Critical Reading Strategies

For many students, the critical reading section of the SAT is the most difficult part of the SAT.  Far too many times have I heard of students who score well in other sections but poorly in critical reading.  There are many ways strategies for earning a high score on the section however.  Although many students end up using different strategies, the one that is best to use can only be uncovered by constant studying and taking practice exams.  If one takes more practice exams, they can become more used to the prose and kinds of readings that come up on this section of the SAT.  There is however one strategy that has worked for many students, raising their scores by 100 points at times.  To be able to use this strategy, it is essential that the test taker is very focused and reads quickly with efficiency.  The main philosophy behind this strategy is: reading to truly understand the passage.

Sample Strategy:

Part 1: The Sentence Completions (1-2 minutes)

Know your vocabulary very well.  It is essential that you study SAT vocabulary every day.  One of the best ways to memorize words effectively is by using flashcards.  If you’re content making flashcards yourself,the Direct Hits Vocabulary books provide the most efficient, comprehensive review of SAT vocabulary words. However, if you’d prefer to buy pre-made flashcards, a good set of flashcards is the Princeton Review’s Essential SAT Vocabulary (500 words).  This box of cards helps you separate the cards into two different sections: words you already know for sure and words that you are still not certain of.  If you do know a word for sure (and this means that you will remember it if used randomly in any conversation or any text), place the corresponding flashcard into the “known” section.  If you are still 100% not sure, keep it in the back of the “not yet know” section.  As little as 30 minutes a day practicing 10-30 words can help you know most of the words on test day.  To do well on the sentence completion part of the SAT it is essential to understand how a sentence is leading to either an agreement from one clause next to the next or to a disagreement/rebuttal.  If one can understand where a sentence is going, then they can know if the word that needs to fill in a blank has a good or bad connotation. The process of elimination should be used only when one understands where the sentence is going.  Using the process too early may lead you to cross out answers that may be correct!  Enough constant practice and memorization of words will enable one to finish the sentence completion section in 1-2 minutes.

Part 2: The Short Passage (7-10 Minutes)

The key to answering short passage questions correctly is the same as the key to answering long passage questions correctly: proper understanding.  Summarizing the passage in your head after you have read it really helps.  When you read the short passage, pay close attention to the tone and style of the author.  Is the author attempting to describe something?  Is the author simply stating something to make an argument?  What is the author describing or arguing?  If it’s a paired passage set, ask yourself if the two passages agree on something, disagree on something, or if one simply extends the point of the other through description or logic.  Asking yourself these questions should make the main idea question very easily answerable.  The best way to tackle the detail question is to reread the detail in the passage along with the rest of the passage.  These questions do not simply want to know what a certain quotation means, but what does it mean in the context of a passage?  Does the author use that quotation to show the weakness of an opposite argument or is the author just attempting to prove his point through example?  Summarizing the passage in a few key words on the side of the passage or simply taking a second to memorize it in your head will make detail questions much easier.  For questions that ask about the author’s attitude towards a subject, ask yourself: does the author find inspiration from the subject, does he praise it, does he belittle it?  If the author is in awe of the subject of the passage, then the author will emphasize qualities of the subject in a positive light.  Again, practice with the reading section will allow one to understand what the key differences are in being “awed” or “disgusted.”  Paired passages require an understanding of how the passages relate to each other.  Once this relationship is figured out, the detail questions become very simple.  If a question asks for you how one line in passage A shows a view in passage B, you can easily know the answer because you will have figured out the relationship between the passages.

Part 3: The Longer Passages (15-16 Minutes)

It is very understandable that students run out of time during the reading section of the SAT.  The level of the passages may not be exactly the level of the works one is required to read in school.  Therefore, as stated before, it is very important that a student constantly takes practice exams to get used to the style and structure of SAT passages.  When one is able to finish the passages on time, then a student should work towards accuracy.

After reading each paragraph, summarize on the side of the passage (with 2-3 words, doesn’t even need to be a full sentence) and in your head.  It may seem as if summaries waste time, but it actually only takes a second or two out of the 15 minutes you should have left.  After you are sure you understand a paragraph (and by being sure I actually mean getting that “gut feeling”), move on to the next paragraph.  After you have quickly summarized the next paragraph  connect the previous one(s) with the one you have just read.  This gives the idea of the passage some continuity in your mind.  You will instantly understand the tone and main idea of the passage, the way it is proving a point, or what certain symbolism is trying to portray.  The connotation of words in context becomes easier to understand when the tone is understood. Voila, at least 4 multiple choice questions are answered.  The other detail questions may take some more time but you already summarized the paragraphs and therefore really know what the details mean in context.  So take that off your list.  And now for tone questions…. well you already know since you developed a continuity of the idea in your head.  You knew where the passage went after you connected the paragraphs in your head.  To really use this strategy, one needs to read somewhat quickly.  The passage should take 5-6 minutes to read.  Once the passage is truly understood, then the questions will take 2-3 minutes to answer.  You may find yourself very close to the end time for the section, but you will also be assured that you answered the questions correctly.  Go over your answers.  However, do not readily erase your answers!!  Sticking with your first guess is usually more profitable than changing your answer.

Other Strategies

Many people will suggest reading the questions first.  This may or may not work depending on the person since it may make one jump to conclusions once they have assumed they have the right answer.  However, the best strategy to use is the one you are most comfortable with.

One Response

  1. Mannika
    Mannika at · Reply

    Hi! I’m going to give the 23rd January test. I took the November test and scored, R-590 W-670 with 9 in the essay M-760.
    I’m targeting the Ivy Leagues, so I really need to boost my score. Can you help me with a study plan and how to go about each section?

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