questions.
Yes, this is hard, and it's draining, and it takes work. That's why most students who study ineffectively don't improve.
Many people don't know the right way to study. Of the people who do, very few will diligently apply the right methods, day in, and day out, with discipline.
But you're different. Just by reading this guide, you're already proving that you care more than other students. And if you apply these principles and analyze your mistakes, you'll improve more than other students too.
Reviewing mistakes is so important that in PrepScholar, for every one of our 7,000+ practice questions, we explain in detail how to get the correct answer, and why incorrect answers are wrong. We also point out bait answers so that you can you can learn the tricks that the SAT plays on test takers like you.
Bonus Tip: Re-Solve the Question Before Reading the Answer Explanation
When you're reviewing practice questions, the first thing you probably do is read the answer explanation and at most reflect on it a little.
This is a little too easy. I consider this passive learning—you're not actively engaging with the mistake you made.
Instead, try something different—find the correct answer choice (A-D), but don't look at the explanation. Instead, try to re-solve the question once over again and try to get to the correct answer.
This will often be hard. You couldn't solve it the first time, so why could you solve it the second time around?
But this time, with less time pressure, you might spot a new reason to eliminate the wrong answer choice, or something else will pop up. Something will just "click" for you.
When this happens, what you learned will stick with you for 20 times longer than if you just read an answer explanation. I know this from personal experience. Because you've struggled with it and reached a breakthrough, you retain that information far better than if you just passively absorbed the information.
This is perfect for SAT Reading because you'll often miss a question because of an incorrect interpretation of the text. By forcing yourself to get the right answer, you'll practice getting the correct interpretation of the text. Even better, you'll be scrounging the passage for clues as to why the correct answer is correct, which is exactly what you need in your passage strategy to begin with.
It's too easy to just read an answer explanation and have it go in one ear and out the other. You won't actually learn from your mistake, and you'll make that mistake over and over again.
Treat each wrong question like a puzzle. Struggle with each wrong answer for up to 10 minutes. Only then if you don't get it should you read the answer explanation.
Strategy 6: Find Your Reading Skill Weaknesses and Drill Them
Reading passage questions might look similar, but they actually test very different skills. At PrepScholar we believe the major passage skills to be:
- Big Picture/Main Point
- Little Picture/Detail
- Words and Phrases in Context
- Citing Textual Evidence
- Analyzing Word Choice
- Analyzing Text Structure
- Analyzing Multiple Texts
- Analyzing Quantitative Info
Whew—that's a lot of skills. That's a much more detailed breakdown than what appears at first glance, and what most books and courses offer.
Each of these question types uses different skills in how you read and analyze a passage. They each require a different method of prep and focused practice.
If you're like most students, you're better at some areas in Reading than others. You might be better at getting the Big Picture of a passage, compared to the Inference. Or you might be really strong in vocabulary, but weak in understanding the function of sentences in a passage.
If you're like most students, you also don't have an unlimited amount of time to study. This means for every hour you study for the SAT, it needs to be the most effective hour possible.
In concrete terms, you need to find your greatest areas of improvement and work on those.
Too many students study the 'dumb' way. They just buy a book and read it cover to cover. When they don't improve, they're shocked.
Studying effectively for the SAT isn't like painting a house. You're not trying to cover all your bases with a very thin layer of understanding.
What these students did wrong was they wasted time on subjects they already knew, and they didn't spend enough time on their weaknesses.
Instead, studying effectively for the SAT is like plugging up the holes of a leaky boat. You need to find the biggest hole, and fill it. Then you find the next biggest hole, and you fix that. Soon you'll find that your boat isn't sinking at all.
How does this relate to SAT Reading? You need to find the sub-skills that you're weakest in, and then drill those until you're no longer weak in them. Fix up the biggest holes.
Within reading, you need to figure out whether you have patterns to your mistakes. Is it that you don't get Inference questions? Or maybe you're really weak at interpreting details? Or from strategy 1: is it that you're running out of time in reading passages?
For every question that you miss, you need to identify the type of question it is. When you notice patterns to the questions you miss, you then need to find extra practice for this subskill.
Say you miss a lot of inference questions (this is typically the hardest type of question for students to get). You need to find a way to get focused practice questions for this skill so you can drill your mistakes.
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To improve each skill, you'll take focused lessons dedicated to each skill, with over 20 practice questions per skill. This will train you for your specific area weaknesses, so your time is always spent most effectively to raise your score.
We also force you to focus on understanding your mistakes and learning from them. If you make the same mistake over and over again, we'll call you out on it.
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Strategy 7: Read the Italicized Passage Introduction
This is a quick tip that many students ignore. Each passage comes with an italicized introduction, like this for the passage shown above:
This is a freebie. It gives you context for the entire passage. By knowing that the passage is about "the situation of women in English society," you hit the ground running when you read the very first sentence. This helps a lot.
Sometimes, the introduction alone can give you the answer for the "Big Picture" question about what the main point of the passage is.
Always always make sure that you read this introduction, no matter what passage method you use from Strategy 4.
Strategy 8: Be Interested in the Passage Subject Matter
The SAT has passages about a lot of weird topics. Victorian novels, underwater basket-weaving, and the evolution of gerbils are all fair game.
It's unlikely that you're naturally thrilled about all the subjects you'll read about.
This makes it easy to tune out when you're reading the passage. This makes it harder to answer the questions, which will make you more frustrated.
Instead, adopt this mindset: For the next 10 minutes, I am the world's most passionate person about whatever subject this passage is about. This passage is the most frickin' exciting thing I could be reading right now.
Force yourself to care about what the passage is telling you. Pretend that your life depends on understanding this passage. Maybe you're about to give a lecture on this subject. Or someone's holding a puppy hostage if you don't answer enough questions correctly.
Or your crush turns out to be a huge mid-18th century English literature fan, so you pay rapt attention to every single word.
When I was preparing for the SAT in high school, I took this so far to the extreme that I ended up genuinely fascinated by whatever the passage was telling me about. I remember reading a passage about volcanic activity and thinking, "Wow, I'm really glad I just learned this." (I know this sounds crazy.)
If you stay engaged while reading, you'll understand the passage so much better, and you'll answer questions with way more accuracy.
Strategy 9: Don't Spend Time on Vocab
Vocab typically gets way too much attention from students. It feels good to study vocab flashcards, because it seems like you're making progress. "I studied 1,000 vocab words—this must mean I improved my score!"
This is why other test prep programs love teaching you vocab—it feels like they're teaching you something useful worth your money, but it's not obvious that vocab actually isn't helping your score.
Fortunately, vocab doesn't play a big role in your SAT Reading score anymore. This is especially true in the current SAT. They've completely taken out Sentence Completion questions, and the words that you have to analyze in context are usually pretty common.
Here are examples of words that you need to understand in context in the current SAT:
These are somewhat advanced words, but they're nowhere near the level of the words you used to have to know, like "baroque," "diatribes," "platitudes," and "progenitor."
College Board lowered the emphasis on vocab because of complaints that memorizing esoteric vocab was useless in college success and career success. Instead, it's now asking you to figure out the meaning of more common words the way the author intended.
For example, "plastic" can mean "malleable," "artificial," or "sculptural." Only one of these is right in the context of the passage.
This doesn't mean that vocab is totally useless. For one, SAT Writing still has a few vocab questions (read more about this in my Perfect SAT Writing guide). Furthermore, sometimes knowing the definition of the words in context is helpful.
Here are a few tips on what to learn, and how to learn vocab effectively.
First, I've written a super detailed guide on the best way to study SAT vocabulary. This method makes your studying much more efficient so you retain words longer and engage with the most difficult vocab most often.
Second, you need to take notes on vocab words that you don't know that you see in your practice questions. Don't just focus on the right answers—understand the definition of wrong answers as well.
Only take notes from official SAT tests. It's hard to predict what words the SAT will use, and the SAT doesn't often repeat words from previous tests. But the official free practice tests from the Official Study Guide that we integrate in our PrepScholar program are the best sources.
Strategy 9B: Don't Spend Time Reading Books or Magazines
Over the many years I've studied for tests or run a test prep company, I've heard this advice for SAT Reading: "Read great novels and well-written magazines, like in the New York Times or the Atlantic. This will help with reading comprehension."
I hate this advice.
A test like SAT Reading is very specific. It tests reading comprehension in very specific and formulaic ways, as I showed with all the question types in Strategy 3.
Reading for general leisure does NOT train you effectively for the test. You're not exercising the same skills you need on the test, nor is it goal-driven enough to help you make progress.
This terrible advice is like saying you can train for a swim meet by standing in the shower for longer. Yes, by being in the shower, you'll be in water, just like you will in the swimming pool. But you're not using the same skills.
Yes, if you have a lifetime of strong reading, with thousands of hours of leisure reading experience, you will do better on SAT Reading. But right now, reading general material won't help you efficiently.
Take your extra time and do SAT Reading practice questions instead.
Strategy 10: Finish With Extra Time and Double Check
Your goal at the end of all this work is to get so good at SAT Reading that you solve every question and have extra time left over at the end of the section to recheck your work.
In high school, I was able to finish a Reading section in about 60% of the time allotted. For SAT Reading, this means finishing all passages and 52 questions in 40 minutes.
This means I have a whopping 25 minutes left over to recheck my answers two times over.
How did I get so fast?
#1: I have an efficient reading strategy that works best for me. Namely, I skim the passage and work through the questions afterward.
#2: Through a lot of hard work, I have a strong instinct for the test. I understand the test so well that when I read a question, I can predict the answer within a few seconds. I can rule out wrong answers instantly because they just feel wrong. I've surveyed thousands of questions and understood every single SAT skill deeply to design PrepScholar, so I can typically understand exactly what the College Board is asking.
Kind of like Neo seeing code in The Matrix.
Here are some time benchmarks that might help:
- You should finish skimming a long passage within three minutes.
- Each passage question should take you no more than 30 seconds.
If you can do this well, you'll finish the entire section in 40 minutes, leaving a lot of time to double check.
What's the best way to double check your work? I have a reliable method that I follow:
- Double check any questions you marked that you're unsure of. Try hard to eliminate answer choices. If it's a reading passage question, make sure that the passage supports your answer.
- If I'm 100% sure I'm right on a question, I mark it as such and never look at it again. If I'm not sure, I'll come back to it on the third pass.
- At least two minutes before time's up, I rapidly double check that I bubbled the answers correctly. I try to do this all at once so as not to waste time looking back and forth between the test book and the answer sheet. Go five at a time ("A D B C B") for more speed.
If you notice yourself spending more than 30 seconds on a problem and aren't clear how you'll get to the answer, skip and go to the next question. Even though you need a near perfect raw score for an 800, don't be afraid to skip. You can come back to it later, and for now it's more important to get as many points as possible.
Quick Tip: Bubbling Answers
Here's a bubbling tip that will save you two minutes per section.
When I first started test taking in high school, I did what many students do: after I finished one question, I went to the bubble sheet and filled it in. Then I solved the next question. Finish question 1, bubble in answer 1. Finish question 2, bubble in answer 2. And so forth.
This actually wastes a lot of time. You're distracting yourself between two distinct tasks—solving questions, and bubbling in answers. This costs you time in both mental switching costs and in physically moving your hand and eyes to different areas of the test.
Here's a better method: solve all your questions first in the book, then bubble all of them in at once.
This has several huge advantages: you focus on each task one at a time, rather than switching between two different tasks. You also eliminate careless entry errors, like if you skip question 7 and bubble in question 8's answer into question 7's slot.
By saving just ten seconds per question, you get back 200 seconds on a section that has 20 questions. This is huge.
Note: If you use this strategy, you should already be finishing the section with ample extra time to spare. Otherwise, you might run out of time before you have the chance to bubble in the answer choices all at once.
Strategy 11: Be Ready for Turbulence in Scores
Now you know what it takes to achieve perfection in SAT Reading.
You know the best strategies to use for tackling the passage. You know how to identify your weaknesses and learn from them. You know how to save time, and you know to stay engaged while reading a passage.
Even despite all this, sometimes a passage just won't click with you.
Of all SAT sections, I find that Reading has the most volatile score. How you vibe with a passage has a big impact on your score. You might get a string of questions wrong just because you couldn't really understand what the passage was really about. This doesn't happen on Math or Writing.
No matter what happens, you need to keep calm and keep working.
You might swing from an 800 on one practice test to a 710 on another. Don't let that faze you. Don't start doubting all the hard work you've put in.
Keep a calm head, and, like always, work hard on reviewing your mistakes.
This might even happen on the real SAT. You might get below your target score and be crestfallen.
Pick yourself up. This happens. If you've consistently been getting 800's on practice tests, you should take the test again and try to score higher. Very likely, you will. And because most schools nowadays superscore the SAT, you can combine that new 800 with your other sections for an awesome SAT score.
Those are the main strategies I have for you to improve your SAT Reading score to an 800. If you're scoring above a 600 right now, with hard work and smart studying, you can raise it to a perfect SAT Reading score.
Even though we covered a lot of strategies, the main point is still this: you need to understand where you're falling short, and drill those weaknesses continuously. You need to be thoughtful about your mistakes and leave no mistake ignored.
Here's a recap of all the strategies, in case you want to go back and review any:Strategy 1: Understand Your High Level Weakness: Time Management or Passage Strategy
Strategy 2: Learn to Eliminate 3 Wrong Answers
Strategy 3: Predict the Answer Before Reading the Answer Choices
Strategy 4: Experiment with Passage Reading Strategies and Find the Best for You
Strategy 5: Understand Every Single Mistake You Make
Strategy 6: Find Your Reading Skill Weaknesses and Drill Them
Strategy 7: Read the Italicized Passage Introduction
Strategy 8: Be Interested in the Passage Subject Matter
Strategy 9: DON'T Spend Time on Vocab
Strategy 10: Finish With Extra Time and Double Check
Strategy 11: Be Ready for Turbulence in Scores
Keep reading for more resources on how to boost your SAT score.
We have a lot more useful guides to raise your SAT score.
Read our complete guide to a perfect 1600, written by me, a perfect scorer.
Read our accompanying guide to a 800 on SAT Math.
Learn how to write a perfect-scoring 12 SAT essay, step by step.
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As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT. You can also find Allen on his personal website, Shortform, or the Shortform blog.