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SAT Reading: 5 Tricks to Supercharge Your Comprehension Skills

SAT Reading: The Toughest Section

The SAT is made up of 3 sections: Evidence Based Reading, Writing, and Math.

The Reading section is often lamented by students as the hardest section of the SAT. In truth, it may be the hardest section to get a perfect score on.

In our new SAT Reading series, we’ll cover the top 3 reasons why this SAT section is difficult. But more importantly, we’ll show you proven strategies for overcoming each of those problems and earning a top — even perfect — SAT Reading score!

What Makes the SAT Reading Section So Hard?

The SAT Reading Section features texts that most high-schoolers aren’t used to seeing in the classroom. This includes scientific research articles and documents published in the 1800s.

These passages are often filled with elevated vocabulary, unfamiliar rhetoric, or technical language, which can often confuse the test-taker. Add on the fact that you need to read 5 of these passages and answer a total of 52 questions in only 65 minutes, and it’s easy to see why so many students struggle.

But there are proven ways to boost your reading comprehension!

Below are our 5 tips to get you started.

Tip 1: Get Familiar with the SAT Passage Types

There are 5 types of passages you’ll encounter on the SAT Reading Section:

  • Narrative: A passage from classic or contemporary literature.
  • Social Sciences: A passage that discusses topics in economics, psychology, or sociology.
  • Natural Sciences: A passage that examines concepts or recent developments in biology, chemistry, or physics. There will be 2 such passages.
  • Historical Document: A passage from either a primary source document or a text that discusses a global issue.
  • Dual Passage: Two shorter passages on a Social Science, Natural Science or Historical Document topic that are closely related.

When you practice for the SAT, try to identify passages type as you read.

Once you can accurately distinguish between passage types, pinpoint which one you typically struggle with the most and focus your studying on that passage type.

Try looking up the same authors, journals, or topics in order to better understand patterns in how these texts are organized, and how language and vocabulary are used. Check out our SAT recommended reading list created by Director of Exam Prep English Ms. Rachel Erwin!

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Tip 2: Closely Read the Title and Excerpt

Many students skip reading the title or excerpt above the SAT Reading passage in order to save time.

Don’t miss those critical details! In fact, they often hold valuable information that will help you understand the passage’s topic! This is especially true for the Natural and Social Sciences — their titles often tell you the main idea of the whole passage!

Plus, the title and excerpts of historical documents will sometimes explain background information or terms, which makes understanding the passage much easier.

Tip 3: Read the Passage in 4 Minutes or Less

This may sound counterintuitive if you’re trying to improve reading comprehension, but reading the passage more quickly will actually boost your score.


By giving yourself a time limit, you’ll naturally stop focusing on insignificant details and start focusing on the main idea of the SAT Reading passage. If you set a 4-minute maximum, you won’t have time to re-read and linger on specific sentences or paragraphs.

And that’s good! Because often, you’ll find that if you just keep reading, you will start to understand the paragraph or sentence that you initially found confusing.

And even if you don’t, that’s fine!

After all, you DO NOT need to understand the passages on a very deep level. You definitely don’t need to fully understand every word or sentence. By spending less time focusing on minor aspects of the text, you’ll have more time to work through the actual questions.

When you first read the passage, try to accomplish the following:

  • Understand the main idea: This way, you can answer “big picture” questions about the text.
  • Annotate: Mark your paper and leave short notes to the side as “breadcrumbs”. This will help you find evidence more quickly when you arrive at the questions.

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Tip 4: Spend the Majority of Your Time Answering the Questions

The SAT Reading section features 5 passages and 52 questions to be completed in 65 minutes. This gives you only 13 minutes for each passage and its corresponding set of 10-11 questions.

However, many questions on the SAT are tricky. Some even REQUIRE you to return to the passage to find evidence or re-read and interpret line numbers given.

That’s why it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time initially trying to understand every sentence or word when reading the passage. You’re wasting time and valuable mental energy!

Spend most of your time on:

  • Comprehension: Carefully reading and understanding the questions and answer choices.
  • Review: Reviewing excerpts of the passage that the SAT is actually asking you about. Then, you can slow down, go back, and read those parts more closely.

Tip 5: Boost Your Vocabulary

The SAT does not have a major vocabulary component anymore. There is no section that asks you to pick definitions or synonyms for difficult vocabulary words.

However, vocabulary is still important for understanding SAT Reading passages, which often include advanced language and difficult words in context.

If you’re an avid and proficient reader, this should not be a huge issue. However, students who don’t read much on their own may struggle to understand a passage that includes many words they’ve never seen before.

But that’s okay!

When you take a practice SAT, be sure to keep a running list of any words that you don’t know. Look up their definitions and synonyms and study them on your own. Then, voila! You’ve created your own SAT vocabulary list.

What’s Next?

Seeking the path to higher scores?

Explore our SAT Prep courses for a proven roadmap to acing this key admissions test. On average, our students graduate with a boost of 170+ points to their scores!  

Plus, get started with a practice SAT test taken in a realistic testing environment!


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