8 Mistakes Students Make in SAT Reading

I spend my days telling students the right way to approach the SAT. Many of them say “yes.” But then they continue to do things the easy way or the comfortable way. However, frequently the easy way is also the easy way to not achieve a high score. Avoid these 8 mistakes students make and see your SAT Reading score rise.

Skip the introductory material

At the beginning of must passages is short introduction that tells who wrote passage, when it was written and often other key information. I have been shocked by the number of students who skip reading this. That information is often crucial to understanding key ideas, setting the context, and identifying the authors of double passages. READ IT!

Don’t Consider Context

Some of the mistakes students make have to do with their own lack of context. How you read the passage may depend on its context. Passages from the 19th century will use vocabulary in less familiar ways. People might have stricter rules of behavior. Additionally, historical events might affect the tone and meaning of the issue discussed. Always keep in mind the time and place of the passage’s creation.

Skim the passage

There are various suggestions on how to read the passages. Some suggest reading every word carefully. However, others suggest reading only the first and last lines of each paragraph. Honestly, the best choice is somewhere down the middle. Read carefully all of the Literature passage. Read carefully all of History (Global Conversation) passage. For Science and Social Science passages, you should read the first 2 paragraphs carefully and then decide whether you understand the topic and main idea. If so, you can read the rest of the passage a little faster until you come to the end. Read the last bit carefully. If you don’t understand the passage, you are really just guessing when it comes to the questions.

Keep your page clean

There are no bonus points for having a pristine test booklet. Taking notes (not underlining only) is the best method for ensuring your comprehension, mapping the passage, and avoiding being tricked by confusing answer choices.

Every paragraph (or 15-20 lines), pause and write a 2-5 word summary or key point from that part of the passage. This will ensure you remain focused. Frequently, students read every word of a passage and reach the end only to discover that they have no idea what they just read. This is a massive waste of time. If you know you will have to write a note every few lines, you are more likely to pay attention.

Additionally, this produces a map of the passage. At a glance you can see where the second experiment is first mentioned, how the example relates to the main idea, and when the author switches topics. This can be a big time saver when looking back at the passage to ensure your answer choice is correct.

At the end of the passage, you should also write down the Main Idea and the Tone of the passage. Why? I’m happy you asked. Here is a big secret. Correct answers line up with the main idea and tone better than wrong ones. If a passage is neutral in tone, then answer choices that are extremely negative or extremely positive should be eliminated first.

Don’t think of your own answer first

One sign of a high scoring student is that they think of their own answer to the question before looking at the answer choices. And the ones who are determined to score perfectly, write it down. This is particularly important for the Vocabulary in Context questions. Go back to the sentence, ignore the original word and read the sentence inserting your own word that maintains the meaning of the sentence. Then use your word as a guide when choosing the answer. Your word should be more specific than the original word and is less likely to lead you astray. This can be used for other types of questions as well. If you have decided on your own answer, you can use it to eliminate wrong choices that might be tempting.

Choose the first answer that seems reasonable

A huge mistake I see students making is that they rush through and pick the first reasonable sounding answer choice without reading the rest of the options. I assure you that the College Board knows of this tendency and will use it to ensure your Reading Score remains at 250. You must read all of the answer choices and that includes the long ones. In fact, I suggest if the question has really long answer choices, you start with choice D and work backwards. First of all by breaking the a,b,c,d habit, you will wake up your brain a little. Secondly, you are less likely to say “good enough” at B.

Only look for Correct Answers

One of the biggest mistakes students make is only looking for the “right” answers. Sometimes, the right answer is written in abstract language or just isn’t aligning with your train of thought. It is often easier to identify the wrong answers and eliminate them. Once you are certain that 3 choices are absolutely wrong, the 4th choice must be right–even if you don’t know why.

Sample of answer choices eliminated using process of elimination
Use Process of Elimination Consistently

Bubble in One answer at a time

If you decide on an answer and then immediately bubble it in on your sheet, you may be wasting time and locking yourself into a wrong answer. A better choice is to make your choices on your test booklet. Write your answer (big!) beside the question. Also, if you are unsure and are deciding between 2 choices write the 2 options beside the question and finish the rest. Do the entire passage (10-11 questions) and then transfer all of those choices to the bubble sheet. Any choices you were unsure of may be clearer after finishing the rest of the questions.

You can avoid these common mistakes students make by being aware of shortcuts that are sometime suggested and understand these tricks can’t get you perfect on the SAT reading section.

Image of a sample passage with good and bad examples of annotation
Front cover of book: Guide to SAT Reading Global Conversation Passages. A purple background with a stack of books on the left side.

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