Test Prep

How to Earn a Top Reading Score on the SAT Essay


There are three scores that you'll receive on the SAT Essay, each evaluating a different skill. While Analysis and Writing may seem self-explanatory, some students don't fully understand what's necessary to earn a top Reading score. Here are the steps you should take to maximize your points by showing that you "understood the passage, including the interplay of central ideas and important details" and have made "an effective use of textual evidence."

Accurately Discuss the Text AND Context

Before you read the full text, make sure you look at the prompt that comes after the source passage. It will look something like this:

"Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author's claim]."

Whatever appears in the "author's claim" part of your prompt is the main idea. Now, when you go back and read the passage, it should be easier to find the primary support for that claim. This will help your Reading score by demonstrating that you understood the main idea of the source text and give you a starting point for the Analysis task of the Essay.

Get Organized with SOAPS

Accurately identifying the main idea will give you a good Reading score. But to get a great Reading score, you'll need to demonstrate that you also comprehend the context of the text. This means showing that you understand the author, the audience, and why the author is speaking or writing.

By using the SOAPS method, you can be sure that you'll note all of the necessary elements of the text.

  • Speaker: The Speaker (or author) is the creator of the text. Don't just list their name, but also their authority, or what makes them believable. If the author has a position that makes what they say important, explain that. Don't simply label the author as "the president"; describe how the president is the leader of the nation and helps determine how the government works. If the author is someone you haven't heard of before, look for the text to provide their credentials.
  • Occasion: The Occasion is the reason why the text was created, and there are often clues in the text that will reveal this. Often, there will be some mention of recent events or an experience that the author had that explains why they wrote or gave the speech. The Occasion helps to put the source text in context and can explain why the author used certain devices or appeals.
  • Audience: The Audience is who the text or speech was originally intended for. Some of the bibliographic material will be helpful here, but you should also look for clues in the text that show what the author thinks their audience believes or values. Often, the text is written for a general audience, which means you can include elements that make the author more credible to a wider group of people.
  • Purpose: The Purpose is the "why" of the text. What is the author's goal in writing this text or giving this speech? Typically SAT Essay source texts are more persuasive than informative; they may inform the reader of some points, but that typically won't be the primary focus of the text. Note that this is separate from the main idea in that Purpose is focused on what the author wants to happen as a result of the essay or speech.
  • Subject: The Subject is the main idea of the text. As discussed earlier, College Board kindly gives you a major hint in the instructions, so you'll already have a good idea of the Subject before your start reading the source text.

From Planning to Paper

With careful reading and SOAPS prep work, you're ready to get writing. Most of your SOAPS points will be included in the introductory paragraph of your essay. Additionally, much of your analysis will be stronger if you incorporate SOAPS observations into your discussion. A little planning and strategizing go a long way toward getting a high Reading score on your SAT Essay. If you pay attention to the evidence in front of you, read carefully, and organize your thoughts, you'll be setting yourself up for success. For more help achieving a top SAT score, check out our book SAT Prep, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for additional study tips.