Mastering the SAT Reading Section

SAT test anxiety

How to master the SAT reading sectionFor many, the reading section of the SAT is daunting—sure, you’ve read plenty of books over the years and your vocabulary isn’t half bad, but the prospect of analyzing four long and two shorter passages over the course of only 65 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! Here are a few strategies to help you get started.

Use topic sentences to build an outline and “road map” of the passage.

When you’re first working with a passage, especially a non-fiction passage with more than one or two paragraphs, use the topic sentences (the first sentence of each paragraph) to determine the main idea and trajectory of the passage. If you don’t consider yourself a “fast reader,” this can be a great first approach to a passage in place of a skim. A topic sentence gives 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.

Read the blurbs.

The SAT includes a brief blurb—sometimes of only a few words—above each passage, detailing the author, title, and sometimes background info for each piece. The blurb can be incredibly helpful, 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.

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? Short answer: that’s the point. The SAT folks are selecting excerpts designed to challenge you, so of course they’re going to include writing from 1872 packed with flowery language or legal jargon. When you’re confronted with a passage that flies over your head, don’t despair! Try translating the passage, sentence by sentence, into your own words.

For example:

“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, feel free to jump ahead—old-timey authors love a high word count, so don’t be surprised if an entire passage only contains one or two distinct ideas.

Understanding main idea is key.

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 figure out, 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.

Once 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, and the higher your score will be on test day.

Standardized test preparation doesn’t have to be painful. Our SAT test prep tutors, like Elizabeth, can help you keep your cool. We offer tailored tutoring plans, strategic preparation, and a data-driven approach. Work with us in-person in Boston and New York, or online anywhere around the world.

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Want to learn more about preparing for the SAT? Check out some of our previous blog posts below:

SAT Reading: Which comes first? The passage or the question?

7 Test Day Tips for the SAT

How to Ace the SAT Math Section