SAT Reading Note Taking

Annotating Passages on the SAT


The purpose of annotating the passages has 2 important aspects.

1. Annotation will help you understand the main points and organization of the passage.

2. Annotation will force your brain to pay attention. If you have ever read every word in a passage but had not idea what you read, your brain checked out of the process and was thinking about lunch…or a nap.

There is plenty of debate about whether to take notes when reading SAT passages. Some say don’t bother while others insist it is mandatory. But the issue is more complicated and depends on a number of factors.

Write in your Books! Okay, not if you borrowed them from the library. But if you own the book, don't be afraid to write notes in it.
Write in your Books! (Okay, don’t if you borrowed it from the library)

Are you a weak or strong reader?

Weak readers struggle to consolidate information more than strong readers do. So weak readers benefit more from practicing the skill of reading and consolidating information into a short phrase or key word.

Different passages require different strategies.

A mistake that I see students make is they use the same system for all of the reading passages, but students need to extract different types of information from Literature passages than they do from Science passages. A Global Conversation Passage (History) will often have 1 main point that will be repeated, emphasized, and reiterated. This repetition often has to do with the fact that these passages are speeches which require repetition to ensure the audience understands the point. Expect to adjust the amount and type of annotations depending on the passage.

Identifying too little or too much.

Many students underline what they think are key ideas, but the problem with this is that this strategy requires students to reread the underlined sections and doesn’t necessarily improve retention of the information in the passage. On the other hand, some students spend too much time thinking and writing long explanations. Ideally you want to write 2-4 words that will prompt your memory or identify the location of key information. You can use abbreviations to simplify the process.

Demo of how to take notes on SAT Reading passages
Annotating SAT Literature Passages

Do you read fast enough?

Many students who complain about annotating feel that they don’t have time. This is because they do not read fast enough. You should have a reading speed of 250 words per minute, minimum. A reading speed of closer to 350 words per minute is better. Ideally you should be able to read the passage and take notes in under 3 minutes. This allows 8-10 minutes to focus on the questions. If your reading speed is too slow, practice increasing your reading speed while maintaining your comprehension. Yes, this will take time and effort.

Annotating SAT Science Passages

Keys to effective annotation

Be Brief

Use short forms, key words and the minimum you need to understand the topic/function of a passage. If a paragraph is an example of the concept from a previous paragraph, it is sufficient to write “Ex” in the margin. Use + and – signs to indicate tone. Remember you only need to understand your notes for about 12 minutes.

Note any shifts in point of view or opinion.

Write the name of the source of that opinion in the margin to prevent confusion in passages where there are multiple points of view. Frequently Science and Social Science passages incorporate opinions from multiple experts, some who may contradict others.

Write the names of the authors above the double passages

The double passages and the comparison questions can be confusing, but to simplify write the names of the authors on each passage, so you can tell at a glance which author belongs to which passage.

Write more at the beginning of the passage and less near the end

Once you work your way through the introduction and first column, you can probably make fewer and more abstract notes because ideally you should have a solid understanding of the passage. However, read the conclusion carefully.

Note the Main idea and Tone

The Main Idea and Tone are helpful because if you struggle to choose between 2 answer choices, look at which choice aligns closer to the Main idea and Tone.

Practice, practice, practice

When learning a new skill, you will need to slow down at first. It is during this slow down that students abandon annotating because they panic that they are wasting time. But once you become adept at taking notes, you will see an overall improvement. Practicing this skill by reading long articles can help you improve your reading speed and annotating skills. Pair up with a friend or someone who is a stronger reader to see how accurate you are.

Question: If I made a list of SAT level articles and annotations you could check your answers against, how likely are you to use it?

Link to SAT Reading Guide for Literature Passages

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