How to Improve Your SAT Reading and Writing Score: 8 Strategies

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Are you struggling with an SAT Reading and Writing score between 300 and 500? You're not alone—hundreds of thousands of students are scoring in this range. But many don't know the best ways to break out of this score range and get a 600 or higher.

Here, we'll discuss how to improve your SAT Reading score specifically and why it's so important to do so. Unlike other fluffy articles out there, we'll be focusing on actionable strategies. Put these 8 strategies to work and I'm confident you'll be able to improve your SAT Reading score.

Brief note: this article is suited for students scoring below 600 on Reading and Writing. If you're already above this range, my perfect SAT Reading score article is more appropriate for you.


In this article, I'm going to discuss why scoring high is a good idea, address what it takes to score a 600, and then go into specific SAT Reading tips and strategies.

Stick with me—this is like building a house. First, you need to lay a good foundation before putting up the walls and pretty windows. In the same vein, we need to understand why you're doing what you're doing before we dive into our top tips and strategies for SAT Reading.

Note that I will talk mainly about getting to 600, but if your goal is 500 or lower, these concepts still equally apply.


Getting a 600 on SAT Reading and Writing: Understand the Stakes

At this SAT score range, improving your low SAT Reading and Writing score to a score in at least the 600 range will dramatically boost your chances of getting into better colleges.

Let's take a popular school, Penn State University, as an example. Its average SAT score is 1265. Its 25th percentile score is 1220, and 75th percentile is 1380. Furthermore, its acceptance rate is 55%. In other words, a little more than half of all applicants are admitted. But the lower your scores, the worse your chances will be of getting in.

Based on our analysis, if you score around 1110, your chances of admission to Penn State drop to 25%, or around 1/4 chance. But if you raise your SAT score to 1370, your chances of admission go up to 75%—that's a much higher chance of admission!

The Reading and Writing section is especially important if you want to apply to humanities or language programs. These programs expect your SAT Writing score to be better than your Math score. So if you score low on this section, they'll likely doubt your ability to do college-level humanities work.

As you can see, it's really worth your time to improve your SAT score. Hour for hour, it's the best thing you can do to raise your chance of getting into college.




Know That You Can Raise Your SAT Reading and Writing Score

This isn't just supposed to be a vague, happy-go-lucky message you see on a juice carton.

I mean, literally, you and every other student can do this.

In my job here at PrepScholar, I've worked with thousands of students scoring in the lower ranges of 300-500 on Reading and Writing.

Time after time, I've seen students beat themselves up over their low scores because they think improving them is impossible. This breaks my heart.

I know that more than anything else, your SAT score is a reflection of how hard you work and how smartly you study. Not your IQ and not your school grades. Not how Mr. Anderson in 10th grade gave you a C on your essay.

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 high school?

You're right; they aren't. The SAT wants to test your college readiness, and part of that is testing whether you can take what you've learned so far and apply that to solve new, unfamiliar problems. But that doesn't mean you can't prepare for the task—I'm here to show you how.


SAT Reading and Writing Is Designed to Trick You — You Need to Learn How

I bet you've had this problem: in SAT Reading and Writing, 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.

This was one of the major issues when I was studying for the SAT, and I know it affects thousands of my students at PrepScholar. Here's the secret: the SAT is purposely designed this way to confuse you.

Normally in English class, the focus is on how to analyze a text and make a compelling argument. You can frequently write an essay about anything you want, as long as you can back it up with evidence. Similarly, grammar is mostly considered as part of constructing a clear argument — your writing makes sense but you probably don't know the exact rules you're following.

The SAT has a unique problem. It's a national test, which means it needs a level playing field for all students around the country. It can only test topics that every high schooler will learn. Since they can't test obscure and challenging topics, the College Board has to find different ways of making some questions more difficult, typically by testing familiar concepts in strange ways. Moreover, every question needs a single, unambiguously, 100% correct answer.

Imagine if each question 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. The College Board would then have to invalidate the question, weakening the power of the test.




SAT Reading Tricks

SAT reading questions disguise the fact that they only have one correct answer by asking questions like:

  1. The author would most likely agree with which of the following statements?
  2. The first paragraph primarily serves to:
  3. In line 20, 'dark' most nearly means:

Notice a pattern here? The phrasing encourages you to waver between two or three answer choices that are most likely.

When it works, you guess randomly. And then you get the question wrong.

Students fall for this trick millions of times every year. But if you learn the tricks the SAT Reading plays on you, you can avoid them.


SAT Writing Tricks

SAT Writing questions are all about topics you've learned in school and probably use every day: subject-verb agreement, run-on sentences, pronoun choice, etc. But, in order to make the test more difficult, the SAT tests these concepts in strange ways. This trips up students who don't prepare but rewards students who understand the test well.

Take a look at this example sentence:

The commissioner, along with his 20 staff members, run a tight campaign against the incumbent.

Can you spot the problem? The error is in subject/verb agreement. The subject of the sentence is commissioner, which is singular, but the verb is "run." Because the subject is singular, it should really be "runs."

If you didn't recognize this, you fell for a classic SAT Writing trap. It purposely confused you with the interrupting phrase, "along with his 20 staff members." You're now picturing 20 people in a campaign—which suggests a plural verb!

The SAT Writing section is full of examples like this, and they get trickier. Nearly every grammar rule is tested in specific ways, and if you don't prepare for these, you're going to do a lot worse than you should.

Here's the good news: this might have been confusing the first time, but the next time you see a question like this, you'll know exactly what to do.

If you prepare for the SAT in the right way, you'll learn the tricks the SAT plays on you. To improve your score, you just need to:

  • Learn the types of questions that the SAT tests
  • 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 good English student. I'll go into more detail about exactly how to do this.




What It Takes to Get a 600 in Reading and Writing

If we have a target score in mind, it helps to understand what you need to get that score on the actual test. We're going to use 600 as our score target, because this is above average and will make you competitive for a lot of schools.

In the past, we could calculate fairly precisely how many questions you needed to get right in order to get a 600. Unfortunately, the adaptive format makes these calculations impossible for the digital SAT, but we can make an estimate based on the previous tests and the paper versions of the current test.

If you're aiming for a 600, I estimate that you need to answer 70%-75% of all questions right. Is this fewer than you thought? A 75% on a grammar test at school might give you a C, but on the SAT it can be more than enough for your target score.

However, remember that the digital SAT is adaptive, so how you perform on the first module determines which questions you'll see on the second. The numbers above are a very rough estimate and you shouldn't count on being able to miss a specific number of questions. Instead, the take away here is that you don't need to get every question right — not even close.


9 Strategies to Improve Your Low SAT Reading and Writing Score

We've covered why raising your SAT reading and writing score is important, why you specifically are capable of improving your score, and roughly how many questions you need to get right to reach your target. Now let's get into actionable strategies that you should use in your own studying to maximize your score improvement.


Strategy 1: Understand All Your Mistakes

Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed a question, you'll make the same mistake over and over again.

Too many students scoring at the 400-600 level on SAT Reading refuse to study their mistakes.

It's hard. I get it. It sucks to stare your mistakes in the face. It's draining to learn difficult concepts you don't readily understand.

So the average student will skip reviewing their mistakes and instead focus on the areas they're already comfortable with. It's like a warm blanket. Their thinking goes like this: "So I'm good at Big Picture questions? I should do more Big Picture problems! They make me feel good about myself."

The result? No score improvement.

You don't want to be like these students. So here's what you need to do instead:

  • On every practice test or question set you take, mark every question you're even just 20% unsure about.

  • When you grade your test or quiz, review every question you marked and every incorrect question. This way even if you guessed a question correctly, you'll make sure to review it.

  • In a log, write the gist of the question, why you missed it, and what you'll do to avoid making that mistake in the future. Have separate sections by subject and sub-topic (e.g., Big Picture, Inference, Vocab, 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 a question.

For Reading questions, you must find a way to eliminate every single incorrect answer. If you were stuck between two answer choices, review your work to figure out why you couldn't eliminate the wrong answer choice.

For Writing questions, figure out what concept the question is testing. Then determine if you missed the question because you didn't know the rule, didn't understand the question, or rushed and picked the wrong answer even though you knew the correct one.

If you don't do this, I guarantee you will not make any progress.

But if you do take this structured approach to your mistakes, you'll now have a running log of every question you missed as well as your reflections on why you made the mistakes you did.




Strategy 2: Know What's REALLY on the Test — And Prepare Accordingly

When you go into battle, you need to know your enemy. The same is true when studying for the SAT — in order to raise your score on the test, you need to know exactly what you'll see on the exam and focus your prep on the most commonly tested subjects.

This may sound intimidating, but the truth is that the SAT asks the same types of questions over and over again. Once you know what to expect on the test, it's actually a lot LESS scary.

First of all, you need to know what the most important grammar rules are and how they work in order to do well on SAT Reading and Writing.

The good news is that certain grammar rules are far more common than others on the SAT. For example, punctuation is the #1 grammar rule on the test—and almost six times more common than modifiers!

What this means is that you can get more bang for your buck if you study correctly. Instead of reading a grammar book cover to cover, you should focus on the most critical grammar rules to improve your score most.

And here's a great listing of the top 12 SAT grammar rules you should know. I won't list them here since the article I linked to is a much better explanation. For more tips on SAT grammar, check out our guide to all essential grammar rules you should know.

Just as important as knowing what to study is knowing what not to study. Many students are tempted to spend a lot of their prep time on vocabulary — it's satisfying to run through flashcards and the SAT apps and games can be fun. But obscure SAT vocab is no longer tested on the exam, with the focus having moved to understanding words in context.

These days, the majority of SAT vocabulary will be words you already know. Take the following example:

Screenshot 2024-03-19 at 1.14.51 PMYou probably already know most, if not all, of these words! Rather than requiring you to know a lot of obscure words, the key to this question lies in understanding how a word is used in context.

Here are some more examples of words you'll need to understand in context for the SAT:

  • ambivalent
  • convey
  • lament
  • postulate

These are somewhat advanced words, but they're nowhere near the level of the words you used to have to know, such as "apportionment" and "expropriated."

If you have a pretty typical vocabulary of an American teen, there will be at most two to three SAT Reading questions that'll really stretch your vocabulary. But like I mentioned above, you don't need to get every question right.




Strategy 3: Find Your Skill Weaknesses and Drill Them

If you're like most students, you're better at some areas on SAT Reading and Writing than you are at others. You might know pronouns really well, for instance, but you're not very strong at big picture questions. Or maybe you're really good at vocab in context but have no idea what a faulty modifier is.

You don't have an unlimited amount of time to study. You have a lot of schoolwork, you might be an athlete or have intense extracurriculars, and you've got friends to hang out with. This means that 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 prep book and read it cover to cover. When they don't improve their SAT scores, they're shocked.

I'm not.

Studying effectively for the SAT isn't like painting a house. You're not trying to cover your bases with a thin layer of understanding.

What these students did wrong was that they wasted time on subjects they already knew well—and didn't spend enough time improving their weak spots.

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 fix that. Soon you'll find that your boat isn't sinking at all.

How does this relate to SAT Reading and Writing? You need to pinpoint the skills you're having most trouble with and then do enough practice questions until they're no longer a weakness. Fixing up the biggest holes.

For every Reading and Writing question you miss, you have to identify the type of question it is and why you missed it. Once you notice patterns to the questions you miss, you can find extra practice for question types that are difficult for you.

Say you miss a lot of questions related to commas (a very common SAT Writing mistake). You need to find a way to get lesson material to teach yourself the main concepts you're forgetting. You then need to find more practice questions for this skill so you can drill your mistakes. This is by far the best way to improve your SAT score.




Strategy 4: Only Use High-Quality Practice Materials

SAT Reading and Writing are very specific in how they work and how their answers are phrased. If you want to improve your score, you have to use realistic SAT Reading and Writing sources. If you don't, you'll develop bad habits and accidentally train the wrong skills.

Think about it like this: say you're trying out for the baseball team. Instead of practicing with real baseballs, you decide to practice with Wiffle balls. It's a lot cheaper and easier, and hitting the ball makes you feel good about your skills.

You train and train and train with a Wiffle ball. You understand how the Wiffle ball curves when it's thrown, how to hit it, and how to throw it.

Eventually, you try out for the baseball team. A pitch comes, but it's way faster than you've ever practiced with. It doesn't curve like a Wiffle ball does.

Swing, and a miss.

You've trained with the wrong thing, and now you're totally unprepared for baseball.

SAT Reading works the exact same way. Train with poorly written tests, and you'll develop bad habits and unhelpful strategies.

Far and away, the best sources for SAT Reading passages are official SAT practice tests. This is why we include these official practice tests in our SAT prep program—so that we can accurately gauge your progress and provide you with quality training.

The problem is that there aren't that many official SAT practice tests available. Because you want to use these to train your endurance for the full-length test, it's best to try to conserve them.

This means that to get enough SAT Reading and Writing practice, you'll need to use other materials, too.

Our first suggestion is to use prep resources specifically geared toward the SAT. Be careful, though, since test-prep companies tend to release poor-quality passages and questions — and many have not updated their questions to the new digital passage format. Check out our picks for the best SAT prep books here.

To write realistic questions, you need to understand the SAT inside and out. That's why we've created what I believe are the highest quality Reading questions available anywhere. Here's what we've done:

  • We've deconstructed every official SAT practice test—question by question, answer by answer. We've statistically studied every question type on the test and understand exactly how questions are phrased and how wrong answer choices are constructed.

  • As head of product, I'm responsible for content quality. I hire only the most qualified content writers to craft our test content. This means people who got perfect SAT scores, who have hundreds of hours of SAT teaching experience, and who graduated from Ivy League schools.

All of this results in the most realistic, highest quality SAT Reading questions.

Even if you don't use PrepScholar, make sure that whatever resource you do use undergoes the same scrutiny we exercise. If you're not sure how helpful something is or notice lots of negative reviews, it's best to avoid it.




Strategy 5: Learn to Eliminate the 3 Wrong Answers

The most important principle of SAT Reading and Writing is that there is always one — and only one — unambiguously correct answer. This has a huge implication for the strategy you should use to find the right answer.

Here's the other way to see it: out of the four answer choices, three of them have something that is wrong about them. Only one answer is 100% correct.

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, you're not doing a good enough job of eliminating answer choices. Remember, every single wrong choice can be crossed out for some reason.

"Great, Allen. But this doesn't tell me anything about how to eliminate answer choices."

Thanks for asking. There are a few classic wrong answer choices the SAT loves to use. Let's look at an example.

Imagine you just read a passage that focuses on 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, resulting in wildfires and shaping the ecology. It then discusses Homo sapiens 40,000 years ago and their overhunting of species, such as woolly mammoths, to extinction.

After, we run into a question asking, "Which of the following best describes the main subject of the passage?" Here are our possible 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

Note that we're using five answer choices for illustration purposes only—in reality, the SAT only has four answer choices per Reading question.

As you're reading these answers, a few of them probably started to sound really plausible to you, but in fact each of the answers from A to D has something seriously wrong with it. Each one is a classic example of a wrong answer type given by the SAT. Let's look at just what these are.


Wrong Answer 1 (A): 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 and make you think to yourself, "Well, I saw this mentioned in the passage, so it’s a plausible answer choice."

Wrong! Ask yourself: can this answer choice really describe the entire passage? Can it basically function as the title of this passage?

In the end, you’ll find that it’s just way too specific to convey the point of the overall passage.


Wrong Answer 2 (B): Too Broad

B: The study of evolution

This type of wrong answer has the opposite problem as the one above in that it’s way too broad. While theoretically the passage concerns the study of evolution, it focuses on just one aspect of it, especially as it relates to the impact of evolution on the environment.

To give another ludicrous example, say you talked to your friend about your cell phone and he said your main point was the universe. Yes, you were talking about the universe in that you both live in the universe, but this was clearly only a tiny fraction of your conversation.

In short, answer choice B is simply far too general to be a good answer to this question.


Wrong Answer 3 (C): 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 these words needs to be correct as well. Here, the relationship is flipped: the passage focuses on how human evolution shaped the environment, not the other way around.

Students who read too quickly often make careless mistakes like these!


Wrong Answer 4 (D): Unrelated Concept

D: The plausibility of evolution

Finally, this kind of wrong answer preys on students' tendency to overthink questions. If you’re passionate about arguing about evolution, for example, this answer might be a trigger answer for you since any discussion concerning evolution becomes a chance to argue about its plausibility.

Of course, even though this concept appears nowhere in the passage, some students just aren't able to resist choosing this answer choice.


Do you see the point? On the surface, each answer choice sounds as though it could possibly be correct. But possibly isn't good enough. The right answer must be 100%, totally right. Wrong answers might be off by even just one word, so you need to know how to eliminate these.

Carry this thought into every SAT Reading passage question you do.




Strategy 6: Skip the Most Difficult, Time-Consuming Questions

Here's an easy strategy most students don't do enough.

Remember what I said above about not needing to get every question right? Based on past tests and the current scoring scale, we estimate you can miss up to 12 questions (out of 54) and still score a 600.

What does this mean? You can completely completely skip the hardest questions and still hit your goal. That gives you way more time on more straightforward questions - the questions you have a good chance of getting right. If you're usually pressed for time on SAT Reading and Writing, this will be a huge help.

In each module, you get 32 minutes to answer 27 reading and writing questions. This can be hard for students to get through - it's just 71 seconds to answer each question.

The average student will try to push through all the questions. "I've got to get through them all, since I've got a shot at getting each question right," they think. Along the way, they'll probably rush and make careless mistakes on questions they SHOULD have gotten right. And then they spend 5 minutes on the last question, making no progress and wasting time.

But trying to get every single question right is the wrong approach.

Here's what I suggest instead. Try each question, but skip it after 30 seconds if you're still not getting anywhere. It's not always clear if Reading questions are ordered by difficulty, since you can't tell right away which questions will be harder or easier for you. You should try out each one but move on if it's costing you too much time.

By doing this, you can raise your time per easy/medium question to 100 seconds per question or more. This is huge! It's a 30% boost to the time you get per question. As a result, this raises your overall chances of getting easy/medium questions right.

And the questions you skipped? They're so hard you're honestly better off not even trying them. These questions are meant for 700-800 scorers. If you get to 600, you have the right to try them out—but not before you get to 600.



Strategy 7: Don't Pick Answer Choices Based on "Sounding Weird"

The SAT tests proper English grammar very strictly. Imagine that it's a 60-year-old English professor who speaks like he came from 1850. A lot of the language on the test will sound strange to you because it's never how you would phrase sentences yourself in real life.

Here's an example:

The students for whom the scholarships were designed left the school voluntarily for health reasons.

This sentence is 100% grammatically correct. But you probably wouldn't talk like this with your friends or teachers.

Students often fall for weird-sounding language because it seems as if there must be an error. But the SAT (sneaky like it always is) knows this about you. And it designs traps for students to fall into.

Here's what you should do instead. For every wrong answer choice you eliminate, you should justify to yourself clearly why you are eliminating that answer choice.


Strategy 8: Guess on Every Question You Don't Know

You might already know this one, but if you don't, you're about to earn some serious points.

You may have heard that the SAT penalizes you for wrong answers, but that is no longer true. (In fact, it hasn't been for quite a while.)

There is no penalty for getting a wrong answer, so there's no reason to leave any question blank.

Before you finish the section, make sure every question has an answer filled in. On the review page, every numbered box should be solid blue, like so:

Screenshot 2024-03-06 at 2.16.59 PM

For every question you're unsure about, make sure you guess as best you can. If you can eliminate just one answer choice, that gives you a much better shot at getting it right.

If you have no idea, just guess! You have a 25% chance of getting it right.

Most people know this strategy already, so if you don't do this, you're at a SERIOUS disadvantage. This is especially important when you're skipping some questions - if you don't guess on the questions, you'll miss out on free points!


Overview: Tips for Raising Your Low SAT Reading and Writing Score

Those are the main strategies you should use to improve your SAT Reading score. If you're scoring around 350, you can use these to get to 500. If you're scoring around 470, boost your score to 600. I guarantee it—as long as you put in the right amount of work and study as I suggest above, you're bound to hit your goal score on test day.

The main point, though, is this: you need to understand where you're falling short and drill those weaknesses continuously. You also need to be thoughtful about your mistakes and leave no mistake ignored.

This is really important for your future. Make sure you give SAT prep the attention it deserves—before it's too late and you get a rejection letter you didn't want.



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About the Author
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Allen Cheng

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.

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