When reading an SAT Critical Reading passage, underline the one or two most important parts of each paragraph. Don’t worry about absorbing every detail of the passage. Just read each paragraph quickly and underline the most important parts.
Even if you are not sure what is truly important, always be sure to underline SOMETHING in each paragraph. Underlining keeps you focused on the passage as well as marks information that can help you answer the questions. Most importantly, the more you practice underlining, the better your reading comprehension will become and, believe it or not, the faster you will actually read.
Re-read the underlined parts of Long Passages. Before answering the questions, quickly scan your underlining to give yourself a mental map of the passage. This quick and easy strategy really helps put the various parts of the passage in context.
Tip: Always read the italicized introduction and any asterisked (*) notes. The introduction and notes are very helpful in giving context to the passage and filling in extra details that help you answer the questions more easily.
From my SAT training guide: SAT Unlocked.
Before reading a passage, mark question line numbers and circle key words.
Quickly scan the passage reading questions for line numbers (shown in parentheses) and mark these numbers with a check or bracket in the margin next to the appropriate line(s) in passage. Line number questions also often ask about “key words” (shown in quotes in the question). If you see a “key word” in quotes in a line number question, circle that same word in the passage.
Some SAT prep folks tell you to read the the passage reading questions before reading the actual passage. In my experience, this is NOT a good strategy, because you simply don’t have time to read all of the questions, then the passage, then the questions again, and still expect to finish the Critical Reading section within the 20-25 minutes allowed.
What you can do, however, is quickly scan the questions for line numbers and then mark the corresponding line numbers in the margin next to the passage. For a long passage, this process only takes about 20-30 seconds, yet this strategy is extremely valuable because it shows you exactly where in the passage you need to focus your greatest attention.
Line number questions can total up to 3/4 of the questions for any given long passage, so when you mark line numbers, you are also targeting the specific information you need to answer the bulk of SAT Passage Reading questions.
Adapted from my SAT training guide: SAT Unlocked.
Common to SAT passage reading, definition questions ask you what a specific word “most nearly means” in the context of a short or long passage.
To answer definition questions:
- First, eliminate answers that are not definitions or synonyms of the word in the question.
- Next, substitute the remaining answer choices into the sentence itself and see which one works best as a replacement.
Remember: a correct definition answer has to BOTH work in the sentence AND actually mean something similar to the word it replaces.
From my SAT training guide: SAT Unlocked.
Always read a few lines above and below the line numbered portion of text to understand its context. The SAT counts on students simply reading only the specific text cited by the line number. For this reason, most line number questions include false answer choices that appear correct when a line is read on its own, but not when read in context of the larger passage. Reading above and below is the key to getting the correct answer because the information you need from the passage is usually located nearby (but not within) the text cited by line number.
Between 2/3 and 3/4 of all SAT Passage Reading questions in any given long passage question set include at least one line number reference.
With so much to read and so many questions to answer, Critical Reading is for many students the most difficult SAT section to finish within the 20-25 minutes allowed.
To finish each Critical Reading section, limit the amount of time you spend on the earlier, shorter questions.
One big reason students have trouble finishing Critical Reading is that they spend too much time on the Sentence Completion and Short Passage Reading questions at the beginning of the section. As a result, students do not leave themselves enough time to complete the Long Passage questions at the end.
Try to spend about:
30-45 seconds on each Sentence Completion question
45-60 seconds on each Short Passage question
This will leave you with well over a minute per Long Passage question, which is enough time to both read the passage(s) and answer all of the questions.
From my SAT training guide: SAT Unlocked.
For most students, spending hours studying raw vocabulary words using flashcards or other study aids probably won’t improve your SAT score all that much. Don’t believe it? Find out why. Then, discover a more efficient vocabulary solution that actually can help you achieve a higher SAT score.
How often is vocabulary tested on the SAT?
The SAT consists of a total of 170 questions in three subjects: Critical Reading, Writing, and Math. Within these three subjects, questions that test vocabulary are confined to Critical Reading (SAT Writing, which primarily tests grammar, does not use difficult words).
Critical Reading consists of 67 questions within three types: Sentence Completions, Short Passage Reading, and Long Passage Reading. Within Critical Reading, questions that test vocabulary are primarily confined to Sentence Completions.*
Each Sentence Completion question provides a sentence with one or two words missing. It is up to you to select the appropriate word or combination of words that best completes the sentence.
There are a total of 19 Sentence Completion questions on the SAT, yet only about half of these test difficult vocabulary words that a typical high school student does not already know.
So, out of 170 total SAT questions, only about ten questions (a little less than 6%) specifically test difficult vocabulary words that you would probably need to study.
Because difficult vocabulary questions make up such a small portion of the entire SAT, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a large amount of your limited SAT study time on raw vocabulary.
What’s more, Sentence Completion questions do not simply test the depth of your vocabulary. These questions also test your ability to recognize the proper use of the word in context of the sentence, so even if you know the meanings of all of the difficult words, that is still no guarantee you will be able to answer all of the Sentence Completions questions correctly.
Don’t study flashcards. Practice questions.
Instead of wasting hours and hours studying raw vocabulary, a better, more efficient way to improve your SAT Critical Reading score is to practice with real SAT questions. This way, you can both learn new vocabulary words AND familiarize yourself with the way in which this vocabulary is actually tested at the same time.
If you haven’t already done so, get yourself a copy of the Official SAT Study Guide (OSSG) published by the College Board. The OSSG includes eight full tests worth of official SAT questions (with answers).
Each of the eight tests in the book has three Critical Reading sections. Each of these sections always begins with a set of 5-8 Sentence Completion questions.
As you work your way through a Sentence Completions set, keep a list in a notebook of any words (either in the questions or the answers) that you do not know.
After you finish each set, look up the words on your list in a dictionary.
WRITE DOWN the definitions so you remember them.
Using this method, you can both target vocabulary words you do not know and practice answering actual SAT questions at the same time.
OK, but isn’t there anyone who should study flashcards?
While most students are better off simply practicing SAT Sentence Completion questions, there are two types of students who can benefit from studying raw vocabulary using flashcards.
A student scoring below 400 on Critical Reading usually lacks the vocabulary knowledge necessary to understand the SAT’s college level reading material. For these lower scoring students, intensive vocabulary training can prove effective at improving Critical Reading performance.
Similarly, students looking to score above 700 on Critical Reading have very little margin for error, and the ability to answer the hardest Sentence Completion questions is often the difference between a good Critical Reading score and a great one. For these higher scoring students, extra time spent rounding out vocabulary is also recommended.
However, while students who score at the extreme ranges of the SAT scale may benefit from using flashcards, if you are among the vast majority of students who score between 400 and 700 on Critical Reading (between the 15th and 95th percentiles), spend your time practicing actual SAT Sentence Completion questions rather than memorizing vocabulary.
*note: definition questions within short and long passage reading sets also occasionally test difficult words.