Strategies for SAT Critical Reading Passages

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Today I want to explain my method for beating the long reading SAT Passages and the Reading Comprehension section and getting a perfect score on the Critical Reading section of the SAT.

This is the very method I teach my students nowadays in one-on-one lessons and I have received a great deal of positive feedback on it. If it really feels unnatural to you at first, I still advise you try it out for a while with actual practice (in the SAT Blue Book, for example) and see if it doesn’t develop into a more comfortable strategy. If it’s not for you, don’t force yourself to use it! However, it seems to work very well for a large percentage of students who apply it seriously.


The reasoning behind my SAT Critical Reading passages strategy:

First let me explain my reasoning, then I’ll explain how it works. It’s important to get into the “mind” of the SAT in order to truly defeat it.

I see reading comprehension as the most important part of the reading section. Everyone wants to tout their so-called “SECRET METHOD” for outwitting the SAT – “read the questions first,” “read one paragraph, then answer a question, then read a paragraph,” etc. What these programs provide is all just common sense.

There are a hundred ways to try to “trick” your way to a great Critical Reading score by starting off with questions or whatever but none of them will really work. Why? Because you have to understand the passage clearly to get all the questions correct!

The SAT is designed to make students with average reading speeds feel a real time crunch. Elite scorers can generally speed-read through passages and remember them clearly (due to long-term practice at reading all sorts of things through life).

If your reading speed is slow or average, this is just a reminder that you should get my FREE Urgent Report on the SAT Critical Reading section right now.

The best SAT Critical Reading advice I can give is just to focus on getting all the questions right for the passages that you have time to read. This depends on well-polished reading comprehension skills.

Comprehension difficulties don’t just cost you points; they can lead to frustrations and downward-spiraling emotions on test day that cripple your chances of getting a great score! You know that weird dizziness that accompanies excessive SAT-taking? It shows up right in the middle of the test and makes you feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience of combined boredom and agony?

Well, that comes up in the Critical Reading section when you don’t completely understand what you’re reading. So focus on understanding!


Pro Strategies for SAT Critical Reading Passages:

No matter what level of SAT prep you are at – beginner or elite – this method can help you as a complete strategy if you want solid SAT score gains, or as an exercise if you already are an elite scorer and have a method of your own, in which case this can be used as a practice exercise.

1. How to start a long SAT Critical Reading Passage

  • Read the blurb (the part in italics at the beginning of each reading passage). Don’t skip the blurb. Read the blurb. It often will give you helpful clues about the author.
  • Read enough of the first paragraph to orient yourself to things like time, place, and the narrator’s point of view; think about these things for a moment, then keep reading. If you can keep track of these three things (time, place, and the narrator’s opinion) you will usually be oriented and stay oriented from sentence to sentence. Always be vigilant and alert for abrupt changes in any of these three factors. The passage may try to confuse you.
  • The narrator’s point of view is always important in longer passages. Are they sincere, sarcastic, happy, unhappy, matter-of-fact, curious, etc? Does their mood change or stay the same throughout the passage? Keep it in mind.

2. How to read and take notes on each paragraph of an SAT Critical Reading Passage

  • One word: “Notes.” It’s all about the way you mark up your page. Underlining is a good start, but it doesn’t help you remember why you underlined, and it’s really easy to get on “autopilot” and not remember anything.
  • Summarize each paragraph in 2-5 words that you write in the margins. Very long paragraphs (you probably won’t see one ever) can get 4-10 words.
  • Pick important keywords if it’s a more fact- or detail-based paragraph; skim over lists of details or flowery descriptions.
  • Focus more on why the author is writing; are they reflecting, arguing passionately, telling an interesting story, trying to make us laugh?
  • The first and last sentences of each paragraph are the most important, as a good rule of thumb, and provide the best source of keywords for your 2-5 summary of each paragraph.
  • If you really don’t get something about a paragraph here and there, put a question mark near it and soldier onwards. You can come back to it at the end. Try to make a habit of understanding each paragraph before moving on, though.

3. So I read and took notes on all the paragraphs, now what?

  • Look back over your notes. Do they provide an effective guide to the passage? Can you follow what you’ve written on the page and say “yeah, I remember that part?” If you can’t do this easily, keep working on taking notes based on keywords in the first and last sentences of each paragraph on new passages, until you nail it.
  • Good notes effectively serve three purposes: First, they provide a “table of contents,” or guide, as mentioned above. Second, they keep you focused and attentive if (and only if!) you develop this strategy as your habit. If you approach every practice section this way, you will automatically take good notes when you’re in the real exam. Third, good note-taking teaches you to look for keywords and important clues in each paragraph, one by one, the first time you read through the passage.
  • Congratulations – this is no-tricks, no-nonsense reading comprehension improvement. Practice this in your Blue Book and you’ll see your score go up.

4. Wrapping up the reading passage with the conclusion and summary

  • The end of a long SAT critical reading passage is crucial – if nothing else, you should double-check that nothing significant has changed from the beginning of the passage. Common changes are: a change of place and/or time, a change in the narrator’s outlook, or a change in a relationship (either person to person, person to society, or a group of people to society)
  • Reflect for a moment on the passage, go back over any trouble spots, then get into the questions as soon as possible.

Don’t forget to get your free report on the SAT Critical Reading (time is of the essence – download it today!)

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Perfect-scorer, pro tutor, entrepreneur, web designer, textbook author, motorcyclist, rock and roll guitarist, classical pianist, songwriter, wanderer, environmentalist, dog lover, cat lover, spicy food addict.


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