The SAT Prep Black Book


How To Read Passages On The SAT

One of the most common issues people have with the Passage-Based Reading questions is the issue of actually reading the passage. Another popular question is how to take notes on the passages.

So let’s talk about those things. My answers are pretty simple, really:

oYou can read the passage in any way you want, as long as it leaves you enough time to finish the section. You can even skip reading the passage if you want, and just refer back to portions of the text on a question-by-question basis.

oYou shouldn’t take any kind of notes whatsoever on the passage.

Like most good SAT advice, those two tactics contradict most of what you may have heard from teachers, tutors, and prep books. So let’s explore them a little. (If you haven’t already read my previous remarks on what makes right answers right and wrong answers wrong on Passage-Based Reading questions, I would recommend you go back and do that before proceeding.)

When we talked about correct answer choices for these questions, we indicated that they restate elements of the relevant portion of the original text. This is necessary because the College Board needs to have an objective, legitimate reason to say that one choice is correct and the others are incorrect, and the only real way to do that is to have the correct answer be the only choice that restates the passage.

This means there are always specific words and phrases in the passage that correspond to the correct answer. It also means that, technically, the only portion of the text you need to read for any question is the specific portion that contains the ideas restated in the correct answer.

So, in theory, if it were somehow possible to know in advance which portions of the text were going to contain the key phrases restated in the correct answer, we could avoid reading the rest of the passage.

In other words, there is literally no benefit whatsoever in trying to get an overall impression of the passage, because there will never be a real SAT question in which the only way to find the correct answer is to make a general inference from the entire text. (To be sure, there are some students who try to draw inferences from the text and have some success, but it’s not the most efficient approach, and it’s never necessary. We can always find the answer for every question spelled out somewhere in the text.)

For this reason, it doesn’t really matter which specific method you use to read the text. All that matters is that you can locate the relevant portion of the text so that you can figure out which answer choice restates it as quickly as possible without sacrificing accuracy.

In general, there are three ways to do this, and I recommend you play around with them to see what works best for you. Again, you can mix, match, or modify these approaches as you see fit, so long as you come up with a system that lets you find the relevant portion of the text quickly enough to allow you to complete the entire section within the time limit.

The first approach is the old standard of simply reading the passage before attempting the questions. This is by far the most widely used approach. It can definitely work, as long as you don’t read too slowly to finish the section before time is called. One note, though—if you read the passage first, don’t worry about trying to understand it as an organic whole. Definitely don’t take notes on it, for reasons we’ll get into in a moment. Just give it a thorough once-over. You’re going to have to come back to specific parts of it later to verify which answer choices are correct anyway, so just read it once and move on to the questions.

The second-most popular approach is to skip reading the passage and just move straight to the questions. Then you start with the questions that have specific line citations. For each citation question, you go back to the relevant portion of the text, read that portion, and then consider the answer choices. When you’ve finished all the citation questions, you’ll generally have a good idea of how the passage is structured. Then you move on to the questions with no citations. Many of those questions will mention key concepts that you’ll recall from the citation questions, so you’ll know where to go back in the passage and locate those portions of the text again. When a question has no citation and also doesn’t refer to something that you’ve already read, you can simply skim the portions of the text that you haven’t read yet to find the relevant key terms, and proceed accordingly.

And that brings us to the third type of approach, which involves lightly skimming the passage before approaching the questions, in order to construct a rough mental map of where different terms and concepts appear in the passage. I want to stress that, so I’ll say it again: in this type of skimming, you’re just moving your eyes through the text quickly, NOT trying to understand the text, but trying to get a rough idea of where various concepts appear in the text so you can use your ‘roadmap’ for later. This way, if a question lacks a citation, you can look at the concepts in the question and in the answer choices and recall those concepts from your skimming. This allows you to zero in on the relevant part of the text and then find your answers. Of course, you can always re-skim if you need to.

Again, it’s important to be aware of these different approaches, and to play around with them during your practice sessions so you can figure out what works best for you. Different students will prefer different approaches based on their personalities and skills.

You may be wondering why I’m opposed to the idea of taking notes on the text. The reason is simple, actually: taking notes involves interpreting the text, and interpreting the text isn’t helpful on the SAT. As we keep discussing, the correct answer to every single question is spelled out somewhere on the page, so there’s no need for you to interpret what you’re reading.

But, above all, don’t lose sight of the fact that the answer to every real SAT Passage-Based Reading question will be spelled out somewhere on the page.