What’s the only thing that most students hate more than being forced to read books for school? That’s right: being forced to read passages—and answer comprehension questions—under time pressure for a standardized test. First, the bad news: unfortunately for those students, the SAT Reading section exists, and it represents one quarter (400/1600) of your total composite score on the test. The good news, though, is that you can absolutely improve your score on this section by practicing and using the correct strategies. In this post, I’ll talk you through how to improve your SAT Reading score with some of the tips and tricks that I use with my students. Let’s dive in.
(NOTE: This post is accurate for the paper-and-pencil SAT, which will continue to be administered for US-based students through the end of 2023. At that point, the test will be changing and the strategies will be changing accordingly; keep an eye out for an updated post at that time.)
How to Improve Your SAT Reading Score: Understanding the Section
As the great military strategist Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy.” (Not to be confused with the great undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, who said, “Know your anemone.”) The first step in how to improve your SAT Reading score is to understand exactly what you’re up against, so we’ll start with a breakdown of the passages and question-types that you’ll encounter in this section.
SAT Reading: Section Structure
Reading is the first section of the SAT and is composed of 52 multiple-choice questions that must be completed in 65 minutes (for students with standard time). These questions are distributed among 5 passages with 10-11 questions per passage. The types of passages you should expect to see are as follows:
- 1 fiction passage
- This excerpt from a novel or short story always comes first and is sometimes an older passage—think 1800s or early 1900s.
- 1 history passage
- This is often an excerpt from a speech or essay written by a key player in US history.
- 1 social science passage
- This usually comes from a magazine or newspaper article about a societal trend in economics, culture, etc.
- 2 natural science passages
- These are typically pulled from magazine or newspaper articles about scientific phenomena, developments, or experiments.
Some other things to keep in mind:
- Two of the non-fiction passages will include one or more figures such as tables, charts, and graphs. There will be a handful of questions that ask about these figures; some will require you simply to retrieve information from the figure, whereas others will also require you to synthesize that information with ideas from the passage.
- One of the non-fiction passages will be a double passage, i.e. two shorter passages provided together with a single set of questions. You will see questions that relate to only the first passage, only the second passage, and both passages at once.
As mentioned earlier, students testing with standard time have a total of 65 minutes for this section, which averages out to 13 minutes per passage. Since the genre and style of the text can vary greatly from passage to passage, however, many students will find that they spend uneven amounts of time on the different passages, with easier passages taking less time and harder passages taking more. As a result, you shouldn’t stress too much if an individual passage takes you 14 or 15 minutes—just remember that you’ll need to make that time up on one or more of the other passages.
SAT Reading: Section Composition
If you read the College Board’s description of what’s on the SAT Reading section, you’ll find lots of fancy, opaque phrases like ‘Command of Evidence’ and ‘Analysis in History/Social Studies’. Those kinds of distinctions don’t tell you anything about when and how to approach the questions you’ll encounter, though. Instead, to help students improve their SAT Reading scores, we like to split the SAT Reading questions up into three categories: narrow questions that can be done during reading, broad questions that should be saved for after reading, and proof-pairs.
- During Reading (DR) questions are narrow detail and inference questions that deal with just one part of the passage, from as little as a sentence to as much as several paragraphs. Many, though not all, of these questions will include line numbers that indicate to which part of the passage they are referring.
- After Reading (AR) questions are broad questions, such as main idea questions, that will be easier to answer once you’ve read the whole passage. I place the questions relating to charts/graphs/tables in this category, too—though some of these questions can easily be answered by just looking at the figure itself, others require you to use what you learned from the passage as well as the figure.
- Proof-Pairs (PP) are those dreaded double questions. The first question in a proof-pair usually looks like a standard during reading question. The second question, however, will ask you to find evidence from the text that best supports your answer to the previous question, meaning that it’s important for you to address the two questions as halves of one larger problem. There are generally two sets of proof-pairs per passage (for a total of four questions), though some passages will only have one true proof-pair.
Example of a proof-pair
How to Improve Your SAT Reading Score: The Common Challenges
There’s no getting around the fact that SAT Reading is a very challenging section for many students. Though it’s not as tightly timed as its counterpart on the ACT, this section can sometimes catch students off-guard with its speed nonetheless. This is particularly true given how widely the passages can vary in terms of denseness, genre, and subject matter. You may feel like you’re flying through the section, then you turn the page in your test booklet and get smacked in the face by a convoluted passage about women’s suffrage by Virginia Woolf—momentum halted.
In addition to the difficulties imposed by time pressure, other common obstacles for students include challenging vocabulary words, an instinct to overthink, and even basic comprehension of the text, particularly in the denser passages. To top it all off, you also have to contend with the proof-pair questions that I introduced earlier. This question-type would be tough even in a vacuum, but it’s made even more difficult by its novelty: students typically haven’t seen problems similar to PP questions on any other test, and that unfamiliarity adds to the challenge.
This all might sound a bit intimidating, and that’s okay! One of the key elements in how to improve your SAT Reading score is understanding the obstacles the test is going to place in front of you. Now that you have a sense of what you’re facing, let’s talk about how to deal with it.
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How to Improve Your SAT Reading Score: The Best Strategies
Strategy #1: Be literal…
If I could give only one piece of advice for how to improve your SAT Reading score, it would be this. The Reading section is fundamentally different from the others because it involves analyzing and interpreting a piece of text, which can easily become a subjective exercise. In grammar and math, there’s only one right answer; if you try telling your English teacher there’s only one correct interpretation of The Great Gatsby, they will likely attempt to bludgeon you to death with the nearest Hemingway novel.
So if everything is subjective and there is no objective truth, how do we standardize reading comp? By removing as much of the interpretation from the questions as possible, keeping them superficial and thereby ensuring that there can only be one correct answer.
Why should you care about this? Because the way it manifests in the test is that all of the questions are directly tied to the text of the passage at hand. The best answer choice to any given question is the one where you can put your finger on a selection from the passage and say, “This is why I’m picking this choice.” If you catch yourself looking for subtext, guessing at the writer’s true meaning, or ‘telling yourself a story’ to justify a particular answer choice, stop—the question is probably a lot simpler than you’re making it.
Strategy #2: …but read for context
With all that being said, College Board still has to find a way to make the questions difficult; the SAT wouldn’t be much of a test if everybody got a 400 on Reading. One of the main ways they accomplish this is by adding some amount of misdirection to their questions through the use of context. You’ll notice when working through a passage that several of the questions flat-out tell you where in the text to look. For example, the omnipresent vocab-in-context question: “In line 11, the word gaslight most nearly means which of the following?”
The line numbers they give you in these questions and others like them aren’t exactly wrong, but they are… let’s say ‘misleading.’ Typically, the line number in the question refers to the line that contains the exact word or phrase the question is asking about; however, that’s not all that is necessary to get the correct answer. Most of these questions require you to understand how that word or phrase fits into what’s around it so that you can interpret it correctly.
To account for this, you should read a few sentences above and a few sentences below any line number that is given to you in a question. So if we really want to understand how the author is using ‘gaslight’ in our earlier example, we might want to start by reading lines 8-14; if that still doesn’t feel like quite enough information, we can seek out more as needed.
Strategy #3: Address the section in the way that makes the most sense for you, not necessarily in the way the test lays it out
This is a rule that really applies to all sections of the SAT; in the Reading section specifically, it manifests primarily in the order in which students approach the questions.
As a general paradigm, remember to think of the questions in SAT Reading as falling into those three categories that we talked about earlier: After Reading—or broad—questions; During Reading—or narrow—questions; and Proof-Pairs. Broad questions require you to understand a substantial portion of the passage to be able to answer them, while narrow questions can be answered with a relatively small amount of reading, ranging from a sentence to a couple of paragraphs. Proof-pairs are the paired questions where Q2 asks you to pick the excerpt that best supports the answer you selected for Q1.
The SAT frequently front-loads its passages—putting the broad questions at the beginning and the narrow questions after—in order to make students think that they need to read the entire text before they can start the questions. In reality, though, it pretty much always makes more sense to do the narrow questions first, followed by the proof-pairs (which can generally be thought of as harder narrow questions). That allows you to build your understanding of the passage without doing a ton of unnecessary re-reading; then, when you move to the broader questions, you can use the themes you discovered in the process of answering the narrow questions to make the broad questions quick and easy. This leads us nicely to…
Strategy #4: Use the ‘chunking’ method
This is something of a corollary to the previous strategy, as it’s basically just a great example of how you can change the way you address each passage to make it more approachable. In fact, this is the default strategy that I use with most of my SAT students. The steps are as follows:
- Spend 45-60 seconds reading through the questions and identifying the broad questions (which are typically at the beginning) and the proof-pairs; everything that remains should be narrow questions.
- Return to the passage and section off the first 30-35 lines. Look for natural breaks in the text; don’t end your chunk in the middle of a sentence, and try to avoid ending it in the middle of a paragraph as well if at all possible.
- Read your first chunk, then answer all of the narrow questions you can using what you just read. The SAT sequences the narrow questions roughly in the order they can be found in the passage, so as soon as you hit a question that you’re not able to answer, stop.
- Repeat until you’ve worked your way through the entire passage and answered all of the narrow questions, then turn your attention to the broad questions, using the understanding of the passage that you’ve gained along the way to answer them.
- Finally, address the PP questions.
The idea here is to break the text up into smaller, more digestible portions and answer the questions as you go. This will minimize re-reading by ensuring that you’re answering the questions corresponding to a particular part of the passage shortly after reading that part; it will also make it easier for you to comprehend what you’re reading, as you’ll be forced to stop and think along the way rather than getting all the way to the end of a passage and realizing you didn’t absorb anything you just read.
Some students prefer to swap the broad questions and the proof-pairs—that is, answer the PP questions after the narrow questions and save the broad questions for last—because they find that the proof-pairs feel more similar to the narrow questions than do the broad questions. That’s a totally reasonable spin on the strategy; feel free to try out both versions and see which one feels most natural to you.
Strategy #5: Know your strengths and weaknesses
As I mentioned earlier, understanding the structure of the Reading section is an important part of doing well. Remember that this portion of the test contains five passages: one fiction passage (always first), followed by two natural science and two social science / history passages. One of the five passages will be split up into two shorter texts, with questions asking about only Passage A, only Passage B, and both Passage A and Passage B.
Much like the way we talked about answering the questions out of order in the previous section, addressing the passages out of order can be a powerful tool in your arsenal of ways to improve your SAT Reading score. Do you hate fiction? Save the first passage for last. Do you find the paired passage to be more time-consuming than the others when you do your practice tests? Save it for last. Make sure you’re banking all of the ‘easier’ points, then throw your remaining time and energy at the portion of the section that’s most challenging for you.
This is especially relevant given that the Reading section is always the first section of the SAT. Many students aren’t fully in test-taking mode when they first open the test booklet, which makes getting through a horrifically opaque piece of Brit Lit from the 1800s even more of a slog than it would otherwise be. If the first passage isn’t clicking with your foggy Saturday-morning brain, flip through the section until you find one that looks more approachable and start there, saving the more challenging passages for when your brain is a bit more awake.
Strategy #6: Practice active reading—to a point
As of the time this article was published, if you’re taking the SAT domestically, you’ll still be testing with pencil and paper. For many students, this is actually a big advantage in the Reading section especially, as it allows you to actively engage with the text on the page. As a helpful tip for how to improve your SAT Reading score, remember that active reading can be very useful for some testers.
Active reading can take different forms based on the individual student’s preferences. Some students find it helpful to underline important quotes or major transitions as they read. Other students will jot down key words or ideas after reading a paragraph—or at the end of a ‘chunk’—in order to help them process and remember what they read; this can be particularly useful as a way to help yourself digest an especially dense or confusing passage.
There’s no right or wrong way to read actively, so feel free to try out different approaches and find what works best for you. It’s important to remember, however, that you’re operating under a time limit in this section—don’t spend so much time jotting down notes and underlining that you run out of time to actually answer the questions!
Strategy #7: Build vocabulary as you go
The SAT Reading section does not test vocabulary as a main focus; gone are the days when this test included sentence completion questions that required students to spend hours memorizing esoteric words and their labyrinthine definitions (see what I did there?). With that being said, you should still expect to encounter some words that may stretch the bounds of your vocabulary—the difference is that you’ll be asked about them in the context of the passage rather than on their own.
I want to be very clear here: it is MUCH more important that you practice your approach to the passages as a whole and to the individual question-types than that you make a point of drilling vocabulary words. Even so, you may very well find it beneficial to attempt to learn words as you do practice sections, especially if you’re consistently encountering words that you don’t know. As such, I typically take a middle ground with my own students.
As you’re completing a Reading section, underline any words with which you’re unfamiliar, but continue to work normally. Try your best to work around the word you don’t know, just like you would have to do on the actual test. Then, once you finish the section, go back through and make flashcards for the words you underlined or add them to a Quizlet. In addition to the definition of the word, make sure your flashcard includes a sentence or at least a phrase using it in context. Make a point of trying to go through at least some of the words a few times each week—even if it’s just for 15-20 minutes.
Strategy #8: Practice, practice, practice
Repetition is essential to improving on every section of this test, but it can be especially important in Reading given the section’s unique question-types and challenging prose. Once you’ve begun to implement the strategies that I’ve mentioned above, it’s imperative that you get as many reps with them as you can. Nothing refines your approach to proof-pairs like doing a bunch of them, and there’s no better way to learn how to navigate and comprehend convoluted passages than to encounter as many as possible.
To that end, the College Board’s website contains 8 official practice tests, and Khan Academy has a number of drills available for free. There are also a number of third-party content providers whose practice tests, while not as good as the real thing, are high enough quality to provide useful reps.
Remember that practice by itself isn’t enough, though—it’s crucial that you try to learn from each section you complete. Build time into your practice for you to review both your mistakes and your timing. For every question you missed, ask yourself why your answer was wrong and why the correct answer was better. If you were unable to finish the section within the time limit, determine where you lost time. Was it a particular passage that slowed you down, a particular question you got stuck on, or some part of your process that took you longer than it should have? Take this information with you into your next practice section and use it to inform your approach.
How to Improve Your SAT Reading Score: Wrapping Things Up
It’s easy to get discouraged when working on SAT Reading, but many students are able to improve their scores in this section noticeably with continued practice. Remember that improvement isn’t just about repetition: make sure that you’re practicing with the strategies I outlined above, and that you’re building time into your study process to review your completed sections.
Finally, don’t be afraid to make adjustments to your approach as you get more comfortable with the section; Reading tends to be the most individualized portion of the SAT in terms of what works for a given student, so the exact version of something that I discussed in this post may not be as effective for you as a slightly modified version. And if you’re looking for a little support as you work on mastering SAT Reading, we know some people who can help.
How to Improve Your SAT Reading Score: Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to improve my SAT Reading score?
It depends on the individual student. Some testers are able to see noticeable improvement after a few weeks of work as they gain familiarity with the section and start to understand the “rules of the game”, so to speak. For others, improvement is more of a slow and steady process which can last 2-3 months and encompass multiple test dates. Every student has the ability to improve on this section, but the form and magnitude of that improvement will vary from person to person.
Does taking the SAT too many times look bad?
Generally speaking, no. First of all, you don’t have to send all of your scores with your application to most schools: if you have taken the test multiple times but don’t want to send all of your results, you can pick and choose which test dates’ results you submit using the College Board’s Score Choice feature.
Furthermore, many colleges will superscore the test, meaning that they will select your highest section scores from each test sitting and consider those for your admission decision. Let’s say you take the test in December and get a 720 in Verbal and a 580 in Math (1300 composite), then test again in March and earn a 690 in Math but drop to a 650 in Verbal (1340 composite); you then decide to submit both sets of scores with your applications. Schools that superscore will take the 720 in Verbal from your December report and combine it with the 690 in Math from your March report, which means that they’ll consider you as having earned a 1410 composite score for the purposes of their admissions processes.
The benefits of this are clear: that 1410 is significantly higher than either of the composite scores you earned on the two individual test dates, which puts you in a better position to be competitive with other candidates. Knowing which of your prospective schools superscore and which don’t is an important part of figuring out what a good SAT score is for you, so make sure you’re doing your research.
Remember that for the most accurate information about how an individual school handles superscoring and SAT score submission in general, you should contact that school’s admissions department directly.