The article will deep dive into the 9 most important points, concepts and strategies that you need to know to ace the SAT Reading section.
1. Selective Reading of the Passages
The bulk of each SAT Reading Test passage is comprised of
- The primary purpose
- Supporting evidence
Remember that information in each paragraph of a passage is there to support the primary purpose - the main idea that the author wants to convey. The primary purpose is an argument that answers the question, “so what?” and tells us why the author thinks the topic is important. Read each paragraph until you believe you have identified a passage’s primary purpose. Once you have identified the primary purpose, skim the rest of the passage.
Do not get sucked into the details - 70-80% of the information in an SAT passage is not even tested. In fact, you can quickly skim through a paragraph when you sense it’s just presenting facts, lists, background information, etc. Only opinions and thoughts matter, not facts or background information.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to reread a part of the paragraph that you did not understand. All you have to do is try to summarize the topic of each paragraph and then finally, the entire passage’s primary purpose.
In the sample passage below, we’ve have highlighted in black font the topic sentence of each paragraph. The text in black font is supporting details.
I urge a sixteenth amendment, because “manhood suffrage,” or a man’s government, is civil, religious, and social disorganization. The male element is a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition, breeding in the material and moral world alike discord, disorder, disease, and death. See what a record of blood and cruelty the pages of history reveal! Through what slavery, slaughter, and sacrifice, through what inquisitions and imprisonments, pains and persecutions, black codes and gloomy creeds, the soul of humanity has struggled for the centuries, while mercy has veiled her face and all hearts have been dead alike to love and hope!
The male element has held high carnival thus far; it has fairly run riot from the beginning, overpowering the feminine element everywhere, crushing out all the diviner qualities in human nature, until we know but little of true manhood and womanhood, of the latter comparatively nothing, for it has scarce been recognized as a power until within the last century. Society is but the reflection of man himself, untempered by woman’s thought; the hard iron rule we feel alike in the church, the state, and the home. No one need wonder at the disorganization, at the fragmentary condition of everything, when we remember that man, who represents but half a complete being, with but half an idea on every subject, has undertaken the absolute control of all sublunary matters.
People object to the demands of those whom they choose to call the strong-minded, because they say “the right of suffrage will make the women masculine.” That is just the difficulty in which we are involved today. Though disfranchised, we have few women in the best sense; we have simply so many reflections, varieties, and ilutions of the masculine gender. The strong, natural characteristics of womanhood are repressed and ignored in dependence, for so long as man feeds woman she will try to please the giver and adapt herself to his condition.
To keep a foothold in society, woman must be as near like man as possible, reflect his ideas, opinions, virtues, motives, prejudices, and vices. She must respect his statutes, though they strip her of every inalienable right, and conflict with that higher law written by the finger of God on her own soul.......Man has been molding woman to his ideas by direct and positive influences, while she, if not a negation, has used indirect means to control him, and in most cases developed the very characteristics both in him and herself that needed repression. And now man himself stands appalled at the results of his own excesses, and mourns in bitterness that falsehood, selfishness, and violence are the law of life. The need of this hour is not territory, gold mines, railroads, or specie payments but a new evangel of womanhood, to exalt purity, virtue, morality, true religion, to lift man up into the higher realms of thought and action.
We ask woman’s enfranchisement, as the first step toward the recognition of that essential element in government that can only secure the health, strength, and prosperity of the nation. Whatever is done to lift woman to her true position will help to usher in a new day of peace and perfection for the race.
In speaking of the masculine element, I do not wish to be understood to say that all men are hard, selfish, and brutal, for many of the most beautiful spirits the world has known have been clothed with manhood; but I refer to those characteristics, though often marked in woman, that distinguish what is called the stronger sex. For example, the love of acquisition and conquest, the very pioneers of civilization, when expended on the earth, the sea, the elements, the riches and forces of nature, are powers of destruction when used to subjugate one man to another or to sacrifice nations to ambition.
Here that great conservator of woman’s love, if permitted to assert itself, as it naturally would in freedom against oppression, violence, and war, would hold all these destructive forces in check, for woman knows the cost of life better than man does, and not with her consent would one drop of blood ever be shed, one life sacrificed in vain.
Note: As seen through this example, the main point of a paragraph is most likely to be located in two places: the first sentence or the last sentence of a paragraph.
2. Few Words Summary
Along with skim reading, it’s important that you also summarize each paragraph’s main idea using only a few words (between 5-8). Strive for THE MOST BASIC, SIMPLE summary possible with the fewest details. That is all you really need.
The best way to summarize is by annotating each paragraph in the margin of your test, essentially creating a Mental Table of Contents. You might be surprised to see how little information you actually need to flawlessly make your way through the critical reading section.
The following are sample summaries for each paragraph in our example passage
Paragraph 1: The current man’s government is bad
Paragraph 2: Man has taken control of the world
Paragraph 3: Womanhood is suppressed by men
Paragraph 4: Women need to morally lift men up
Paragraph 5: Women need to vote
Paragraph 6: Women have better virtues
Paragraph 7: Women can save the world
These summaries are definitely not perfect, far from it, actually. They are not even grammatically correct. But, for the purpose of the SAT, they will work just fine to help you find the key details necessary to answer each question much more quickly.
3. Identify the Topic
Another important step is to come up with the topic of a passage. Usually, you can figure out the correct answers to 60% of SAT Reading Test questions just by matching answer choices to either a topic or a primary purpose.
So, what is the topic of an SAT passage? It is nothing more than just identifying the subject of the passage. Usually, the topic is the word or phrase that appears most frequently throughout the passage, either by name or in rephrased form. After you finish reading the passage, write the topic down on your question paper.
However, just like when summarizing the paragraphs, it’s imperative to use no more than a few words (8-10) when coming up with the topic. This will ensure you avoid the unnecessary details that could distract you from the main idea.
We cannot state this strongly enough: If you keep the topic in mind, you can often eliminate answer choices simply because they do not make sense in context with the topic.
Topic of our Sample Passage: Women need to vote to save the world.
It’s as easy as that.
4. Main Idea Questions - Just the Point
Identifying the topic from the previous step is all you need to answer these main idea questions. You do not have to refer to the passage to answer these questions.
Remember the following two important points when answering the main idea questions:
- The correct answer choice must be similar to the passage topic you come up with.
- The correct answer will be stated in a general (or “vague”) manner, whereas incorrect answers tend to refer to specifics from the passage.
Let’s see these principles in action with an example related to our passage.
Question: The central problem that Stanton describes in the passage is that women have been
A. denied equal educational opportunities, which has kept them from reaching their potential. This passage is not about educational opportunities. Eliminate it.
B. prevented from exerting their positive influence on men, which has led to societal breakdown. Sounds similar to our topic. This should be the right answer.
C. prevented from voting, which has resulted in poor candidates winning important elections. This passage is not about poor candidates or winning elections. Eliminate it.
D. blocked by men from serving as legislators, which allowed the creation of unjust laws. This passage is not about legislators and unjust law. Eliminate it.
5. Detail Questions - Please Plagiarize
The answers to the detail or line number questions must be supported directly and specifically by the passage. In other words, you take your answer directly from the passage. You need to physically underline the text in the passage that will help you pick the correct answer.
Question: Stanton claims that which of the following was a relatively recent historical development?
A. The control of society by men
B. The spread of war and injustice
C. The domination of domestic life by men
D. The acknowledgment of women’s true character
The 2nd paragraph speaks about womanhood, and only option D mentions women.
Answers to inference questions, on the other hand, will not be directly stated in the passage but instead implied by what the author explicitly states. For these questions, also underline text in the passage that supports the correct answer choice.
For detail questions, never bring in information from outside the passage; all of the information necessary to answer the question resides in the passage. Making assumptions will lead you to the wrong answer!
Question: It can reasonably be inferred that “the strong-minded” (orange font) was a term generally intended to
A. praise women who fight for their long-denied rights.
B. identify women who demonstrate intellectual skill.
C. criticize women who enter male-dominated professions.
D. condemn women who agitate for the vote for their sex.
The lines around the highlighted word show that “strong-minded” was used in a negative connotation with respect to women. Therefore, we can eliminate choices A and B. Answer choice C is about professions, which isn’t the focus of the passage. Therefore, the correct answer is D.
6. Vocabulary - Fill in the Blank
When it comes to vocabulary-in-context questions, never put words from the answer choices back into a paragraph to check which sounds the best - you will usually fall for the trap answer.
Instead, use this strategy to answer vocabulary questions:
- Take pencil and in the passage and cross out the word you’re being asked about.
- Read the appropriate section of the passage carefully and plug in a word of your own choosing to replace the crossed-out word.
- Select the answer choice that closely matches the word you chose
Question: As used in context, “rule” nearly refers to
A. a general guideline. Different from suppression. Eliminate
B. a controlling force. Controlling force is similar to a suppression. Keep.
C. an established habit. The habit cannot be a suppression by someone. Eliminate.
D. a procedural method. Again, different from our prediction. Eliminate.
The prediction I made was something like suppression.
7. Use a Word Microscope
For an answer choice to be correct, each and every word in that choice needs to be correct. Test makers are experts at creating answer choices that are similar to what you have read in the passage, but that insert one word that makes the entire answer choice wrong. Be on the lookout for such wordplay and misdirection.
Remember that any answer choice containing “extreme words” will be wrong. Therefore, if an answer choice includes words like none, every, all, etc., it can be eliminated.
If you see even a microscopically small error in an answer choice, eliminate it. Every single word of every correct answer choice must be correct.
The best way to do this use the “What ________? Rule”. Here’s how it works:
- Pick important words within each answer choice and asking yourself “WHAT _______?”
- If you can’t think of the answer to that question, then that answer choice is wrong!
- The only answer that isn’t wrong will be the one you can answer the “WHAT _______?” question for!!!
The best way to explain this is through an example:
Question: Stanton uses the phrase “high carnival” (lines 18-19) mainly to emphasize what she sees as the
A. utter domination of women by men. What domination? Yes, the paragraph speaks of the domination of women by men
B. freewheeling spirit of the age. What freewheeling spirit of the age? The passage has a negative outlook on their current times
C. scandalous decline in moral values. What scandalous decline? Out of scope for the paragraph - spoken later in the passage (See next point)
D. growing power of women in society. What growing power for women - the author is advocating for more power for women in society
8. Do Not Assume or Justify
Making assumptions will get you the wrong answer! Picking something that is probably true will also get you a wrong answer! For example, there may be a phrase in an answer choice that just doesn’t seem right to you. However, you let it slide because you doubt yourself. You think “maybe I just don’t fully understand the passage.” This kind of justification will destroy your SAT Reading Test score.
It’s important that you answer the question asked. There may be some answer choices that are true according to the passage, but are not relevant to the question at hand - like option C in the previous question.
The phrase “could be” indicates that you’re assuming or justifying a wrong answer as one that “could be” correct. Therefore, whenever you hear yourself saying, “could be,” you are falling into a trap.
Question: The sixth paragraph is primarily concerned with establishing a contrast between
A. men and women. This is a trap answer. The passage does compare men and women. However, this paragraph is not focused on comparing the two genders.
B. the spiritual world and the material world. The passage does not speak about spiritual matters.
C. bad men and good men. Easy to eliminate. Nothing about good or bad men is mentioned.
D. men and masculine traits. Stanton differentiates between men and masculine traits.
9. Paired Passages
Each SAT Reading Test will have at least one set of paired passages. Each passage has a different author and a different point of view, but both will always revolve around the same basic idea or event.
The authors will either:
A. Disagree about something
B. Agree on something, but don’t agree on its cause or effects
C. Talk about two different elements or angles of the same topic
Remember this strategy to help answer paired passage questions:
- Read the first passage
- Answer any questions related to the first passage only
- Read the second passage
- Answer any questions related to the second passage only
- Answer the remaining comparative questions
Comparative questions, it is crucial to determine the relationship between the passages. The comparative questions will always explicitly ask you to identify the relationship between the passages. If you’ve already defined the relationship, you’ve essentially answered the question before you’ve even looked at it.
Also, you can play positive/negative when trying to answer these comparative questions. When the authors of the two passages disagree, most of the answers to relationship questions will be negative, and you can often automatically eliminate any positive or neutral answer just by reading the first word or two. Likewise, when the authors agree, most correct answers will be positive.