5 books so good you won’t notice they’re helping you study for the SAT

reading comprehension SAT
By Sarah B

The SAT is a very important test, but it can be hard to set aside the time to study for it amidst all your other school work and activities. When you already have problem sets to do and papers to write, another set of practice drills on reading comprehension can seem overwhelming.

That’s why sometimes the best studying happens when you don’t realize you’re doing it! This list contains some fun and engaging books that will help you practice the techniques you’ll be expected to use throughout the reading comprehension section of the exam.

The Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket

VOCABULARY. Almost everyone’s biggest fear going into the SAT, right? The new SAT may no longer test you directly on the definitions of words, but it will test your ability to understand their meaning from context. This can be harder to study for, simply because there’s no longer a list of words to memorize.

Which brings us to the sad tale of the Baudelaire orphans and the dastardly Count Olaf who wants to con them out of their family fortune. Starting with the aptly named book, The Bad Beginning, author Lemony Snicket spins a hilarious, clever, and sometimes sesquipedalian (using too many long words) story that is engaging from beginning to end. While it may sound daunting, the books are short and readable at a middle school level, and Snicket is a master of teaching vocabulary through context.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The SATs LOVE giving you reading comprehension sections from classic literature. Now, odds are you aren’t going to get a section from a book you’ve read before, but that doesn’t mean reading some classic literature won’t help. Older styles of writing can seem formal and vague, but practicing on an easy to understand story will make a world of difference.

Pride and Prejudice may seem like an uptight, melodramatic romance novel, but it’s actually way closer to a light romantic comedy. The story is all about the Bennet sisters and their mother’s obsession with marrying them off to rich men who will raise the family’s social standing. As you start to read the book, you’ll start to translate the events that happen into more modern, familiar versions. The ball they attend at the beginning of the book isn’t that different from a school dance, and when the youngest sisters beg to go to town, it’s the same as wanting your mom to drive you to the mall to shop and see your friends.

“But do I have to read a romance novel?!” The book’s protagonist, Elizabeth, spend most of the book being embarrassed by various family members and awkwardly running into her crush, which are pretty universal and relatable life events, making it the easiest kind of story to “translate”. But if you really can’t stand the idea, try reading something from a similar time period but a different genre, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories

So, let’s say you’re comfortable reading any style of passage the SAT may throw at you - now, how do you pick your answers? A significant portion of questions in the reading comprehension section are more than just word definitions or summaries of the text. You’ll be asked about what can be concluded from the passages or what was the purpose of what a character said, and you may have several tempting answers to choose from. That’s where logic comes into play.

Often you will narrow down your options to two choices, both of which seem like they could be correct. You must figure out which one is “more right” (or sometimes “less wrong”). That means choosing the statement with the most detail that is still completely backed up by evidence from the passage (no assumptions). This kind of rigorous logic can be a tough skill to practice, which is why it can help to read one of the best: Arthur Conan Doyle.

Did you know that only four of the Sherlock Holmes stories are full novels? The rest of Sherlock’s adventures are all short stories - quick, easy reads that will only take an hour or two of your time. They range from the daring adventures you might know from watching the BBC to sillier tales like my personal favorite, “The Red-Headed League”. (It’s about a man who asks Holmes to investigate the strange association that gave him a high paying job copying out an encyclopedia every day, all because of his bright red hair.) As an added bonus, the stories will still provide you with some practice reading older writing styles! 

A technical book about something you’re passionate about

Each reading comprehension section always includes at least one very technical passage, though the topic can vary between scientific research and historical analysis. It can be tough to wrap your brain around so much dense, detailed information, especially if you don’t find the topic interesting. 

That’s why the best way to practice is to push yourself to read something dense and technical about a topic you do find interesting! Think about your hobbies, your interests, or whatever you’d rather be doing instead of studying for the SAT. If you’re a dancer, pick up a book on the history of ballet or the physics of ballet. If you like to read fantasy novels, read about how fictional languages are created. If you’re like me and you love to cook or bake, read books on food science, like Robert L Wolke’s book What Einstein Told His Cooks

If you’re really stuck, try starting with Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, which uses large data analysis to show the surprising behavior similarities between vastly different types of people (for example, sumo wrestlers and teachers).

Reread Harry Potter or anything really, as long as you’re reading!

There are a lot of books out there that will be helpful for you to read before you take the SAT, but if you don’t enjoy reading them it’s still going to feel like studying. That’s why, if nothing else on this list is appealing, you should read something you like to read. It could be the Harry Potter series, comic books, or even just those articles your friends post on your Facebook feed, but if it’s reading, it’s good for you. Just be sure to read instead of scan! Make sure you are actually taking in what’s on the page, and try to catch yourself if you’re skipping words you don’t know or sentences you didn’t quite get. Even just improving your reading speed a little can help when you feel pressed for time on the test!

The books I’ve listed here are some of my favorite recommendations for students, but there’s plenty more to choose from. If you have a hard time engaging with the books on this list or you don’t feel like they’re helping, you can always work with a tutor to pick out books that will be a better fit for you!


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