To do well on the SAT Reading section, you'll need to prepare yourself to understand the material and pace yourself according to the structure of the test. In this article, I’ll take you through 10 quick tips for improving your Reading performance!
SAT Passage Reading Tips
Tip #1: Skim Strategically (Or Start with the Questions!)
Many students make the mistake of thinking they need to read passages on the SAT Reading section closely right off the bat. Actually, it’s often beneficial to skim the passage first to get the gist of the author’s argument.
The best way to skim is to read the introduction and conclusion paragraphs and the first and last sentences of every body paragraph. That way you can be sure you’re not missing any main ideas. This will save you a lot of time because most passage-based questions on the SAT give you line numbers to reference. You'll know exactly where to look for the answers (or at least where to start).
You might even consider skipping the passage altogether at first and just heading straight for the questions. You can answer all the questions about specific details in the passage first (since they give you line numbers). By the time you answer all the detail questions, you'll have a good sense of the main ideas of the passage.
If not you can always go back and skim the passage (paying special attention to the introduction and conclusion paragraphs) to find the answers to big picture questions.
Tip #2: Read the Passage Intros
You know those little preliminary notes in italics before each passage on the SAT? They’re useful if you take the time to read them.
Passage intros give you context for what you’re reading so you don’t just plunge into it without understanding anything about who wrote it or when it was written. This can be helpful in gaining a stronger understanding of the basis for the author’s argument and its historical context.
Here's an example:
The following passage is an excerpt from a 1909 novel. Georgia, the main character, is a reporter in an otherwise all-male newsroom.
Reading this introduction gives you a lot of information that you might otherwise have to infer. You now know the setting of the passage as well as the main character's name and her position in society. With this background in hand, you can get your bearings before you start reading and be more confident about your interpretation.
Tip #3: Force Yourself to Engage with the Passages
If you go into the SAT Reading section assuming that the stuff you have to read is boring, it will be much more difficult to absorb information. As challenging as this may be, try to get yourself genuinely interested in what you’re reading. Think of each passage as a learning experience rather than a slog that you are forced to endure to answer questions.
Some of the passages on the SAT are interesting if you allow yourself to see them in that light. Your reading experience will be faster, less painful, and more easily absorbed if you have a positive attitude about it!
Overall SAT Reading Tips
Tip #4: Put It in Your Own Words First
If you encounter a confusing question, it's often helpful to rephrase it in your own words before attempting to answer it. The SAT sometimes words questions in strange ways that don't make sense at first glance, although this is less common on the new version of the test. Try to restate the question in a way that is easier for you to understand before moving on to the answer choices.
The SAT also dabbles in confusing answer choices that might make you second guess yourself. A good way to avoid this is to think of an answer in your own words first. If you already have an answer in mind, it’s a lot easier to keep your focus in the midst of tricky choices. Think about how you would answer the question if it were open response based on what you read in the passage.
Tip #5: Use Connotation and Keywords
This is very important if you want to be able to answer questions you’re unsure about. Look for indications of positive or negative connotation, words that point to contrast (like "rather than" or "however"), and strong adjectives in the sentence or passage you are referencing. These clues will help you eliminate at least a couple of incorrect answers even if you’re not sure what the correct answer is yet.
Here's an example:
The passage indicates that the assumption made by gift-givers in lines 41-44 may be
Here are the lines we need to look at for this question:
"What is surprising is that gift-givers have considerable experience acting as both gift-givers and gift-recipients, but nevertheless tend to overspend each time they set out to purchase a meaningful gift. In the present research, we propose a unique psychological explanation for this overspending problem—i.e., that gift-givers equate how much they spend with how much recipients will appreciate the gift (the more expensive the gift, the stronger a gift-recipient’s feelings of appreciation)."
From reading this paragraph, we know that gift-givers tend to "overspend" on meaningful gifts. That means that their ideas about gift-giving are misguided. The word that describes their assumption will have a negative connotation. That means Choice D can be eliminated - the whole point is that the assumption is NOT substantiated.
However, there is also nothing to indicate malicious intent or illogical thinking on the part of gift-givers. Choices A and B, "insincere" and "unreasonable" can be eliminated as well. The passage is talking about presenting research, so A and B are unsuitable because they are too subjective. "Incorrect" is the only choice that gels with the scientific tone of the passage and the conclusion it draws about the assumptions of gift-givers.
Tip #6: Eliminate Incorrect Answers
Rather than trying to find the correct answer on a difficult question, you should focus on eliminating incorrect answers. Every question is about finding ways to get rid of answers that don’t fit. This the fundamental rule of SAT reading: every question has one unequivocally correct answer, and all three other potential answers can be eliminated based on evidence.
If there’s even one word that doesn’t match up with the information provided in the passage, you can cross out that answer. It’s much easier to throw away the duds until you’re left with only the best choice than to pick the best choice out right away. The correct answer might not be exactly what you’re expecting, but you KNOW that each incorrect answer will have something completely wrong with it. See our article on strategies for getting an 800 on SAT Reading for details on the different types of incorrect answers and how to spot them.
Tip #7: Skip Difficult Questions
It’s easy to get stuck on difficult questions if you aren’t paying attention to time management. The strict time constraints on the SAT meant that it's crucial to skip questions when you've spent more than 30 seconds unsuccessfully searching for the answer.
Answer all the easy questions first, then come back to tougher ones at the end. You can circle all the questions you skip as you go along to make them easier to pick out on your second pass through the test. This way you won’t miss any easy points later on in the section.
Tip #8: Double Check Your Answers
If you have extra time at the end (hopefully if you follow Tip #1 and Tip #6 you will!) you should use it to check over your answers. Nothing is more frustrating than getting a question wrong due to carelessness.
Something that you can do to help yourself in this process is to circle questions you're unsure about along the way. This means you'll only check the answers that you need to check instead of going over questions that you were sure about in the first place.
Always dubble check your bubbles.
Tip #9: Bubble in Your Answers at the End
Waiting to bubble in your answers until you finish a section can save you a lot of time on the test. You won’t constantly be looking back and forth between the booklet and the answer sheet. Mark your answers in the test booklet first, and when you’re done you can go through and fill in all the bubbles at once.
This tip is conditional - it’s best to do this only if you already know you can finish the section with enough time to spare. If you know you can finish the Reading section with at least five minutes left on the clock, you should be able to benefit from this strategy.
Tip #10: Don’t Get Discouraged
Psyching yourself out, whether because you ran out of time or because you came across a question that totally stumped you, can only hurt you. Pause to take a deep breath and calm your nerves before moving onto the next question with confidence!
Tip, Tip, Hooray!
- Skim strategically or read the questions first
- Read the italicized introductions
- Get interested in the material
For the reading section overall....
- Put it in your own words first
- Use connotation and keywords
- Eliminate incorrect answers
- Skip difficult questions
- Double check your answers
- Do all your bubbling at the end
- Don’t get discouraged
Now you know some of the best ways to quickly improve your score on the SAT Critical Reading section! Remember, though, tips can only get you so far - try and focus on more in-depth strategies first, then use this advice to take your scores to the next level.
Check out these six strategies to improve low SAT Reading scores. If you think you're ready to take it to the next level, you should also read our article on how to get an 800 on the SAT Reading and Writing section.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.