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Spark Admissions Best SAT Reading Tips

A closeup image of a pencil laying on a multiple-choice answer form.

Perhaps no part of the college application process feels as daunting or mysterious as the SAT. While students’ high school GPAs, extracurricular activities, volunteering, and leadership are all things they have power over, the rigid testing requirements and opaque scoring system make the SAT feel like something that’s totally beyond students’ abilities to control.

And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The SAT is just like any other test! If you familiarize yourself with the content, study the material, ask for help on the parts of the test with which you’re struggling, and go in with a plan, you can do fantastically on the SAT.

While every student’s study plan is different for the SAT, there are numerous strategies that are useful for anyone to keep in mind. Read on to learn about some of our best tips and tricks to feel prepared for the SAT Reading section and achieve the score you want.

Format of SAT Reading Test

When the new SAT debuted in March 2016, it changed the test format from three sections (Math, Reading, and Writing) back to two (Reading and Writing). The SAT Math section remained more or less the same, but the change necessitated the combining of the old SAT Reading and SAT Writing sections.

This new section, officially called “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing,” combines both the critical reading passages of the old SAT Reading and the grammar and sentence improvement questions of the old SAT Writing.

Basic SAT Reading Tips

Become Familiar with the Question Types

The first thing to know is that not all the SAT Reading section questions are the same, and knowing how to recognize each type will help immensely as you develop your test-taking skills. Some questions ask about small details from the passage that you just need to find. Others are bigger, interpretive questions, which range from asking about the purpose of a single paragraph to the main point of the overall piece. Figuring out which types of questions come more easily to you and which require more effort is essential to a strong test strategy.

Manage Your Time

One of the biggest challenges about the SAT Reading section is reading passages fast enough that you have time to answer the questions, but slowly enough that you understand the meaning and know where to look for the answers. Skimming might seem like it’ll speed you up, but you’ll end up having to re-read every paragraph to answer the questions and may wind up without enough time to finish.

This process will require patience (and SAT practice tests!), but in general, you should be reading slowly enough that you understand what’s happening but not so slowly that you’re memorizing every detail. If you realize you don’t have a general idea of what you’re reading or who the character who’s speaking is, you’re going too fast. If you find yourself pondering the meaning of an individual word or phrase, you’re going too slowly.

Answer Easier Questions First

Another thing to bear in mind as you prepare for the SAT Reading section is that you don’t need to answer the questions in order! In fact, answering reading questions can actually help you better understand the entire passage, so don’t be afraid to skip a question if you don’t remember that part of the passage. As you answer the easier questions, you’ll reinforce your understanding of the main point of the passage—and you’ll get a sense of what the College Board thinks is important! Then, you can circle back and tackle some of the harder questions. (Just make sure you keep your place in the test booklet!)

Eliminate Wrong Answer Choices

Sometimes knowing something is wrong is as useful as knowing something is right. Because the SAT Reading section is all multiple-choice questions, you can frequently eliminate some clearly wrong answers. For instance, very often a question will have two “no” answers and two “yes” ones. If you’re sure the answer is no, you don’t even have to look at the yes answers—just focus on figuring out which of the rationales for “no” makes more sense.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

The single most important thing you can do to get a good score on the SAT Reading section is to practice. Don’t rely on your good grades in English or language tests, or even on your PSAT score. There are lots of SAT prep materials out there, including from the College Board itself, as well as many excellent tutors, workshops, boot camps, and courses that you can take.

Your standardized test scores are not a measure of your intelligence; they’re a measure of your preparation for the test. The more test prep you do, the better your scores will be.

Read on Your Own Time

At the same time, reading in school and on your own can really help your SAT score as well. By improving your overall reading comprehension and critical reading skills, you’ll better prepare yourself to tackle the interpretive questions on the SAT Reading section.

Furthermore, because the SAT Reading section draws on passages from literature, social studies, and science, it’s a good idea to diversify your own reading a little bit. Do you read a lot of novels? Maybe read some history or popular science! More of a STEM student? Add some fiction to your repertoire. Developing your reading skills outside the SAT will definitely help your score on test day.

Lastly, creating and working with flashcards can help too, by expanding your vocabulary. While the SAT test no longer has analogies and synonyms on it, which were pure vocabulary tests, having a good vocabulary can often make this section easier for students.

Strategies to Improve Your SAT Reading Score

Once you’ve mastered the basic skills listed above, consider some of the following reading strategies to raise your SAT Reading score even higher. Even high scorers can strategize more about how they’re approaching the reading section. You might even get a perfect score!

Take Notes as You Read

For some students, reading passages actively—underlining important characters or details, summarizing each paragraph, circling potential vocabulary words—helps them tackle the passage questions more efficiently. There’s no better path to finding all the correct answers than truly understanding what the passage is saying.

At the same time, learning to anticipate which words and details the SAT is likely to ask about can be a huge help, too. Keep an eye out for words that are used contrary to their usual meaning, passages that provide concrete evidence, and highly descriptive sentences. These are likely to be parts of the passage that the test will ask you about.

Read the Questions First

On the other hand, some students take an entirely different approach! If you feel like you’re getting bogged down in your practice tests just reading the passage, because you feel like you need to remember everything, consider skimming the questions first. This strategy will alert you to some of the key questions to keep in mind, and it’ll help you realize what you don’t need to remember as well, which can help you read more quickly.

As you look through the questions, consider also marking up the passage. For instance, if a question asks about Lines 91-97 or the use of a word in Line 12, star or underline those parts so you’ll pay close attention to them when you go back and read the entire passage.

Answer Questions Yourself

Another critical reading strategy is to pause before moving on to the answers. That is, after reading the question, think about how you would answer it, based on your understanding of the passage. Then, read Answer A. Does it accord with your own answer? If not, why? What about Answer B? While this strategy won’t work every time, it can provide an extremely valuable check if you’re prone to letting the answer choices influence your thinking.

Take Dual Passages One at a Time

At least one reading passage on your exam is guaranteed to be a “dual passage,” which means the thing you need to read will actually be two, related reading passages. The questions for a dual passage will include questions about each individual passage as well as the relationship between the passages and their authors’ intentions.

For dual passages, it’s often smart to focus on Passage 1 first. You’ll likely need to skip some questions that relate to Passage 2, but remember, there’s no penalty for jumping around on the answer sheet! This way, you’ll master each passage individually, then consider them together.

Make Smart Guesses

One feature of the new SAT is that it has no guessing penalty for any section. That means a wrong answer and a blank answer are counted equally, which means you should nearly always guess. After all, even a random guess has a 20% chance of being right, whereas you can’t ever get credit for a blank answer. For this reason, it often makes sense to try to narrow down the answer choices and make an educated guess.

At the same time, don’t let yourself get bogged down in a question that’s too hard. Spending a significant amount of time on a single question only to end up guessing might prevent you from getting to a question for which you know the right answer for sure.

Identify Mistakes and Weakness

Practicing won’t be enough if you don’t go back and figure out what you did wrong. Good test prep materials will have an explanation alongside the correct answer. These explanations are crucial study aids for understanding how the SAT thinks about the reading section. Don’t just mark the practice test and move on—figure out why you were wrong.

The more of this you do, the more you’ll start to realize where your weaknesses are and focus on doing the practice questions that pose the most difficulty for you. A good tutor will help you do this by marking your practice sections and evaluating the results.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Inevitably, you will come to a question, read the answers, and think, But none of these are correct! In this moment, it can be easy to panic. Did you misunderstand the passage? How could any of these be the right answer? When this happens (and it will), take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’ve got this. Use the strategies you’ve learned through your test prep and practice, and figure out which answer is most likely to be correct. Don’t let yourself get hung up on a single question; just keep calm and carry on.

Final Thoughts

Committing to regular SAT Reading practice is the single best way to get a great score. As you study, you’ll learn what types of reading questions are easier or more difficult for you, gain comfort and familiarity with different genres, learn key grammatical rules, and improve your reading speed and overall time management.

Each of these factors will be crucial on test day, so if you master them ahead of time, you’ll have set yourself up for success!

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