SAT Critical Reading Strategy Critical Reading is notorious for the dullness of its passages, the esoteric nature of its vocabulary, and “tricky” questions.  But here’s something really important for students to realize about SAT Critical reading: the questions are not difficult – it’s the answers that are difficult!

SAT Critical Reading Format

But first things first. Let’s look at the format of the Critical Reading section. There are three scored critical reading sections, two that are 25 minutes in length and one that is 20 minutes in length. Across the three sections there are 19 sentence completion questions in which the student must choose from 5 answer choices the word or pair of words that best completes the sentence, and 48 reading comprehension questions that test the student’s ability to grasp namely main idea, tone, and inference questions. Each section begins with a set of sentence completion questions that progress in level of difficulty, followed by passage-based reading questions that are not in order of difficulty but typically follow chronologically the passages to which they refer.

SAT Critical Reading Strategy

Knowing that the critical reading section intends to trick you is the first defense. Strategy on the critical reading section ultimately boils down to two key tasks:

  1. Come up with your own answer before looking at the answer choices provided
  2. Eliminate wrong answers rather than try to pick the right ones.

Let’s examine these strategies more closely. The key to coming up with your own answers is to steal them directly from the text. The SAT writers are hoping that students will look for answers in their head rather than in the text. If you let the SAT suggest answer choices, the brain will do an amazing job of justifying them and considering them valid, even when they’re totally off-base. Consider this: if you can’t answer a question on your own, how are you supposed to pick the right answer from a minefield of intentionally deceiving answers?

Once you come up with your own answer, all you need to do is “find it” within the answer choices provided, which becomes even easier with the second part of the strategy. When it comes to creating your own answer, you just need to remember two things. First, find the answer, don’t come up with it – the text does not lie. And second, the simpler and more general your answer is, the better.

Avoid Overthinking SAT Critical Reading

Many students get into the habit over “over-thinking” the critical reading section. If the question asks you what the author is trying to accomplish in lines that read “Jellyfish move quite quickly, and though most people think of them as slow, they can cover great distances in short periods of time,” your answer should be “to show that jellyfish move faster than people think they do.” This is not a time to get creative. Just take the answer directly from the text. “James is typically so (blank) that Mary was surprised he showed up on time. Your answer should be “not on time” or “late.”

You should be religious about always coming up with an answer before looking at the choices. There is really only one exception to this rule, and that is on EXCEPT/NOT/LEAST questions. In these cases, you should move immediately to the second part of the strategy, which is to eliminate wrong answers rather than pick the right ones.

Ignore the Instinct to “Find the Right Answer”

The average student has been trained to “find the right answer” for the entirety of his academic career. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work so well on SAT critical reading. The problem is that it is far more difficult to prove something right than it is to prove something wrong. When students dwell on answer choices and try to prove them right, they’re wasting time and often convincing themselves of their own reasoning while avoiding the errors inherent in their answer choice. By eliminating answers based on wrongness, rather than picking them based on accuracy, students will be faster and more precise. This may seem counter-intuitive and you may be thinking “Won’t it take more time to eliminate the wrong answers than to just pick the right one? Most often, no. With practice, this method makes tackling SAT Critical Reading questions very efficient.

Employing test taking strategies is an important piece of the puzzle to doing well on the SAT; however, without test taking skills such as active reading, strategies can only help so much. An expert SAT tutor can provide the content and strategy instruction necessary to achieve a high SAT score. To learn about how Educational Connections can help you or your student prepare for the SAT, contact our Test Prep Tutoring Specialist.