The SAT Reading Test isn’t like what you’re used to. These are college-level journal articles on literature, science, and social studies, and you’re asked to identify such mind-bending concepts as the purpose of a phrase or what’s implied by a paragraph. The SAT starts with this test, so you’re also doing this at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.

The SAT Reading Test consists of five short passages, which you read and wrangle for 65 minutes. Here’s what to expect on this test:

  • Four one-part passages: You see four passages, each 500 to 750 words long, and each with 10 to 11 multiple-choice questions.
  • One two-part passage: You see one passage that is split in two parts, also with 10 or 11 multiple-choice questions. These two half-passages typically offer two points of view on the same topic.
  • Content: You get one passage drawn from a work of literature, two passages from science, and one single plus one two-part passage from social studies.
  • Purpose: Passages may present arguments or theories, relate a series of events, describe situations or places, or reveal characters and attitudes.
  • Graphics: Some passages, typically science but sometimes social studies, are accompanied by charts, graphs, or diagrams similar to those that appear in textbooks.

Manage your time with key strategies

As you cut through the SAT Reading, use these simple, tried-and-true strategies to get the most questions right before running out of time on this section.
  1. Work the literature passage last. The literature passage is always the first in the group, but work this passage last. The passage itself may be straightforward, but the questions tend to go deep into things like the motivations of characters and the symbolism of situations — things that take time to read and absorb. Work this time-heavy literature passage after the other, faster passages.
  2. Start with the blurb at the beginning of each passage. These few lines tell you from a high level what’s happening in the passage, whether it’s an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln or a study of migrating geese. This vital context provides simple underlying knowledge to help answer the questions. You will read the whole passage, but not right away.
  3. Start with the line-number questions. These are the questions that send you to a certain line or lines in the passage. Be sure to read a few lines above and below (within the paragraph), but these are the easiest to answer because you usually don’t need to understand the whole passage.

    We’re not talking about questions where you select a line (via line numbers) to support the previous answer.

  4. Next, work the detail questions. These questions challenge you to remember certain details about the passage. Don’t worry about that. Instead, skim the passage for keywords from the question. For example, if the passage is about rearing dogs and the question is about leash training, skim the passage for the keywords “leash training,” and you’ll usually find that only a small part of the passage — like a paragraph — covers that. Then just read that paragraph and answer the question!
  5. End with the inference and main-idea questions. The main-idea question is easy to spot because it asks about the passage as a whole, and the inference question typically asks what could have happened or what’s implied. These demand a full understanding of the entire passage. You get an understanding of the full passage by working the line-number and detail questions first.

Now read the whole passage. It goes much faster and easier because you already understand parts of it.

Of course, inference and main-idea questions may be early among the questions — but that’s okay: You skip them for now, go to the line-number and detail questions, and then come back to the main-idea questions. Answer the questions in the order that works for you.

If you want to try reading the whole passage before taking on the questions, get a timer and try this out on a practice test. If the passage doesn’t make sense to you, you run the risk of getting stuck trying to decipher it. At 65 minutes for the Reading Test, you have about 13 minutes for each passage and its questions. Reading one of these passages to fully understand it can take you upward of 10 minutes! Then you only have a few minutes left for the 10 or 11 questions that follow. Not only do you run out of time, you wear yourself out.

Get each question right, quickly, with more key strategies

It’s all about the strategies, right? With 65 minutes to answer 52 questions, you have slightly over a minute per question, and the topic is not always easy to understand. That’s okay. Use these proven question strategies combined with the preceding, tried-and-true time-management strategies to answer each question correctly:
  1. Cover the answer choices. Use your answer sheet to cover the answer choices. Don’t cheat. Even though the right answer is there, three other trap answers are also there. Dodge these traps and focus on the question.
  2. Answer the question yourself. Read the question, go to the relevant part of the passage (be it line number, keyword, or the whole thing for inference/main idea), and answer the question in your own words.
  3. Cross off the wrong answers. Your answer won’t match the right answer. That’s okay: It doesn’t have to. What will happen is that the other answer choices will be so far out in left field that they couldn’t possibly be correct. Here’s what you do:

a. Move your answer sheet down just a little to expose Choice (A).

Your answer sheet is covering the answers, remember? Now move it down a little to peek at the first answer. Based on your own answer, could this be right? The answer is hardly ever yes. More often it’s either not a chance or I’m not sure. If it’s not a chance, cross it off. If it’s I’m not sure, put a dot next to it. Don’t spend time on it. Either cross it off or dot it, and move on.

b. Move your answer sheet down a little more to expose Choice (B).

Here’s the thing. Sometimes an answer is so clearly, impossibly wrong that you can cross it off as soon as you read it. If you’re not sure, put a dot so you can go back to it. Either way, move quickly to cross off or dot each answer choice.

c. Now check Choices (C) and (D).

One at a time, either cross off or put a dot next to each answer. Typically, you’ll have three crossed off and one dotted, so go with the dot and get to the next question. If you have two answer choices dotted, check them to see which is more likely. If you can’t tell, that’s okay: take a guess, circle the question in the test booklet, and come back to it later with the remaining time.

When does this strategy fail? When you go straight for the answer choices without thinking of your own answer first. What happens then is that you get caught in the trap of wrong answers, where you read each answer and think, “Maybe that’s it,” and spend all this time going back and forth to the passage. Don’t do that.

Also, don’t doubt your own answer when you read the answer choices. Sure, the correct answer knows the depth and detail better than you — but so do the three wrong answers! Trust yourself to answer the question well enough! No matter how far off your answer is, it’ll be close enough to cross off three wrong answers.

No one gets a perfect score on the SAT Reading Test, so don’t kill yourself trying to. It’s okay to miss a question here and there — but it’s not okay to spend five minutes on one question.

About This Article

This article can be found in the category: