SAT Reading Section Guide

How to Read a Literature Passage

The literature passage is arguably the most difficult part of the SAT, as most high schoolers either don’t read enough highbrow literature or don’t read enough at all. Thus, when they get passages from writers like Haruki Murakami, Zora Neale Hurston or Virginia Woolf, trying to figure out the meaning of the words becomes impossible.

Sadly, the easiest way to learn how to read literature properly is through years of experience and reading progressively higher level books and articles. I think you’ve done a lot this already, so that’s good, but you have to read more. And don’t just read boring stuff for the sake of practice, read interesting articles that keep you attention. And try to read them quickly as well. That’s the best practice advice I can give for this entire section, but I’ll add some more. Just read the New York Times every day, or your preferred news outlet about things you enjoy.

Anyway, I approach the SAT literature section recursively rather than straightforwardly. That means that I quickly skim through all the questions first and then start reading the passage. Now, that is a difficult strategy to pull off because it requires some very quick reading, but I think the time allotted should be enough to use that tactic. Basically, if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking for in a passage, than I will have no idea what to remember when I start reading the paragraphs.

The work should be done methodically, and the SAT questioners help you out a bit by structuring the questions in the chronological order. Once you’ve scanned through the questions and picked out the main ideas and words you need to remember, then you should start actually reading the passage. This also helps stave off boredom as the passage becomes somewhat easier to read through if you use the questions as a guiding light.

In fact, staving off boredom is basically the most important part of getting a good score on the reading section. You have to somehow trick yourself into actually giving a shit about what is on the page. You can’t glaze over for a few minutes and lose track of concentration, even if the passage is extremely boring. I suggest practicing with a magazine article, novel or science feature. Just concentrate on the article for at least 10-15 minutes with no distractions or checking your phone. You have to connect it to your experience or anything, no matter how tenuous it might be, or else you’ll just get bored and forget what you’re reading. You can even practice with this guide, if you want. I’ll attach some links at the bottom to practice.

Anyway, back to literature. Unfortunately, literary types refuse to ever give you what they mean straight-up. They use a lot of metaphors, unnecessarily long words, and confusing sentence structures. Thankfully, the SAT has decreased the amount of bona fide literature on the SAT so you’ll be getting more straightforward passages, but there will still be that one literature passage to get through.

After you’ve glanced at the questions, start reading the passage. The first thing you should do is find the author’s voice or argument. There is always an SAT question about what the author is intending. If it’s hard to tell at first, keep reading through the end. If you need to remember, write down the main point of what the passage is describing on the side of the page. The second thing you should do is flip back and forth between the reading and the questions once you start answering and underline all the key words that are used in the passage that you are asked about. Don’t even bother underlining anything that’s not in the questions unless you think it’s important. It’s not worth it.

When you go back through the questions, they will usually refer to certain lines in the passage. Just do yourself a favor and go back and check what they’re referring to before you answer the question. You’re asking for trouble by just going off memory alone. Whenever I write an essay or do reading comprehension, I constantly refer back to the text to make sure I’m getting it right. If it says, “in lines 4-5…what do Joe mean by?”, go back and see what specific moment they are referring to. These are all fairly sensible tactics.

Alright, finally, we get to the nitty-gritty part, finding out what the heck is the right answer. Basically, the questions will fall into three categories: the overall idea, what does this set of words mean or do, and what does the author mean by this

These questions are difficult to ascertain sometimes. The overall idea ones are generally the simplest questions and you don’t even need to take more than a second at them when you’re looking through the questions at the beginning. It’s usually just, what is this about, etc.

What does this set of words/lines mean is really hard to give a general rule because literature is weird. Generally, the SAT wants you to think critically, whatever that means, which means that the metaphorical or non-literal answer is usually more likely. But not always. Sometimes the pen is just a pen. But it’s usually not, if you get my drift. I’ll work on this more over the phone.

What does the author mean by this is generally the hardest question to answer. It’s really difficult to find out what an author actually means during an obscure passage. Also, the SAT choices are very confusing. The classic “cross-out the definitely wrong answer” strategy is helpful at all stages, and becomes particularly effective here. However, it is very time consuming to have to read through all the answers and check back on the text. Therefore, you might want to save them until the end. Again I’ll work on this more later.

Also, with the SAT getting rid of the sentence completion questions, so you no longer need to know pointless definitions! Hallelujah! Sometimes authors use pointlessly complex words, however, so you should still expand your vocabulary if possible. Do that through reading other things.

How to Read a Science/Econ/History Passage

If you’ve studied for the ACT Science section, this should be a bit familiar. The New SAT has a lot more graphs and statistics, apparently, so you will need to learn how to read trendlines and correlations and stuff.

Basic Stats Primer:

If something is trending upwards/downwards, it’s important.

If there’s an average of something on the page, compare everything to that average.

Words in Context

The SAT is now big on using “words in context” which is basically means use the sentence to figure out what the word means. For example, the word “close” means a lot of different things.

“I am very close to my friend Julia.”

“On the plane, I was sitting very close to the window.”

Scientists and economists are quite literal. They don’t have time for any BS. If the word’s surroundings suggest that a word means something, that’s probably what it means. Authors are more annoying, but they generally also follow the same pattern (at least for SAT passages…not if you’re James Joyce).

Words in context should play heavily in the science reading.

Again, try to get yourself interested about what you’re reading. Just find any way to motivate yourself to fight through the passage and figure out what is going on. The biggest difference between a 650 and a 800 on the reading section will be careless mistakes brought on by fatigue. Just try to stay focused and interested, even if you have to make up a reason to be interested.

If the passage is on mortgage prices, than sorry, but you have to think, “oh, I watched The Big Short and Christian Bale was in it, so maybe this is important because I like Christian Bale”. It’s a mental attitude problem, at some point.

Generally, you know how to do this. Teachers have been giving students articles on science, history and economics throughout high school. These are going to be slightly above textbook level readings, except you don’t have much time to finish them. It isn’t analyzing an Ernest Hemingway piece. It’s analyzing an article and answering the questions. You may have to relate one of the questions to a graphs alongside the problem. Again, it’s going to be basic stuff.

READ THE LABELS OF THE GRAPH – no explanation, just have to do it


I suggest working methodically and skipping the questions you just have no clue over. Now, that doesn’t mean skip everything, but the ones you’re completely split on, go ahead and then come back later. The SAT no longer gives a penalty for guessing so if worse comes to worst, than you can just bubble in random answers.

Other notes:

Don’t panic.

Time allotment. Generally, I allot slightly more time to the literature. You can adjust this how you need to. I’m not going to say, you have 15 minutes to do this or else. That just adds to the pressure, and you really want to be relaxed on these tests. If you go slightly over, that’s okay. If you go wayyy over, that’s not okay, but you can still work through it. Work through your own time allotment as you practice more.
Bubbling the Scantron takes about 2 precious minutes. You have to factor that in while trying to allot time.