That is the beautiful irony of the SAT: even the simplest strategies can drastically improve your score. Reading the right way is one of them.
I can tell you’re thinking, Lili, there’s only one way to read: one word after the other. Really, it’s not that complicated. No, but it can be incredibly time-consuming. We all know that if the College Board gave us an unlimited amount of time to take the SAT, it’d be a much less challenging test to take. So how can we make the timed SAT easier for us to take? By making the test shorter! In the case of SAT Critical Reading sections, we want to reduce the amount of time we spend on reading and use that extra time to answer the section questions.
Reading passages is where students often waste the most of their time while attempting the Critical Reading section. Recognizing that this section intends to test students on their reading comprehension skills, the majority of test-takers place reading the passage (or both passages, in the case of a dual passage Critical Reading section,) as their highest priority, believing that they can’t answer the section questions without first reading the ENTIRE passage. By the time they finish reading the decently long passage, they’ve most likely already forgotten the content of the first few paragraphs, and as they continue to attempt the section questions, they continue to forget much of what they’ve read, needing to return to the passage to refresh their memory before answering questions towards the middle and end of the section.
To combat this sufficient time loss, some test-takers try to speed read, taking in the content of the passage at twice the normal rate. Other test-takers try to skim read, glancing at topic sentences and scanning the passage for repeated names, phrases, or concepts that may be important. Speed reading and skim reading methods allow test-takers to absorb the gist of the passage more quickly, but at the cost of flying by details that will most likely appear in section questions. In all honesty, 25 minutes is not enough time to both read and comprehend a lengthy passage well enough to correctly answer complex and detailed reading comprehension questions.
So what do we do? We turn the Critical Reading section of the SAT into a “Look-Up-The-Answer” test. Remember that answering questions, and answering them correctly, is the most important thing to do on the SAT. So let’s turn your approach around to first focus on the questions, not the reading. When you open your test booklet to a Critical Reading section, flip straight to the questions and check out the specific details you need to find in the passage in order to answer those questions.
Now there are two types of questions on the Critical Reading section: detail questions and general questions. Detail questions typically include line references and ask you about a specific person, concept, or event described in only a few lines in the passage. General questions typically ask you for an overall analysis of the entire passage or a comparison of both passages.
When you answer detail questions, simply look up the answer in the passage. Detail questions are the easiest to answer quickly, since they tell you exactly which lines in the passage will provide the answer. It’s more likely that you’ll answer these questions correctly because you no longer have to waste time searching for the relevant details and you need only read a few lines – not the ENTIRE passage – to find right answer. You should do as many detail questions as you can before switching focus to general questions.
General questions are more difficult to answer, because these questions ask you to work with many details – a whole paragraph, an entire passage, or dual passages. Fortunately, by the time you’ve attempted all the detail questions, you’ll most likely have read enough of the passage to adequately answer the general questions. See, when you referred back to the passage to answer detail questions, you actually read at least half of the passage without even intending to, which better prepares you to correctly answer general questions in a quicker amount of time.
Reading the questions first and looking up only the relevant details in the passage, as well as attempting detail questions before general ones, will help you better manage your time on the SAT Critical Reading section. More time in the right places means more correct answers, which is what SAT prep is all about.