SAT Reading Section Strategies
Tips for the SAT Reading section on saving time, overall strategy, and specific recommendations for science, history, fiction, and paired passages.
The SAT Reading section can be pretty intimidating. There are a bunch of long passages, none of which are SUPER interesting, and the time limit to answer all the questions is very aggressive.
But, all that means is that you've got to prepare, and we have tips and strategies for you as you show this section who's boss.
Overall Reading Section Strategy
You can employ two different strategies for the passages, and you should try both out on a passage to see which one works best for you. And it might be that one strategy works better for you in the history passages and another works better for the fiction passages.
With this strategy, we're never going to actually read the whole passage. We'll start by answering only answering the questions that require you to read parts of the passage.
These are questions that point to line numbers, small details with keywords, or reference specific paragraphs. Questions like:
In the passage, when the main character announces that she had seen camels, the students's reaction suggests they are what?
This is a question referencing a specific part of the text, and you can find it by looking for the word camel.
By answering these questions first, you'll be reading most of the passage. So, when you're done with those questions for the passage, go back and try to answer the questions on the overall summary or main idea to the best of your ability based on what you read.
This strategy relies on speed-reading. You're going to start by speed-reading the passage. Practice by having someone time you or using your phone's timer. You're going to give yourself 15-20 seconds to read each paragraph and jot down the main idea. So, let's say this is our paragraph:
Many millennia before the invention of herbicides, farmers simply plowed their fields to control weeds. Even today, plowing can constitute a valuable part of an integrated weed-management program. Although plowing kills standing weeds, farmers have long known that it often leads to the emergence of new weed seedlings in a few weeks.
We'd speed read this, then jot down on the side: farmers use plowing to control weeds. Sure, there's more detail than that in the paragraph, but that's all we need to know to keep reading and also to know to come back to this paragraph if we get a specific question on plowing.
This way, you're forcing your brain to actively read, instead of doing what we all do when we're reading something boring, which is to read without actually understanding. This will help you to understand the passage and answer the main idea questions more easily. And your little notes will help you find the right sections to look at for the more detailed questions.
So bulk up those speed reading skills.
Strategies for Each Type of Passage
Now, in the Reading section, you'll get four types of passages: fiction, historical, scientific, and paired passages. They all come with their own challenges. Here are our tips for handling each type of passage.
Fiction passages kind of read like books or novels you might have read in class. They're probably (definitely) more old-fashioned, but the language should feel somewhat familiar. Here's what you should keep an eye out for in the passage:
The setting: You'll most likely be asked a question about where the passage is taking place.
The characters: Who are the characters? What are they doing and why? Are they interacting with others? How are they feeling? If you see a detail about a character's feelings or something they've said, underline it and pay attention to it.
The narrator: Make a note of whether the narrator is a character in the story or a neutral observer who's just describing the scene.
Follow the action: This is the most important thing to get an idea of. Make sure you that when you're reading the passage, you're actively paying attention to the plot. What's happening and why?
Historical passages are usually speeches given by historical figures.
These are pretty hard to read, because the way people talk has changed a lot over the years. You're not going to see any "lol"s in these passages. Pay attention to the argument that the speaker is making and try to understand their perspective and what it is they want.
That's obviously easier said than done, because of how tough it can be to read these passages. So, here's our golden tip for these - ignore all the repetition.
People who give speeches love to repeat ideas over and over again for emphasis. It's super effective, but not important for you to read through. So you might see a paragraph like this:
But admitting it to be a political question, have we no interest in the welfare of our country? May we not permit a thought to stray beyond the narrow limits of our own family circle, and of the present hour? May we not breathe a sigh over the miseries of our countrymen, nor utter a word of remonstrance against the unjust laws that are crushing them to the earth? Must we witness “the headlong rage or heedless folly,” with which our nation is rushing onward to destruction, and not seek to arrest its downward course? Shall we silently behold the land which we love with all the heart warm affection of children, rendered a hissing and a reproach throughout the world, by this system which is already tolling the death-bell of her decease among the nations?
Woof. That's a lot. But after reading a couple of the sentences, we can see the speaker is repeating the same idea over and over again with the same structure. Each of these sentences is a question that's phrased similarly: May we, Must we, Shall we.
All we really need to read is that first question - which is basically challenging the idea that this group of people cannot have an interest in their country and politics. So, we can skip the rest and still have a good understanding of what's going on. This is our best tip for these passages - because the biggest issue we see is just trouble understanding what the heck is being said in these passages.
The science passages are, surprise, texts about some scientific idea.
There are a couple things you should pay close attention to when reading:
The hypothesis: What idea is the passage trying to understand or prove? You will usually find this in the first paragraph.
The experiment: What is the experiment they use to understand or prove the hypothesis? You will usually find this throughout the middle of the passage.
The results: What are the results of the experiment? Did they reach new understanding or did they prove something new? This will usually be towards the end of the passage.
The data: If there's a graph or chart shown, how does it relate to the experiment?
If you can understand these four parts of the passage - you're golden.
This is where you have two passages. These passages will be related to each other in one of two ways. Either they will be similar/different opinions on the same topic or one passage will give more detail to an idea in the other.
The first half of the questions will be normal questions about one of the passages. But the other half will be about both passages - like do the two authors agree or what would one author think about another author's idea.
Treat these passages just like you would any other passage. Start with the first half of the questions that just focus on one passage. Then, hopefully, you'll have a good idea of what each passage is about, so you'll be able to approach the last few questions.