The SAT Reading Test is tough for a lot of students, and embodies a central complaint many people have about this test: How can you pick just one right answer to a question about a passage?
How can a student be sure he or she’s chosen the right answer when a written passage might be interpreted in several different ways that are equally valid?
Don’t worry. In this chapter, we’ll learn exactly how the SAT designs Reading Test questions with correct answers that are just as bulletproof and inarguable as correct answers on the SAT Math Test.
In fact, the SAT Reading Test is the best place to start understanding how the test really works. Before we get there, let’s get the basics out of the way .
Reading Test Structure
The Reading Test asks 52 questions in 65 minutes. There are four passages and one set of paired passages. In terms of the entire SAT, the Reading Test is the first section you do.
While you can’t predict exactly where your passages will come from, you will know the genre from which each was selected. You’ll get passages from U.S. or world literature, fields of history or social studies, and those that deal with science.
Each passage or set of paired passages will be about 500 to 750 words in length. One or two of them will also feature a graph, table, or chart related to the content of the passage.
SAT passages are often written in an academic style that is dense and complex. We often feel we need a Ph.D. to decipher many of the SAT passages we ready.
Additionally, the SAT likes to play with your head. For instance, consider this question: What is the function of the second paragraph in relation to the rest of the passage?
If you interpret the question as, “What’s going on here?” you will almost certainly pick a wrong answer because it is very likely that many of the incorrect answers are actually true.
To be clear: some of the wrong answers to SAT Reading Test passage questions are 100% true facts. But they are facts that, for instance, do not explain the role of the second paragraph in relation to the rest of the passage. Something can be true, but that doesn’t make it the answer to a particular question.
So, let’s get to the questions that most of our AP Guru students usually ask us: “How can I possibly get better at reading?”
If you’ve been reading your entire life, this is a legitimate question. If you’re 16 years old, you’ve probably been reading for about 13 of those years. How are you suddenly supposed to improve in a few months of study? How can you make a big difference to your SAT reading scores?
There are actually several answers to this question, all of which should give you an idea of how the AP Guru program works and what it will do for your SAT reading scores:
1. You’ll read the passages in a different way. Most likely, you’ve spent your whole reading life without any specific goal in mind. You read just for the heck of reading. From now onwards, you will work with a proven strategy about how to read.
2. You’ll think of the SAT “Reading” Test as the SAT “Finding Specific Information Quickly” Test. You’re not being tested on your analytical skills or your overall ability to comprehend in this portion of the test. Instead, the SAT evaluates your ability to find information within a large body of text quickly and accurately. This is NOT what you do at school, and it’s NOT what you do at home. It’s a totally different skill and, fortunately, it’s one that you can learn quickly with the right methods.
3. You’ll cultivate two essential skills: Crafting your own answers and eliminating tricky, wrong answers. Both these skills take work, practice, and the right tactics, but they are very learnable, even by students who think they are “bad readers.” These skills will help you master the Reading Test, and you’ll be impressed with how well your score improves!
Reviewing an SAT Reading Test Passage
However, none of the above points are possible without IMMEDIATE review. For most of our lives, we read without feedback. For you, that’s about to change.
By the time you’ve finished this program, you won’t just be better at the SAT Reading Test, you’ll be better at reading in general. And that’s a gift that keeps on giving. The key is instant review.
As we move through this program, we’re going to get into more specific tactics and strategies for conquering the Reading Test.. For now, there are three things you need to ask yourself.
After you read a passage, go to the answer key or explanations, check your answers, and then for every reading problem you got wrong or had difficulty with, ask yourself:
1. “What was the answer I came up with before looking at the answer choices provided? Could it have been better? Did I focus on the wrong information? Was I looking at the wrong things? From this point forward, come up with an answer for EVERY reading problem on your own BEFORE looking at the answer choices. Reviewing this way will keep you in the habit of thinking critically. It’ll also offer insight into the methods you’re using to come up with your answers and help you improve them.
2. “Why was my answer wrong?” As you’ll learn soon, the focus of the Reading Test is all about finding errors. If you picked “A,” but the answer was “C,” there was something objectively wrong with answer A. Figure out what it was. Use your memory of the passage, along with the answer explanations, to explain this to yourself in full.
3. “Why is the right answer NOT wrong?” Don’t want you to focus on “rightness.” That gets you nowhere. Instead, just ask yourself, “why is the answer they say is correct, NOT wrong? What error did I think I saw in this answer choice?”
That’s all there is to it! Whenever you miss a reading passage question, ask yourself why your wrong answer was wrong and why the right answer you eliminated was NOT wrong. Building this sense of “wrongness” will be your best ally in the battle against the SAT.
Timings for Reading a Passage
Students often ask how much time they should spend reading a passage. The best answer is always that no one has the same “perfect time.” Everyone is different. You need to find what works for you.
You need to spend EXACTLY the right amount of time reading the SAT passages: ENOUGH time to give you all relevant details - the topic, the primary purpose, and mental table of contents - to answer the questions provided, but not SO MUCH time that you can’t answer all the questions before the clock runs out..
AP Guru has worked with some students who spend about 90 seconds reading each passage, and who have no problem answering all the problems. We’ve assisted other students who spend four minutes per passage. Neither group of students does better or worse than the other overall - it’s all about the balance of time.
Even if the 90-second readers are faster, they might understand a bit less than the four-minute readers. However, fast readers do have more time to re-check their mental table of contents and review their answers, whereas the four-minute readers have less time leftover but have internalized information to guide them.
What matters is finding what works for you. One of the critical skills you need to develop as you work on your SAT Reading skills is a fine-tuned awareness of your reading vs. problem balance. No one can identify your timing for you. It’s entirely up to you and can take some experimentation. To help you, we’ve have created a little exercise.
From this point forward, you should maintain a conscious awareness of how long you’re spending reading and how this is affecting your overall performance. Remember that there are different passage types. You might need to spend lots of time on a Victorian literature passage and less time on the questions, but almost no time on a science-based passage. That’s up to you!
Before we end this chapter, it’s important to mention a couple of “special” ways of reading that lots of firms, tutors, and others often recommend. They’re actually more destructive than they are helpful.
Sub-Par SAT Reading Methods
Bad tip #1
Read all the questions first, then read the passage. The primary reason teachers give about why to avoid reading the passage first is that most questions require some kind of detailed look up anyway –so why not go right to the questions?
This strategy seems to save time upfront, but it means you have to spend a lot more time answering each question. More importantly, the approach leads to many wrong answers. Without a good general understanding of the passage, you can fall prey to trap answers.
Additionally, the main idea of any passage will help you to answer at least 60% of all the questions. If you don’t read the passage, you’re flying blind and will be in bad shape because you won’t understand the main idea. You also won’t know how any of the passage elements or evidence about how details fit into the broader picture. For all you know, the author could be imitating someone for the first three paragraphs, then telling you what he or she really thinks.
Bad tip #2
Take careful notes as you read, underline key elements, write in the margins, and re-read passages you think are especially important.
The truth is, only about 5% of what you read for an SAT passage will matter for answering questions, and you don’t know which 5% it’ll be. The SAT is all about speed. Every second you spend marking up potentially irrelevant details wastes valuable time!
More importantly, if you read too slowly and pay attention to all the details, you lose sight of the big picture of the passage. And the big picture is what you absolutely need to take away from the first read.
It often happens that when you read an SAT passage extremely carefully, you don’t remember a single thing you have read. Your eyes moved along the page, but you cannot recall a single detail about anything you have just “read.”
This is surprisingly common, and it kills your SAT Reading Test score. Your time is limited, so wasting it on “rubbing the text with your eyes” is a disaster.