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Five Common Mistakes to Avoid on Your Reading SAT
Every year, millions of students take the SAT, one of two major standardized tests that assess college readiness by measuring math, verbal, and reasoning skills. Although the test does measure knowledge to an extent, its intention has always been to measure a student’s ability to think critically and apply knowledge rather than assessing the amount or strength of background knowledge a student brings to the test.
Because the test aims to assess how you use your existing knowledge, test questions and pacing are designed to highlight common stumbling points in the way you think. Often, the answer choices for multiple-choice questions will represent the most common mistakes that students make. Testing errors like misinterpreting a question or rushing through your work are common ways to lose points.
So, how do you maximize your scoring potential on the SAT? By recognizing the most common mistakes and taking steps to avoid them, you can ensure that your score on the SAT reflects your true ability. In this post, we outline five of the most common SAT Reading mistakes, and our advice for avoiding them on test day.
What does the Reading SAT assess?
The Reading portion of the SAT, along with the Writing and Language portion, is part of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the test. On the Reading SAT, you’ll have 65 minutes to answer 52 multiple-choice questions based on five written passages. Each individual passage is 500-750 words in length, or a set of paired passages will total 500-750 words between the two of them.
No pre-existing knowledge is assumed on the SAT Reading test. That means that all of the information you need to answer every question on the test can be found in the test materials in front of you.
The SAT Reading test aims to assess your abilities in critical reading, use of context clues to determine meaning, and analysis of a text. While the stand-alone vocabulary section of the test has been eliminated, you will still be asked about the meaning of words as determined by their context.
Five Common Reading SAT Mistakes
1. Mismanaging Your Time
In 65 minutes, you need to read approximately 3000 words and answer 52 questions. Each individual passage is paired with 10-12 questions, and you should aim to spend no more than 12 minutes on each passage or set of paired passages. At this pace, you’ll have about five minutes remaining at the end of the test to check or review your answers.
By pacing yourself carefully you will be able to complete the entire Reading SAT test in the time allowed, but many students still find themselves rushed at the end of the test. To avoid this requires not only knowing the pace that you’ll need to keep, but also employing some time management techniques to keep yourself moving.
The two-pass strategy is one way to help manage your time. To use this technique, progress through the test as you normally would, but when you reach a difficult question or a question that seems like it will take more time than usual, make your best guess, circle the question on your answer sheet and in your test booklet, and then move on to questions that you can answer more efficiently.
At the end of the section, return to the circled questions and review them. Doing so after finishing the section means that spending more time on them won’t come at the cost of time spent on easier questions that you’re presumably more likely to get correct.
Another time management strategy you’ll need to master for the Reading SAT is skim reading. Some students find they can read the entire passage quickly. Others prefer to read the introduction and conclusion, along with the first and last sentence of each paragraph in between. Still others read only the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Figure out which method works best for you and stick to your strategy.
Staying on top of your time management by using a few, simple strategies can make a big difference on your test.
2. Ignoring the Context of the Passage
The following five types of passages are always found on the Reading SAT:
- One passage from a classic or contemporary work of U.S. or world literature
- One passage or a pair of passages from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the greater global conversation they inspired (such as the U.S. Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela)
- One passage about economics, psychology, sociology, or some other social science
- Two science passages (or one passage and one passage pair) that examine foundational concepts and developments in Earth science, biology, chemistry or physics.
Recognizing the type and context of the passage you’re reading gives important clues about its purpose and the focus of the questions related to it. Often, an excerpt of fictional literature will be associated with questions about literary devices, such as foreshadowing or allusion. Similarly, a scientific passage might challenge you to use context clues to make meaning of an often-unfamiliar topic. Historic documents should always be considered within their greater historical context.
As you read, always ask yourself what type of passage you’re reading. Consider the voice of the passage and its purpose. By recognizing the type of passage presented, you can better anticipate which skills you should use to interpret it.
3. Using Outside Knowledge
You are probably used to drawing on a broad base of knowledge when answering questions on a test, but if you find yourself doing so on the SAT, you’re probably heading down the wrong path. The Reading SAT does not test your existing knowledge. Instead, it assesses your ability to use and apply the information in front of you.
Sometimes, a question will ask about the meaning of a word or the application of a specific concept. If you are racking your brain trying to remember a scientific concept you learned about in biology class, you probably aren’t using the materials in front of you. This is a common mistake not only on the Reading SAT but also on other sections as well.
Instead of drawing on your existing knowledge, always return to the text. Some students find it helpful to underline the relevant portion of the text. When you are asked about the meaning of a word, you should be using the context of the word to come up with an answer, not the dictionary meaning you’ve tried to memorize. Try plugging in the answer choices to substitute for the word in context until you find a suitable synonym.
Always go back to the text and try to find the answer in front of you instead of relying on facts you remember from science or history class to answer a question.
4. Not Knowing How to Interpret Informational Graphics
The Reading SAT will always include some informational graphics related to at least one of the passages. In fact, on the official SAT Practice Tests released by the College Board, three informational graphics are included on each Reading test and a total of five or six questions relate to them. This means that about 10% of the questions on the test are related to informational graphics.
While this isn’t a huge percentage of the content, it is definitely significant. Because these account for a content area that you can study for specifically ahead of time, you should capitalize on these questions by ensuring that you can answer them quickly and correctly. The informational graphics are not particularly complex or time consuming, as long as you know what to look for when you interpret them.
First, always read the title of the graphic and make sure you understand how it relates to the passage as a whole. Next, read all labels on the graphic. You should understand what the graphic represents and how it depicts the information. Finally, as you read questions related to the graphic, make sure that you are referring to the correct part of the graphic as you attempt to answer them.
For example, sometimes you will be tasked with interpreting one line from a graph. In this case, at least one of the answer choices will almost always represent the answer as interpreted from a different line on the graph. This is a common stumbling point, especially if you are rushing. Always take the time to double-check that you are reading the graphic correctly and referring to the correct variable when you answer a question.
5. Not Making the Most of Multiple-Choice Answers
One immediately obvious advantage that you have on the SAT is the multiple-choice answer format. You can always count on the correct answer being right there in front of you. Make sure you make the most of this advantage.
One way to capitalize on the SAT’s multiple-choice format is by employing the process of elimination. There is no guessing penalty on the new version of the SAT, so you should always answer every question with your best guess, even if you aren’t sure that you’re correct. By eliminating only one answer choice that you know is not correct, you already have a 33% chance of guessing correctly. If you can eliminate two answer choices as definitely incorrect, your odds increase to 50%, which are pretty good odds for a question you don’t know how to answer.
Another way to make sure that you maximize your performance is by always reading all of the answer choices. It is tempting, especially on a timed test such as the SAT, to answer immediately when you find an answer choice that seems correct. Don’t fall into this trap.
Always read every answer choice before filling in your answer. Sometimes, an answer will be only partially correct in order to trick you. Other times, an answer choice will represent a common misunderstanding or misinterpretation. By reading through all of the answer choices, you might discover that your initial thinking was hasty.
The Reading SAT is designed to catch you off guard and highlight the common mistakes that can come from rushing through work or not thinking your answer through completely. You can prepare to tackle the test with ease by guarding yourself against these five common mistakes.
Free SAT Reading Test Prep Materials
If you’re looking for more ways to improve your performance, check out these free test prep materials:
- The College Board provides official sample questions to help guide your studying and assess your progress. You can find these on the College Board Sample Questions – Reading page.
- The College Board also offers a Daily Practice SAT app that offers one daily practice question, an answer hint, and answer explanations to help you learn from your mistakes. It also has a time-saving scan and score service that allows you to use your phone’s camera to scan your official practice test answer sheet for automatic scoring.
- You can also find free, official study resources through Khan Academy. These resources include six full-length official practice tests, strategies for each test section of the SAT, and personalized study plans.
- Finally, don’t miss CollegeVine’s Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Reading Test, which provides an overview of test content and format along with top strategies for acing the test.
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