Three Tips for the SAT Reading Section That Will Help You in College, Too

When the College Board redesigned the SAT in 2016, the reading section got a big overhaul. One of the changes was an increase in text complexity: the new SAT doesn't just test the kind of texts you've seen in high school, but also texts that resemble what you might see in college.  

And whether you're a voracious reader in your spare time or haven't picked up a book willingly in several months, college reading can present all kinds of challenges. Often, college courses will assign large amounts of reading each week -- several articles, even a full-length book -- without giving much direction about which sections are most important or what the professor expects you to glean from each text. One of the toughest lessons to learn in college is that reading is no longer one-size-fits-all.

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While a standardized test hardly replicates the kind of reading you'll do in your actual college courses, studying for the test presents an opportunity to develop critical reading skills that you can use in college and beyond. Without further ado, here are three tips for the SAT reading section that will help you in college, too:

 

Tip #1: Do a Little Pre-Reading

Reading something cold is a lot harder (and slower) than reading something when you've been given some context and clues about why you're reading it. But on the SAT, no one introduces a text to you before you have to read it. So, it pays to take a moment and orient yourself before diving into the passage.

Each passage starts with a citation, which includes, at the very least, an author, title and year. These are important cues that warrant reading in and of themselves (you'll read a passage from 2016 with a different set of expectations than a passage from 1816, for example). But for the trickiest passages, you'll often find a brief explanation of what you're about to read. Check out this example from one of College Board's practice SATs:

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This information, when given, is usually very helpful in contextualizing what otherwise might have been a very confusing excerpt of a text!

Similarly, it can be helpful to skim the question stems for tidbits of information and hints as to what's important before you read the passage. On the SAT, I like to group the "evidence" questions together with their pairs before I dive into the passage:

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These tend to be difficult question about critical moments in the text, so priming myself to key ideas in the passage (“freedoms granted by society’s leaders”) helps me to really notice the most important moments in the text. Plus, it's not at all obvious when a question is about to be followed by an "evidence" question (I've even seen the evidence question come after a page break!), so grouping these two questions together can help you to get both answers correct more quickly and efficiently.  

How can this help you in college? Well, orienting yourself before you start can be extremely helpful when doing your readings in college, too. If your professor doesn't introduce a text before assigning it, don't be afraid to introduce it to yourself. Wikipedia and Sparknotes may not be the best source for your papers, but it's only smart to use them to set yourself up for better reading, more focused note-taking, and more success.  

 

Tip #2: Read with a Purpose  

Reading is reading, right? Wrong: strong readers adjust their reading strategy to each reading task.  

On the SAT, the passages are short, and they are chosen and excerpted for a reason. In the nonfiction passages, you're not just reading for information, but for an argument. A good author will motivate their argument (suggest why a reading public would be interested in their claims), state their claim, and then develop it. On your first reading, your task is to skim for these key moments, and then flag them so you can return to them while answering the questions. Having this purpose in mind can help keep you from getting bogged down in details, which you can always return to if a question demands.

In college, most readings aren't one page long. However, their different forms still provide clues for how to read them with purpose. Textbooks have subtitles, chapter introductions and summaries. Nonfiction books might have prefaces that comment on a book's history and impact. Excerpts from larger works that your professor has scanned and assigned have been selected for a reason -- so look for the kernel that led your professor to select it in the first place. Reading should be dynamic and purposeful, rather than just a passive process of absorbing information.

 

Tip #3: You Can Read Faster Than You Think You Can

We learn to read by sounding out words out loud, so it's only natural that we keep hearing the words we read in our heads. The thing is, our brains can read and process written information much faster than we can make all the sounds in our heads.  

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But when I'm not paying attention, I still tend to catch myself "vocalizing" every word I read. Sometimes I want to do this -- say, when I'm first starting a book, getting a feel for an author's voice, or just plain reading for pleasure. But on the SAT, this isn't necessary. Learning to skim, for me, was mostly a process of letting go of this habit of "hearing" every word I read.

Not only can skimming in this way save you time, it can help you focus on what's most important in a text and avoid getting sidetracked by every aside and detail. This applies outside of the SAT as well: recognize when you're reading primarily for sound or for style, and distinguish this from when you're reading for key argumentative turns or for content. Learning to adjust the pace of your reading can help you be attentive to the level of a text that you are most interested in.  


 

There you have it! The most important thing to remember is that being asked to "read" something can mean a lot of different things. Try becoming aware of your own reading tics and habits, and start playing with your reading strategies. Be sure to let us know what you notice!