How to Raise Your Score on the SAT (series): Reading Composition

I’ve been tutoring the SAT for over 6 years and it’s been sadly obvious from the sart: the SAT sucks.

Of course, it’s helpful for colleges to have some sort of standardized assessment of your intellectual prowess before they decide to accept you. Something other than your grades to tell them how capable you are of handling their coursework.

But the SAT has emerged like some mythical beast, unrelated to the work you’ll be performing in college, but a necessary hurdle (unless you go to community college first) in getting accepted to your choice university.

The good news is, even though the SAT is mind-numbing, there are strategies you can use to raise your score and make studying for the test fun (especially if you’re a geek like me).

So as you go into preparing for the SAT, see it as a challenge of how well you can figure out how to take the test. Because that’s what the SAT is assessing. How well you can take this particular beast of a test.

It’s not a measure of your intelligence. It’s not an indicator of how well you’ll do in college. It’s just a way to show how well you can take the SAT.

So let’s learn how to take it, shall we?

*I’m not going to bore you with explanations for the sections of the SAT. If you don’t know what they are, then you better go look it up, because that’s kind of important before you take the test. I’m just going to dive into the strategies to help you perform better on each section.

If you’re serious about raising your SAT score, take out a practice test (you can find some here) and follow the steps along with me.

To follow the test I’m using as an example, click here.

Section 1: Reading Composition


When you open your test booklet you see this:


What do you do?

Many of my students have been taught to skip to the questions, read them, and then go to the passage, keeping in mind the questions so that they can answer them when they’re able to. That’s absurd. With 9 questions or so per section, there’s no way you’re going to keep all those in your head. Plus, it’s a lot easier to get confused and have other questions influence your answers. Bad strategy. Throw it out.

Another thing many of my students do first is read the passage. Great! That’s definitely the way to go. However, next to none of them take notes while they’re reading. Again -- do not attempt to keep everything in your brain! The test is designed to be utterly confusing.

Taking clear, concise notes will help you stay in control, imprint the content in your brain better, and provide a tracking method for when you’re answering questions.

So, the first step is to read the passage AND take notes. What kind of notes?

How to take notes on SAT Reading Passages:

Underline phrases and sentences that seem important. This can be phrases that tell you what the person is arguing for, what change has taken place, what the context is, what the topic is, etc.

Double Underline any “but” or “however” or “yet” or “although.” I call these turn words. Words that signal when something that’s being said is now being contradicted or changed. These are especially important to pay attention to and easy to miss if you don’t underline them.

Things not to underline: numbers, dates, names….these are generally unimportant and can be easily looked for if you need to know a date or percent of something when a question asks for it. So skip that for now.

Circle sections or words that are confusing to you. If you don’t know what the heck is being discussed, circle it and move on. Often, the confusion will get cleared up as you read along. Don’t waste time reading the same paragraph over and over. If it’s not making sense, mark it and move on. If a question asks you something and you think it’s part of that part you didn’t understand, you know that you need to pay more attention when answering.

Notes: Finally, take notes next to each paragraph as you read along (once you finish paragraph 1, make a note by it). The note is just an ultra brief summary of what you read in the paragraph. It can even be a symbol to keep it short, for example, if I read a paragraph about people being unhappy about how much they spent on holiday gifts, I’d put a sad face and a dollar sign next to the paragraph. Or, I could write mad/spending/presents. Whatever works for you.

This is a way to make it easy to know which paragraphs talked about what when you’re answering the questions and need to look back at the passage.

Let’s check it out in action:



It takes about as long as it does for me to just read the passage, but now I have a crystal clear understanding of what’s going on, and I feel super prepared to tackle the questions.

How to answer questions for SAT Reading Composition:

You’d think it would be straightforward...you read a question and then answer it. No-brainer. But that’s actually not a great strategy for a confusing test like the SAT (or ACT, or GRE...or any of those complicated multiple choice tests out there).

It is WAY easier to find wrong answers than it is to find the one right answer. Often you’ll be able to see one or two wrong answers, and then puzzle over which leftover answers is the right one.

By eliminating wrong answers you’re already priming yourself to know what the right answer should sound like.

So the best way I’ve seen my students improve is by answering the questions in three steps:

Step 1: COME UP WITH YOUR OWN ANSWER

When you read the question, see if you can answer it on your own. That way you’ll know what a right answer might sound like, or what elements it should contain, and you’ll better be able to hear when an answer is wrong, or is missing essential elements.

Step 2: ELIMINATE WRONG ANSWERS

After you have an idea of what the right answer should sound like, eliminate all of the answer choices that sound totally off base. Usually there will be one question that’s just plain wrong, one that’s probably wrong, and two that sound okay...one will just end up sounding more okay than the other.

Step 3: TEST YOUR ANSWER

This step is crucial, especially if you narrowed it down to two answers and picked one that sounded better. You want to make sure you can find evidence for your answer in the text.

There will ALWAYS be evidence for your answer in the text.

If you can’t find evidence, maybe you should test the runner up answer you eliminated. If it fits with something in the text, that’s probably the answer choice.

Ok, let’s see how that works in real time:

You can see how much easier it is when we go through and take careful notes, then eliminate answer choices. The better your notes are, the easier answering the questions will be.

Granted, this passage is relatively easy. These strategies will be much more apparent in their helpfulness when you tackle harder questions on more difficult passages.

Practice these strategies every day until you start getting super comfortable taking notes and finding wrong answers vs right answers. You will develop the skill of identifying wrong answers and taking better notes the more you practice and your score will go up.

After working with so many students to improve SAT scores dramatically, I noticed that there really are only a few solid strategies that you should be using.

You don’t have to freak out -- these strategies are easy to learn, take a little bit of time to build up the habit of implementing them, but once you do, you’ll see a big boost to your score.

And the best news is, once you nail your target score, you never have to take the test again. Unless you go to grad school, which is a whole ‘nother series of posts!

If you want to improve your score, sign up to get notified when new SAT posts drop. This is a series explaining the entire test, so you won’t want to miss a strategy or hack!

Want individualized strategies and way more in depth explanations + super fun study sessions with me?

You can get it all with an online SAT tutoring session!

how to improve SAT scores reading composition