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8 Quick Tricks to Improve Your Score on the SAT Reading Section

A young man with dark brown skin lays in bed reading.

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The reading section of the SAT is apparently meant to “assess how ready you are to read and interpret the kinds of texts you’re likely to encounter in college and career.” Not only is it one of the most dreaded, but students also tend to find it one of the most difficult.

The SAT has a way of wording questions in a way that the question asks for the BEST answer, instead of the CORRECT answer. This can make harder to answer as you’ll often find that multiple answers make sense. It just so happens that one answer choice is better than the other.

Luckily for you, there’s a few strategies that you can implement in order to make the SAT reading section a little less confusing.

The College Board HATES redundancy

This one is the golden rule of basically all standardized reading tests to ever exist. Whether you’re taking the SAT, the ACT, or even a test in English class, this one’s a universal strategy. Don’t be redundant! 

What exactly does redundancy mean? It means that you should avoid words that don’t need to be there, or words that mean the same thing.

Let’s look at an example.

My grandma got up happily at 6 A.M. everyday, with a smile on her face.

  1. everyday
  2. each consecutive day of the week
  3. remove underlined portion 
  4. No change

This type of question shows up on the grammar section more often than you might expect. First, it’s important to ask yourself what exactly this phrase is trying to tell us in the first place.

What are the important pieces of information that this sentence is attempting to communicate to the reader? A good way to think about this question in a more structured way would be to use the 5 W’s, Who? What? When? Where? Why?

First of all, it’s important to note that we’re talking about the grandma. That’s the who of our question. Then we ask ourselves the what. What is the grandma in our passage doing? She’s waking up happily. When? Looks like everyday at 6 A.M. and why? The sentence doesn’t really specify, so we’ll disregard that one for now.

Eliminate any answers that don’t provide all of this information. We can remove answer choice C. for precisely that reason. Removing the underlined portion, as choice C suggests, would get rid of the critical question of when.

If we were to remove that part of the sentence, the passage would lose some critical information. We would no longer know that this is grandma’s everyday routine. That’s something you should never EVER do on the SAT. Never get rid of valuable information.

Now that we’ve gotten rid of answers on the basis of insufficient information, the next best step to take in questions like this is to eliminate answers that give us too much information—in other words, redundancy!

Let’s look at choice B first: “each consecutive day of the week.” This phrase is redundant in its use of the word “consecutive.” When the answer states “each day of the week,” it’s already implying that the days occur one after the other. There’s no other way to interpret that part of the answer, so in this case we don’t need the word consecutive. Eliminate choice B!

Now look at choice D. Seems like a pretty good option at first. It’s not too wordy and it doesn’t seem like it repeats any information within the underlined portion. A good strategy is to go back to the original sentence and read it back fully to make sure there’s no repetition.

When we do that, we get the sentence, “My grandma got up happily at 6 A.M. everyday, with a smile on her face. The phrase “with a smile on her face” is basically a repetition of the word “happily.”

You may still be tempted to wonder about whether it’s appropriate to have both in the same sentence. Appropriate? Yes. But correct? NEVER! Even if two parts of the sentence mean remotely the same thing, err on the side of caution and get rid of one. Choice A would be the right answer.

Be as concise as possible

If you can say something in less words without skipping out on important information, do it! Here’s an example of what I mean:

Gloria went to the mall this weekend with her best friends to buy a pair of shoes.

  1. Because she wanted a pair of shoes.
  2. Because she wanted to buy a pair of shoes.
  3. Because the shoes she wanted were sold there.
  4. No change

Replace the underlined portion with all of the available answer choices. You’ll find that all of the answer choices make perfect sense. All of them give the required information and none of them omit anything important. None of them are necessarily redundant either. So what do you do?

This is one of those question types where you don’t need to know any content: just some background knowledge about the SAT question types. In a question like this, choose the answer with the least words! It’s as simple as that. 

As long as the answer choices you’re deciding between all have the required information and attention redundant, your best bet is almost always to choose the most concise one. The College Board loves concise statements, almost as much as they hate redundancy. 

Tackle the word-in-context questions FIRST

This tip has nothing to do with knowing the question content of the SAT. Rather, it’s about finding the most strategic way to answer the questions. Easy peasy, right? 

This is what I mean when I say it can sometimes be easier to study the actual SAT instead of studying FOR the SAT. Knowing and recognizing the question types that compose the SAT can end up being unbelievably helpful, especially when you’re on a time crunch. 

The SAT bases your grade on the number of correct answers. Your eventual score is a direct reflection of the number of questions you got right over the total number of questions that were asked. So your primary goal heading into this test should be to rack up as many correct answers as possible.

Hard questions aren’t weighted heavier, and easier questions aren’t worth any less. Each correct answer will give you the exact same number of points. Now, especially in the reading section, when you are limited to a mere 30 minutes, it can be easy to get stuck on trying to get the tough problems right.

Here’s the problem with that: When you spend more time on the tough questions, you’re leaving less time for the easier ones. As I mentioned before, the SAT is a game of probabilities. It makes more sense to put your time to use on a question that will easily rack you a couple of points rather than a question you may or may not guess correctly on.

This circles back to my original intent in sharing this tip with you. ORDER MATTERS! What’s the ideal order to answer questions in so that you can maximize your score? 

“Word In Context” questions, also referred to as “Vocabulary in Context” questions, are just what they sound like. They are questions that test your ability to define a word within the context that a passage uses it in. I’ve included an example below:

In the line “After years of controversy among the scientific world, he was finally credited with the discovery of the photon,” the word credited most nearly means?

  1. Gifted
  2. Believed
  3. Described 
  4. Attributed

All that you have to do in questions like this is determine what exactly the word means in the given context. You may notice that all of the answer choices, when considered independently, can be used as synonyms for credit. The difference is the context that the words can be used in. 

The point, though, is that to answer a question like this, you don’t need to read anything in the passage. By doing this quick and easy type of question first, you’re allowing yourself all the majority of your time on the SAT. Even if you don’t get to the harder questions, you’re at least racking up some points on the easy ones.

If two answer choices mean the same thing, both are wrong!

This is probably one of the most life-changing pieces of advice I’ve gotten to date about the SAT: “if you don’t know where to start in the question, start in the answer choices.”

Even if you don’t understand anything in the question at all, look through all the answer choices and compare them to each other. Notice any trends that relate two answer choices to each other. The reality is that there’s only ONE correct answer on the SAT.

There’s no trick questions where more than one answer is right, so use this fact to your advantage. If there are two answer choices that mean the same thing, there’s no way they can both be right. Let’s take a look at an example that you can utilize this strategy on:

All I could think about since I was a small child was dancing on the stage. As it’s been a lifelong dream of mine.

  1. Stage–as it’s been a lifelong dream of mine
  2. Stage, as It’s been a lifelong dream of mine
  3. Stage; It’s been a lifelong dream of mine
  4. No change

It may not at first be evident, but two of these answer choices are the same. Can you tell which ones? If you study your SAT grammar rules a little, you’ll find out that a semicolon is the exact same thing as a period: they serve the same function in any given sentence.

Both are only used when the phrase preceding the punctuation and the phrase after the punctuation can stand independently—that is, they both have a noun and a verb and form a complete sentence. With this information, you can now use the strategy presented above, which is that if two answer choices mean the same thing, they are both wrong! 

In this case, since we know that answer choices C and D mean the same thing, we can eliminate both. If you were considering either of these answer choices, your job has now become easier!

Your chances of getting this question right have now increased by two-fold: from 25% all the way to 50%. From there, you can make an educated guess. 

5 Quick Tricks to Increase Your SAT Score

Read the first and last lines of each paragraph FIRST

When you’re in such a strict time crunch, it can be easy to lose track of how much time you have left. Unfortunately, it will only truly hit you after time runs out, and you realize you haven’t answered or bubbled in half the questions.

This is why the best SAT strategies are all focused on reducing the amount of time it takes you to answer each question. Less time spent on each question means that you can fit in more questions in the SAT’s given time frame. More questions answered = higher score. Remember, the SAT doesn’t penalize students for wrong answers.

This is why it’s always helpful to skim over the passage first and answer all the questions that you can with this limited knowledge of the passage. Then, you can come back and read the passage in-depth.

What a lot of students end up struggling with (myself, included) is how exactly to skim the passage. What is the most effective way to read over the passage quickly and effectively while also catching the most important information? Luckily, there’s a rule of thumb you can follow to make sure you’re catching the most important points.

Read the first and last lines of each paragraph, even if you catch no information from the body of each paragraph. There’s a lot you can learn just from the introductory and concluding sentences of each paragraph. Authors usually use these two sentences to summarize the main idea of the paragraph in question.

By reading these sentences first, you’re giving yourself a general idea of what each paragraph is about. A really good idea, if you have enough time of course, is to mark next to each paragraph what the main topic of the paragraph is, based on the first and last sentences. That way, you have a rough outline of the passage created for quick reference when you’re answering the questions that follow. 

Let’s look at a practice example:

“My mornings haven’t always been like this. I used to get up at 6 A.M., ready to face whatever was in store for me for the day. I would brush my teeth, listen happily to the birds chirping outside and iron my best suit. The joyful chirps of the birds would push me forward, motivating me to be just as persistent as them, always chirping no matter the circumstances. After my daily cup of coffee, I was ready to skip my way to work. Those days were truly different.

It’s different now. The birds no longer chirp, or at least I don’t pay attention to them. Getting up in the morning is a chore. I want to stay buried in my blanket, tucked away from whatever faces me in the outside world. I wish I could disappear from the face of the earth, leaving nothing but memories of the good days.”

Try to skim over these two paragraphs and create a rough summary sentence for each, based on the first and last sentences. 

Ready to check? This passage is speaking about a narrator who used to feel happy in his day-to-day routine, ready to face the world. Now, the narrator seems to be slipping into depression. He no longer feels motivated to face the day head-on. The passage explores this transition from the narrator’s happiness into a seemingly depressive period.

If you labeled the first something along the lines of “the narrator used to be happy in the mornings,” you’d be right! As you can tell by the first and last sentences of the first paragraph, the narrator is having a flashback of sorts to the days in which he was genuinely happy to go to work in the mornings.

Similarly, if you labeled the second paragraph with a sentence regarding the narrator no longer being excited to wake up in the morning, you would again be correct! The first sentence, “it’s different now,” implied that the narrator no longer feels the same happy emotions that he used to.

The last sentence,”I wish I could disappear from the earth, leaving nothing but memories of the good days” hints to the reader that the narrator no longer experiences life the same way, to the point that he wishes he could disappear all together.

Let’s say a question asks you about something specific that refers to a topic addressed in one one of the paragraphs. With this outline created, you now know exactly which paragraph to refer back to. This not only saves so much time, but also makes you a more organized and effective test-taker.

For example, if a question following this passage asked:

To what does the narrator attribute his motivation and persistence?

  1. The narrator’s ironed suit
  2. The narrator’s morning routine
  3. The chirping of the birds outside
  4. The narrator’s daily cup of coffee

As soon as you see this question, your first action should be to refer back to the passage. But where? Given the content of the question, you know that the question is referring to a time when the narrator was motivated, most likely one of the higher points in his life. Given this info and our previous marking of the passage, we can immediately refer back to paragraph one instead of wasting unnecessary and valuable time searching the entire passage.

Now, obviously, our sample passage only contains 2 paragraphs, but you can imagine how helpful this strategy would be if used on a multi-paragraph passage in a more complex question. Searching a passage frantically for information is no longer one of your problems.

Know your punctuation: periods, semi-colons, and colons

If there’s one thing I’ll say about this section, it’s that the people who write the SAT love asking about punctuation. One of the most common types of questions you’ll run into on this section are those that will give you a sentence with incorrect (or correct) punctuation, and ask you to choose the answer that best corrects the mistake (or no change).

Always remember to use the “no change” option sparingly. This should only be your answer around 25% of the time, so if you find yourself selecting “no change” too few or too many times, be cautious and check over your work. 

Out of the dozens of punctuation marks that exist in the English language, the most commonly confused types of punctuation that students tend to struggle with are periods, semi-colons, colons, and sometimes dashes. The SAT WILL test you on these different types of punctuation.

The best favor you can do yourself when it comes to the grammar section is to know the functions and uses of these punctuation marks ahead of time. That way, you know precisely when each should be used and aren’t struggling to apply the correct grammar rules when the SAT rolls around.

Let’s look at an example.

The artist was well-known across the globe and even those who usually didn’t appreciate art enjoyed observing the intricate shapes and designs in his paintings.

  1. Work. And even those who usually
  2. Work; and even those who usually
  3. Work: and even those who usually
  4. No change

Got your answer? If you chose D, no change, you’d be correct! If you didn’t, you may want to quickly review the basic differences between periods, semi-colons, and colons. Briefly, let’s review them here:

Periods are used when the phrases on both sides of the punctuation are full sentences. In other words, both the phrases can stand by themselves. Theoretically, if you were to take the phrase on the left side of the period and cut off everything on the right, it would still make sense. Similarly, if you were to remove the left side of the punctuation, the right side could also stand alone by itself. 

Semicolons are used for the same purpose. If you were to consider the left phrase by itself, leaving out the right half, it should form a full sentence. Similarly, leaving out the left half wouldn’t affect the ability of the right half to stand alone.

The only difference between a period and a semicolon is that a semicolon is only used when the two parts in question have a strong relation to each other. Periods can be used regardless of whether the two parts of the statement are related to each other.

As a pro tip, though, the SAT will never test your knowledge of the differences between a period and a semicolon. For the purposes of the SAT, they mean the exact same thing when used in a sentence.

Colons, on the other hand, are used when the phrase to the right of the punctuation is a clarification of the first part of the statement. The second half of the statement is never a complete sentence; rather it explains, describes, or gives examples of what was stated in the first part.

For example, the statement, “We learned a plethora of new information in Calculus class today: derivatives, integrals, and limits.” uses a colon, because the second part of the sentence could not stand by itself. If we were just to use the part of the sentence after the colon, there’s no subject and verb to form a complete sentence. The words in the second part simply elaborate on or describe the first part.

Use evidence based questions wisely

Evidence based questions are a subset of questions on the SAT which test your ability to recognize the text evidence for the previous question’s answer. For an example, let’s revisit the question presented in tip number 5.

To what does the narrator attribute his motivation and persistence?

(A) The narrator’s ironed suit

(B) The narrator’s morning routine

(C) The chirping of the birds outside

(D) The narrator’s daily cup of coffee

Right after a question like this, you may very well see a question that looks something like the following question:

Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?

  1. “The joyful chirps of the birds would push me forward, motivating me to be just as persistent as them.”
  2. “The birds no longer chirp, or at least I don’t pay attention to them.”
  3. “I used to get up at 6 A.M., ready to face whatever was in store for me for the day.”
  4. “After my daily cup of coffee, I was ready to skip my way to work.”

A big part of the SAT reading section is actually finding the answers within the text. If you think about it, the test booklet with the passages gives you everything you need to know to answer the questions; it’s up to you to find them.

I’d say that’s the hardest part of the SAT: knowing where to look. Luckily, ‘command of evidence’ questions make it a lot easier by literally telling you where to look. While these may seem like some of the hardest questions on the SAT, they’re also some of the most helpful in that they save time by showing you the lines you should be reading to answer. 

A good strategy for the reading section is to go through the beginning of each passage and circle all the ‘command of evidence’ questions so you know where they are. Then, go through and star the question right BEFORE each evidence question. For these questions, you know you don’t have to do a lot of passage digging for the answer since it’s right there in the next question! 

Once you’ve read through the passage and are in the process of answering the questions, make sure to consciously stop at the ones that are starred. Instead of blindly answering the starred question or scrambling to find the answer in the passage, read the answer choices for the next ‘command of evidence’ question first.

Locate those in the passage, understand their meaning within the context of the passage, and then go back to the starred question. Use the evidence that the circled questions gives you to make an educated decision on the previous question. Then, the next question becomes easier because you know what piece of evidence you used to make that decision!

For instance, in the example question, you would first read through choices A – D in the evidence question. Which answer choice describes the narrator’s motivation and persistence?

It’s answer choice A! None of the other answer choices even allude to motivation or persistence. Now that we know the evidence for the answer, we can come up with the answer.

As answer choice A states, the birds chirping is what pushes the narrator forward. Therefore, we know the answer to the prior question is C, the chirping of the birds outside.

Pay attention to the tone

A lot of students come into the SAT reading section thinking that they’re going to be tested on their reading comprehension. I made this mistake myself, assuming that the questions would be based on content that was directly in the lines of the text.

A big thing that the SAT tests on, though, is your ability to read beyond the lines of the text: to understand the tone of a passage, whether that tone is formal, informal, casual, or something completely different. 

Let’s analyze at an example:

Recent research has divulged quite weird data. It implies a greater need for the scientific community to step outside a general zone of comfort and explore unknown possibilities.

  1. Flabbergasting
  2. Wacky
  3. Shocking
  4. No change

In this example, you may be surprised to hear that all of the words given in the answer choices mean the same thing! If you were to open a dictionary (which you can’t do on the SAT, by the way) all of these words are synonyms for each other. What separates them then? How do you tell the right answer from the wrong?

This question is called a tone question. The only thing that differentiates each answer choice from each other is the tone of the word. What might be helpful in these types of questions is to mark each answer choice as having a formal or informal connotation. Would it belong better in a conversation between the president and his office staff (formal) or between two childhood friends (informal)?

The next step is to mark each choice as either positive, negative, or neutral. Some words have an inherently negative connotation. Words like “disgusting,” “gross,” or “cheap” all have a negative descriptive impact on the word that they modify.

Other words have a positive connotation, such as “happy,” “bright,” or “promising.”All of these words create a positive mood around the word that they describe. The last category of words is neutral. Words like “shocking,” “curious,” or “different” are all neutral. In other words, they don’t have a big impact on the tone of the sentence they are placed in.

One you’ve marked each answer choice with either informal or formal and positive, negative, or neutral, you’re set to start answering the question!

Let’s first look at the ‘no change’ option. While the word weird isn’t necessarily too formal or too informal to use in this context, it usually has a negative connotation to it. It is usually used to describe something that is strange in a bad way. If we read the entire sentence, it isn’t necessarily telling us that the data is unique in a bad way. It’s just surprising. You can mark answer choice D (no change) as a negative, slightly informal answer choice.

Next we’ll look at answer choice A. Choice A, flabbergasting, is kind of a slang word, and has an informal connotation to it. It isn’t necessarily positive or negative, so we’ll mark it as neutral. The same goes for the word wacky. It is informal and would probably fit better in a conversational passage between two friends. The word has somewhat of a negative connotation, used to describe things that are out of the blue in an odd, somewhat unpleasant way.

Shocking is more of a formal word, in contrast to the informality of synonymous words like “surprising” or “flabbergasting.” We’ll mark this word as formal. When looking at its connotation, though, it doesn’t have either positive or negative implications. Something can be shocking in a good way. Something can also be shocking in a bad way. It just depends on the scenario. So we’ll mark it as neutral.

The next step in solving the question is to refer back to the passage and/or given sentence and figure out what the tone of the original sentence is supposed to be. In this scenario, phrases such as “divulged” and “scientific community” reveal a formal tone to the passage.

When trying to figure out the sentence’s connotation, you’ll notice that there’s nothing particularly positive or negative about the statement. The author isn’t saying anything bad about the data. But they’re also not saying anything good. Rather, they’re stating objective facts. We’ll mark the sentence as neutral.

Now, all you have to do is match the answer choices to the passage. You’ll notice that only one of the answer choices A through D matches the passage in both formality and neutrality. This would be answer choice C, shocking. Just like the passage, shocking maintains a neutral tone while also displaying a level of formality that the other answer choices don’t. 

You’ll find this strategy unbelievably helpful when faced with these types of word problems where all the answer choices mean roughly the same thing. Remember, the SAT doesn’t just test your ability to read words. It also tests your ability to read beyond them.

Concluding Thoughts:

As in any section or standardized test, it’s impossible to compile an exhaustive list of strategies that can get you through the test. The SAT is always changing and evolving and there are some strategies that you may use on one test that won’t come into play on another.

Regardless, committing a few of these strategies to memory can not only improve your test-taking skills, but can also make one of the notoriously hard sections of the SAT test easier for you!

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Author: Anisha Holla

Anisha Holla graduated as the valedictorian of her high school, and has since been named a National Merit Scholar, a National AP Scholar and a Coca-Cola Scholar. She is currently one of 20 Eugene McDermott Scholars at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she studies Psychology on the pre-med track. She loves to play her piano, flute and guitar; and one of her favorite hobbies is trying out new food places in the area. Holla is fluent in Spanish, Hindi and Kannada, and newly conversational in Mandarin. After graduation, she plans to either pursue a career in psychiatry or an MBA .