“NOT READING!” I can hear the cries of thousands of young SAT test takers as they get to this section of their SAT. “This section is impossible! And subjective! And you can’t study for it!” Dear student, you are wrong on all accounts! Not only is this section as objective as any other section of the SAT, but it can also be dominated like the other sections by taking into advisement a few simple steps:
1. Learn Vocabulary
You just have to learn it. The fill in the blank section is essentially just vocabulary questions. You have to be able to identify what the sentence is saying and be able to put in a placeholder word that means something similar to the word you are looking for, but then you have to be able to pick which word fits and which don’t. There is just no shortcut on this one. LEARN THE WORDS. It will also help you on the passage related questions as it will help you to better understand what you are reading.
2. Read Actively & Look for the Main Idea!
Now if I remember myself as a young, high school student, I would have read this second step and scoffed. “Of course you have to read actively!” I would have thought in my most condescending ‘I know everything’ way, but this step is actually very important. It’s all about ATTITUDE. If you approach the passage with the attitude that reading is STUPID and the SAT is STUPID and I wish I didn’t have to do this STUPID work, then you will treat the passage like it is boring and unnecessary. If, however, you approach the passage with the thought, “I bet I will learn something interesting in this passage,” it is much more likely that you will engage in the material and try to understand it (which is really the whole point, right?). Let’s look at an example:
“The delicate tightrope that the Chinese government is attempting to walk between encouraging and punishing creativity is framed perfectly in the plight of artist and political dissident Ai Wei Wei. Though he is considered one of the most important artistic figures in the Middle Kingdom, Ai Wei Wei and his family have also been the subjects of numerous jailings, governmental attacks on their patriotism, and general harassment.”
How interesting! I can only imagine what it must be like to be a political dissident in a country like China. Now that I am engaged I can more easily pick out what is important in this first paragraph. It seems like the first paragraph is mostly about Ai Wei Wei being lauded (praised) for his progressive art, but lambasted (criticized) for his progressive politics. I think we have a main idea! Let’s go to the line specific questions.
3. Answer Line Specific Questions as You Go
Our first line specific question asks:
“In the lines 3-5 in the sections, “Though he is considered…general harassment.” the author is most likely trying to:
a) Question the stance of the Chinese government on internet censorship
b) Lament the difficulties of being an avant garde artist.
c) Highlight the differences between how Ai Wei Wei is viewed as an artist and as an activist
d) Contrast artistic merit with political usefulness
e) Criticize the authoritarian practices in China
Now, the reasons that we answer these questions as we go are that the material is fresh in our minds, and that we can’t get distracted by other information in other parts of the passage. Later in this passage, there will be a discussion of the internet and the government, but it’s not in this section so we can already throw out choice (a) and pat ourselves on the back for not being distracted by it. The internet hasn’t been mentioned so far, so that answer can’t be right because the answer will always be in the passage.
4) THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS IN THE PASSAGE
This is the phrase I repeat to my students more than any other when first teaching about the reading section of the SAT. Reading questions are not OPINION questions they are FACT questions and must be supported by actual words from the passage. If the content of the answer choice is not mentioned, or specifically implied by the passage, the answer choice is wrong.
5) Use Every Word to Help You
Every word in the answer must be correct in order for the answer choice to be correct so we should examine every word of our choices for clues. I find first words of answer choices to be particularly helpful in questions where we are asked what the author or the passage is doing. Start by asking yourself “does this section of the passage primarily…” and then insert the first word of the answer choice. “Does this section primarily question? Or lament? Or Highlight? Or contrast? Or criticize?” By asking ourselves this question, we can start to attack the wrong answer choices.
6) Attack Wrong Answer Choices
We already did this with choice (a), now let’s try it with the others. This section really doesn’t lament anything, nor does it really criticize. BUT WAIT. The author doesn’t really criticize Chinese practices but he or she could mean this in a critical way, right? WRONG.
7) COULD = WRONG
In the words of the great Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no try.” Similarly, there is no “could be.” Something either is or it isn’t. The author does not criticize Chinese practices with this part of the passage, nor does he or she contrast between “artistic merit” and “political usefulness.” “Merit” and “usefulness” are actually wholly absent from this section. Thus, we are left with only answer (c). The author DOES highlight differences in how Ai Wei Wei is treated as an artist and as an activist (OUR MAIN IDEA REMEMBER) so answer choice (c) is 100% true.
This section can feel like the hardest to master for some students, but it is as concrete as any other section of the SAT. If you use these steps and don’t fall asleep or zone out, you can master the reading section and ace the SAT. Happy reading test master-ers!
David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.