For many students, the reading section of the SAT is daunting. You’ve read plenty of books over the years, and your vocabulary is pretty good (estimable, adequate, respectable, even laudable!), but the prospect of analyzing four long and two shorter passages over the course of only sixty-five minutes can feel like an impossible task. Luckily, as with most of the SAT, solid strategies can make the process feel a much more manageable –– and maybe even a little bit enjoyable.Read the blurb
The SAT includes a brief blurb above each passage, detailing the author, title, and, for more involved pieces, some background information. The blurb can provide extremely helpful context, so it’s a great idea to glance at it before diving in. For example, you might learn that a passage discussing the nature of freedom is written by Martin Luther King, Jr., so even if the text is dense, you can make a pretty good guess regarding the author’s main idea.
Use topic sentences to build an outline and “road map” of the passage
Once you start reading the passage, especially a nonfiction passage with more than one or two paragraphs, use topic sentences (the first sentence of each paragraph) to determine the main idea and trajectory of the passage. Especially if you don’t consider yourself a “fast reader,” zoning in on topic sentences can be a great first approach to a passage in place of an indiscriminate skim. A topic sentence should give a fairly clear statement of the main purpose of its paragraph, and when you weave all topic sentences together, you’ve got an outline: pretty helpful when you’re trying to figure out main purpose, or trying to determine how an author’s argument changes over the course of a passage.
Try “translating” tricky text
You’ve read dense books in English class, so why do some of the passages on the reading section seem so impossible to understand? Because the challenge is the point! The SAT folks are selecting excerpts designed to challenge you, so of course they’re going to include writing from long ago packed with flowery language or legal jargon. But when you’re confronted with a passage that seems to fly over your head, don’t despair! Try translating the passage, sentence by sentence, into your own words. Be as casual as you like, and don't be afraid of contemporary slang when you're doing this "translation" –– in fact, since what you're doing is trying to get this to make sense in your own brain, being quick, hip, and memorable is to your advantage.
But on another level of ideas, the question changes and may be easily resolved. --> "When you think about it differently, the question is different and easy to answer."
Once you’ve figured out the author’s main point in a paragraph, don't waste too much time nitpicking the entire thing for the perfect translation. Also, the kinds of old-timey authors you'll find on this section of the SAT love a high word count, so don’t be surprised if an entire passage only contains one or two distinct ideas.
Understanding the main idea is the most important part
If you’ve tried translating the passage, and you still can’t figure out the details of what’s going on, stick to determining the overall main idea of the passage. Once you established, for example, that the author is in support of women’s suffrage, it makes it easier to determine the steps the author takes along the way. By translating the details of the passage while keeping the main idea in mind, you can make the process a lot less frustrating.
When you’ve figured out what strategies work best for you, it’s important to practice with them! The more reading passages you make it through, the more confident you’ll feel on test day.