The SAT can seem overwhelming at first to even the strongest students. For many, it’s their first exposure to a standardized test with real impact on their future. Great test scores could open doors, and weaker ones might close them. It’s no wonder that high school students routinely report feeling stressed or anxious before their big SAT day.


But this doesn’t have to be the case. There are many effective ways to prepare for the SAT, including study groups, test prep classes, and a multitude of free online resources. If you prepare for your test and go into it feeling confident, you’ll be a step ahead.


Here at CollegeVine, we believe that everyone deserves access to high quality SAT prep materials, so we regularly publish some of our favorite SAT tips, strategies, and study advice. In this post, we’ll outline some top SAT Reading tips. If you’re looking to boost your scores on the Reading section of the SAT, don’t miss these top strategies!


What Is the Format of the SAT Reading Test?

Before you can wrap your head around SAT Reading tips and strategies, you need to have a general idea of what to expect on the test, if you haven’t already taken it. The SAT Reading test is not a stand-alone test. Instead, it is just one component of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT. The other component of this section is the Writing and Language test.


Your SAT score report will include a lot of numbers and might even seem confusing at first glance. The most important numbers, meaning the ones that are weighed most heavily by college admissions committees, are your composite score and your individual test scores. You will receive an individual score ranging from 200-800 for the Math component of the test, and another individual score ranging from 200-800 for the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing components of the test. The Reading SAT contributes to your score on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section.


The SAT Reading test consists of 52 multiple-choice questions based on five written passages that you will read and respond to over the course of 65 minutes. Each individual passages is 500-750 words in length, or a set of paired passages will total 500-750 words between the two of them.


Some of the passages will stand alone, others will be presented in pairs, and still more will include visual informational graphics such as tables, graphs, or charts. You will need to be able to interpret graphics such as these to respond to questions, but you will not need to use any math to do so on this section of the SAT.


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What Skills Are Assessed By the Reading SAT?

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. The SAT Reading test is designed to assess your ability to read critically, use context clues to determine meaning, and analyze a text. While there is no longer a stand-alone vocabulary section on the test, you will still be asked about the meaning of words as determined by their context.


Now that you have a solid understanding of the SAT Reading test, let’s breakdown some of our favorite strategies for mastering it.


Five Tips to Master the Reading SAT


1. Identify Which Mistakes You Make Most Often

It’s difficult to get started studying if you don’t know where you’re starting from. For this reason, we always recommend taking a formative assessment before you begin any studying in earnest.  If you’ve already taken the SAT once, you can use your score report to help guide you. Alternatively, we also offer a free CollegeVine Diagnostic SAT to get you started.


As you review your formative assessments, you’ll need to figure out which mistakes you make most often in order to target those skills for improvement. While the Reading SAT does intend to measure your reading skills specifically, it also tests your ability to take a standardized test effectively. If you’re not scoring as highly as you would like, you will need to isolate skills to figure out where you should focus your prep work.


Most mistakes fall into three categories: careless mistakes, pacing errors, and content knowledge. Go through your formative assessment and try to classify each mistake as one of these.


Careless mistakes are the ones that you recognize as soon as you review the test. You probably look at your answer and wonder, “What was I thinking??” as soon as you read it. These mistakes can be minimized by slowing down and developing a strategy to check your work more thoroughly.


Pacing errors are generally exposed when you miss more questions than usual at the end of the test. This usually means you were rushing through the test and had too little time at the end to complete your work carefully. When mistakes are clustered like this, it’s an indicator that you need to work on better time management skills.


Content knowledge gaps are revealed through your detailed score report or through the diagnostic SAT. These mistakes tend to be evenly distributed throughout the test but are similar in nature to one another, such as questions asking about the meaning of words in context or making predictions. You can minimize these types of mistakes by focusing your studying on the specific types of questions you tend to miss.   


Knowing where you’re most prone to make mistakes will help to guide your test prep and ultimately will result in a score that’s most indicative of your actual abilities, and not just the pitfalls you fall victim to on timed, standardized tests.


2. Know How to Skim a Passage.

You will have only 65 minutes to read over 3000 words and answer 52 questions associated with your reading. That leaves about 12 minutes per passage if you want any time to review at the end.


Due to this tight time constraint, we recommend that you develop in advance a strategy for speed reading or skimming a passage. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to time management when it comes to reading, so you’ll need to do some practice tests to see what works best for you.


Some students find that it works best for them to read the complete introduction and conclusion, but only read the first and last sentence of each paragraph in between. Other students find that they work best by reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph, including the introduction and conclusion. Still others find that they are able to speed read the entire passage with enough time to spare.

Whatever the case is for you, be sure that you know your own pace and go into the test with a game plan for reading efficiently.


3. Use the Two-Pass Strategy to Manage Time.

Another way to manage time is by employing the two-pass strategy. This strategy involves skipping hard or time-consuming questions in favor of answering easier questions, which you’re presumably more likely to get correct.


To use the two-pass strategy, you will make a quick judgment about how much time it’s going to take you to answer each question. You know the questions that you read and read again and still have no idea where to begin? These are the ones that you will target. Read the question no more than two times, then make your best guess and fill it in on your answer sheet. Circle the number on your answer sheet and in your test booklet, and move on to a question that you’re more likely to get correct. In this way, you conserve time.


At the end of the section, if you have time remaining, go back through the questions that you skipped and try to answer them. If you don’t have time remaining, at least you’ve made your best guess and spent your time on questions that you were more apt to answer correctly.


For more about the Two-Pass Strategy, check out this tutorial from Khan Academy.


4. Employ the Process of Elimination

Prior to 2016, wrong answers on the multiple-choice questions of the SAT were subject to a penalty. One of the changes introduced on the new SAT in 2016, though, included the elimination of this guessing penalty. Now, there is no penalty for wrong answers, which means you should always fill in an answer for every question, even if you have no idea if it’s correct.


On the SAT Reading test, there are four answer choices to choose from for each question. If you guess without any idea of the correct answer, you still have a 25% chance of getting the question correct. But, if you can use the process of elimination to eliminate one or even two possible answer choices, your chances of getting the correct answer will greatly increase.


To employ the process of elimination, simply cross out the answer choices that you know are wrong. Then cross out the ones that you think are most likely wrong. Of the remaining choices, choose your best guess. By eliminating as few as two possible answers, you already have a 50% chance of guessing correctly. Those are pretty good odds, and definitely ones you should take advantage of to maximize your performance on the test!


5. Practice, Practice, Practice

Finally, our best tip for preparing for the Reading SAT is to practice as much as possible. The SAT is a totally unique test and no amount of studying can fully prepare you for it the way that taking actual practice tests can.

Start by taking untimed practice tests. When you become more comfortable with the format of the test, move on to taking timed practice tests and focus on your pacing. Always score your tests and look for patterns in your mistakes. Learn from each practice test that you take. 


Free Study Resources for the Reading SAT

You can find lots of free practice tests and study resources for the Reading SAT online.

The CollegeBoard provides sample questions and a daily practice app to help you prepare for the Reading SAT.

You can also visit Khan Academy, the official study partner of the College Board, to read more about SAT content and strategy for the Reading SAT.

Finally, don’t miss the official CollegeVine Ultimate Guide to the SAT Reading Test for more tips and a complete breakdown of the test itself.


If you still have questions about SAT preparation or strategies, or you are interested in our full-service, customized SAT tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.

To learn more about the SAT, check out these CollegeVine posts:

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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist

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