If the Reading section of the SAT is challenging for you, you may be wondering what you can do to make sure you’re extra prepared. In this article, I’ve put together our top strategies for gaining confidence and improving your scores.
SAT Reading Strategy #1: Practice Eliminating Wrong Answers
The fundamental strategy of SAT Reading is that there is only one totally correct answer for each question, and you will be able to eliminate all three of the others based on evidence in the passage. This is easier said than done, which is why it’s important to work on eliminating answers in practice questions before taking the SAT for real.
Remember that it’s all in the details! Even with questions that don't ask about literal facts from the passage, you will still be able to find direct evidence for your answer. If an answer choice includes something that doesn’t match up with the information presented in the passage, get rid of it. Sometimes you'll have to look outside the specific lines referenced in the question for additional context.
It's also helpful to answer questions in your own words first if they seem a bit confusing. That way you'll already have a rough idea of what the answer should be and are less likely to be tricked into choosing an answer that is slightly off. Many students get tripped up by answer choices that are plausible interpretations of information in the text but aren’t supported by direct evidence. Don’t let that be you!
SAT Reading Strategy #2: Find a Good Passage Reading Method
Before you take the SAT, it’s important to know how you plan to attack passages so you don’t panic or run out of time on the real test. There are a few different ways you can read passages. You should test out each of them on a timed practice test to see which one feels best for you.
Method #1: Skim the Passage First
This is a method that works well for many people because it allows you to get a strong grasp on the main ideas of the passage before reading the questions (while also not wasting too much time).
The best way to skim a long passage is to read the intro and conclusion paragraphs and then read the first and last sentences of every body paragraph. This way you’ll understand the main points the author is trying to make and be able to answer big picture questions about the passage. If you need to go back and read certain parts again to sort out details, you can do that on a question-by-question basis.
Method #2: Skip Right to the Questions
This might sound like a scary thing to advocate, but it actually works pretty well because the SAT gives you line numbers for most Reading questions. You can answer all the questions about details in the passage and vocabulary in context first. Sometimes the information you need isn't contained in the lines given by the question, so don't be afraid to look outside of them for more context.
Once you've answered a few detail questions, you’ll probably have a good sense of the author’s main argument and be able to answer big picture and inference questions as well. If not, you can always go back and use the skimming process in Method #1 to clear up any confusion.
Method #3: Read the Passage Thoroughly
This is the method that most people use instinctively because it’s what they’ve been taught to do in school. It may work fine for you, but be careful to experiment and verify that you’re not losing too much time by reading closely.
Some people read quickly under pressure but don't actually absorb any information. Make sure you know that you're both a quick AND thorough reader before you decide to use this method.
It's ok to use shortcuts on the SAT as long as you still arrive at the right answer!
Bonus Strategy #2.5: Answer Questions in a Logical Order Based on Your Reading Method
Once you find the method that words best for you, you should use it to inform the order in which you answer questions on the Reading section. If you use Method #1 and skim the passage or use Method #3 and read all the way through first, answer big picture questions first while the main ideas of the passage are still fresh in your mind. If you use Method #2 and skip straight to the questions, answer detail questions first.
SAT Reading Strategy #3: Understand Your Mistakes
If you don’t make the effort to understand your mistakes on practice tests, you’re not going to learn from them, and you won’t improve your scores! Try to avoid saying “oh, I just made a dumb mistake”. Really get specific about why you messed up so you can fix the problem next time. Here are all the different types of mistakes you might come across on the Reading section along with information on how to address the problems associated with each of them:
Types of Mistakes
Type 1: Time Pressure
Did you run out of time before reaching a question or answer it wrong because you were rushing? Try to figure out why you’re so pressed for time. You may need to change your passage reading strategy or do more practice tests to get used to the format.
Type 2: Misunderstanding the Question
Make sure you know what the question is asking before you do ANYTHING else. If questions on the SAT often confuse you, try restating them in your own words before looking for an answer. Don’t fall for the SAT's use of tricky wording.
Type 3: Content Weakness
If you’re making mistakes in areas where you don’t know the material, you’ll need to do some serious additional studying. For the Reading section, content weakness is usually less of an issue. The best way to fix this is to read more challenging materials in your daily life. This will help you practice the reading comprehension skills you're expected to exercise on the SAT.
Type 4: Carelessness
Did you miss an “EXCEPT” in the question? Did you rush and not read carefully enough? Remind yourself to read carefully and special attention to words like “least” or “except”. Try different strategies to reduce the time pressure on yourself and prevent rushing.
As you take practice tests, mark every question that you’re unsure about (even the ones that you end up getting right), and come back to it later so you can analyze why it confused you. This is incredibly productive because it forces you to confront exactly what’s happening to make you lose points. When you get to the real test, you won’t run into any questions that trip you up because you’ll be prepared for everything that once stumped you.
Careless mistakes are the most painful mistakes. Although, judging by the state of the cone, this person was confused and tried to eat the ice cream upside down. In that case it was content weakness.
SAT Reading Strategy #4: Figure Out Which Questions Are Your Problem, and Practice Them
This goes hand in hand with analyzing your mistakes. Even if you know what your mistakes are, you won't be able to correct them until you get into the SAT trenches and start doing practice questions that challenge you in the same ways.
If time is your problem, this might be a matter of taking more timed practice tests to get used to the pressure. If you struggle with specific question types or content areas, it’s a matter of practicing those question types over and over again until you can practically do them with your eyes closed.
This means that you shouldn’t just buy an SAT review book, read it cover to cover, and expect to improve. You need to be specific about your main areas of weakness. Every time you miss or are even slightly unsure about a question on a practice test, circle it so you can come back to it later and figure out which type of question it is. By keeping track of the question types you tend to miss the most, you can detect patterns in your mistakes.
If you want to get your best score ever on SAT Reading, there are a few key strategies you should follow to make the most of your studying:
- Strategy #1: Practice eliminating wrong answers
- Strategy #2: Find a good passage reading method
- Strategy #3: Make sure you understand your mistakes
- Strategy #4: Figure out which questions are your problem and practice them
With these strategies, you should be able to correct any issues you’re having on the reading section and end up with a great score!
Now that you know the top strategies for SAT Reading, you should also check out my article on the best SAT Reading tips for more quick ways to improve your scores.
If you're aiming for a perfect score on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing , take a look at our article detailing how to get an 800.
Trying to decide where to start in terms of SAT Reading practice? Read this article on the best way to practice for the Reading 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.