Test Prep

SAT Reading: Try It This Way Instead

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For the Reading section of the SAT, you don't have the luxury of time. There are no class discussions to help you understand passages, and you don't get rewarded for original, insightful thinking. On the SAT Reading test, you get points for answering questions. Period.


While it would be nice to read for pleasure, the SAT is work, and you need a method for quickly getting the information you need, especially with five 500-750 word passages (about 3,500 words total!) and 52 questions to work through in just over an hour. As we've talked about on our weekly SAT Night Live broadcast, here's our tried-and-true approach to passages on the SAT Reading.

Step 1: Read the Questions Before the Passage

On the SAT, you get the passage first, then the questions. Sounds like you're supposed to read the passage first, right? That's what your well-honed school reading instincts tell you. Don't give in to those instincts!

Treat the passage like what it really is – the source for the answers. Instead of trying to read the whole passage and guess what will be important, let the questions tell you what to focus on.

Step 2: Answer the Specific Questions Before the General Questions

Again, your instincts are going to try and trick you here and try to get you to answer each question in order. Instead, skip anything that asks about the passage as a whole, and look for questions that have line references, or which reference a specific part of the passage.

These cues tell you exactly where to look in the passage for the answer, so find the reference and then read it and the immediately surrounding text. (Context is sometimes critical for correctly answering a question, even when you're only being referred to a single sentence.)

Step 3: Mark up the Passage as You Answer Specific Questions

Read with the question in mind and underline the answer when you see it. This kind of active reading keeps you focused on what matters. Because the specific questions follow the order of the passage, if you work through the passage as you traverse the questions, you'll be reading the passage more-or-less in order and be well prepared for the general questions you put off at the beginning.

Step 4: Go Back to the General Questions

Now that you've read most of, if not the entire passage, the general questions should be a breeze. Nervous you missed something? Take a look at the annotations you made during the specific questions for a refresher.

The key to overcoming the daunting elements of SAT Reading is letting the questions lead. By reading the passage in manageable chunks, you'll focus on the information that counts and spend your time on what matters — the questions. After all, your goal is ultimately to choose the correct answer and boost your SAT Reading score! You can always read more about any topic that piques your interest on the test at a later date, in your own free time.

For more on improving your SAT scores, check out our book Princeton Review SAT Prep, 2020. Plus, head over to our YouTube channel, where we post content regularly to help answer all your test prep and college readiness questions.

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