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Conquering the SAT Reading Section

Reading comprehension is often considered the most difficult section of the SAT for students to improve their scores. The prevailing belief is that students must improve their reading speed and proficiency in order to raise their score; as a result, it is expected to be a long, gradual process.

However, experience has shown that this does not actually have to be true. The most common SAT reading questions fall into 6 distinct categories, each of which tests the student on a simple, learnable skill. This guide begins with optimal overall reading strategy and also includes a list of the most common reading question types, along with the corresponding technique that students should employ.

Timing and Clock Strategy

With five reading passages and 52 questions to complete in 65 minutes, students should take close to 13 minutes per passage. Reading the passage generally requires about 5 minutes. Answering the questions takes approximately 8 minutes.

I generally advise students to check the clock after completing the second passage. At this point, they should be approximately 25 minutes into the section. They can also look at the time after the fourth passage, where they should have about 13 minutes remaining.

More important than checking the clock is the ability to intuit the proper speed and pace of progress. After completing many reading passages, both individually and as part of full practice tests, students will develop the ability to work in a focused, efficient manner without rushing.

Searching for Wrong Answers

For the entire verbal half of the SAT (the Reading and Writing sections), students must approach each question by first looking for and crossing out wrong answers. This is a much easier and more effective method than immediately attempting to identify the right answer.

On average, there are two clearly incorrect answers for each question. Some questions may have only one overtly wrong answer while others will have three. With just over 50 questions, the reading section will have approximately 100 answer choices that are often miles away from being correct. Discovering and physically crossing these off with their pencil will dramatically improve students’ chances of success.

Reading Question Types

Words in Context

Words in Context questions are often the easiest and quickest types to answer. For this reason, it’s important to gain some precious time against the clock. They usually look like this:

The first step is to read the sentence in the passage that contains the word in quotations. Then, before looking at the answers, use context clues to come up with a synonym. This process forces the mind to think about the underlying meaning of the original word. It is also helpful to re-read the sentence with each of the answer choices plugged into it one at a time. 

Main Idea

Main idea questions are often considered the toughest and most tedious for students to answer. Part of this is justified, as navigating them correctly relies heavily on having completed a close reading of the passage in 5 minutes or less. However, there is another important trick that can help: re-reading the first paragraph.

For many passages, the first paragraph does a wonderful job of summarizing the ensuing ideas. This is also proper writing style: preparing readers for the passage’s upcoming content will facilitate mental absorption of the material.

There are a handful of factors to consider when using this strategy. The first factor is the length of the first paragraph. If it is 6 lines or less, students can re-read every word. If it is 12 lines or more, students should skim. If in between, they can use their best judgement. This guideline is also true for all line references contained in the reading section.

Secondly, if the introductory paragraph is not helpful, then the final, concluding paragraph should be examined. There is a strong chance that the passage’s main theme lies somewhere in these two paragraphs.

Obviously wrong answers should be discarded before referring back to the passage. Lastly, be wary of answer choices that have secondary (not primary) ideas in them because they will be tempting to choose.

Questions with Line References

In many cases, a question will give the student a precise place to revisit in the passage. For example:

However, it would be much too easy for the question’s answer to simply be in those five lines! For this reason, students must read around the referenced lines. Sure enough, reading the sentence before on lines 49-53 and after on lines 57-59 gives us the information that we are looking for. 

The SAT often hides key clues just before or after line references mentioned in the wording of a question. This process improves students’ researching skills as it teaches them to read sentences in close proximity to the lines in question.

Questions Without Line References

Some questions do not contain any line references at all. Yet instead of asking students about main ideas, they demand that students absorb and rely on detailed knowledge about the passage.

How is a student supposed to remember such intricate details? The answer is simple: they are not. Instead, students can identify proper nouns in the question. Because these words are capitalized, students will be able to easily scan the passage and identify them. For example, one such question contains the word “X-ray” which sticks out in the passage like a sore thumb. Reading the sentences that contain these proper nouns will give students the information they need.

Graph Questions

Students often dread questions that require them to analyze a graph. This is understandable, as doing so can take up precious time. However, if test-takers can give themselves permission to mentally slow down and take just 20-30 seconds to properly analyze a graph, they are richly rewarded with an easy path to the right answer.

It is helpful to systematically analyze the graph by reading the following in order:

  1. Title of the Graph
  2. Label of X-axis
  3. Label of Y-axis
  4. Key or Legend
  5. Graph’s Lines, Points, or Bars

The above bullet points are commonsensical, but few students are adequately systematic and methodical in their approach to breaking down a graph’s information.

Graph questions are the only type that demand that students flip back to the passage before reading the answer choices and crossing the obviously wrong ones off. In many cases, students simply have to identify and utilize information that is blatantly evident from the graph.

Command of Evidence Pairs

The final type involves two questions that are always back-to-back. The first question is usually a detailed question without a line reference. The second question in the pair will look like: 

As a result, there is no need to refer back to the passage when answering the first question in the pair. In fact, this is a very common mistake that wastes time. Instead, cross out answer choices that can be deemed incorrect based off of one’s initial reading of the passage.

Then, and most importantly, move on to the second question, reading every word of each line reference. This requires that the student frequently flip back and forth between the passage and the question. Students can be confident that such hustle and bustle is necessary to do. Given how little time they initially spent on the first question, they will have sufficient time to do so.

Once clearly incorrect line references have been crossed off, students can compare the remaining answers to the first question with those from the second, using them to skillfully arrive at the appropriate pair.


If students can familiarize themselves with the above techniques for the six most common reading question types and combine them with proper pacing, they will improve their confidence and performance on the SAT reading comprehension section.

Optimal SAT preparation usually involves spending 15-30 minutes of study for 4-6 days per week. 13-minute reading passages give students an ideal amount of time to read a passage, answer the corresponding 10-11 questions, grade their work with the answer key, and rework the questions that they missed. Making this process a helpful habit in the weeks and months leading up to their official SAT will help them do their best on test day.

Join John on Tuesday, May 25th at 12pm PDT for his "Conquering the SAT Reading Section" webinar. He will teach students some of the most important techniques and strategies for improving their reading scores, including how to tackle tricky evidence pairs and ways to efficiently scan the passage for relevant proper nouns. Students will also learn unique ways to manage their time to make sure they are staying on track. You can register here.