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SAT Passages - How to Read

Teacher/Instructor Eva Holtz
Eva Holtz

Harvard University
Perfect scores on the SAT and 4 SATIIs

Eva is a certified admissions counselor and the founder of PrepPoint, a premier test prep company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In this episode I'm going to share with you a few techniques for how best you approach the reading. In particular don't read everything, this is super important because the critical reading section is designed to be tight for time so by not reading everything and focusing your efforts on very specific parts of the passage you'll be able to get more points in the time you have allotted, then when you do do your reading you should read above and below the portions that you're told to check out so that you see exactly what you're supposed to and the context you need to understand it. Lastly, when you get more than one passage to deal with, do one passage at a time so you can answer the questions to each one most effectively. Let's go into detail on these now.
The critical reading passages can be pretty overwhelming and kind of a pain in the butt, but one good thing is that you actually don't have to read everything, this can be a pretty liberating realization. So instead of reading everything, you should start by reading the key parts, that means the blurb which is the italicized information at the beginning of the passage which often sounds something like 'In this passage the author an Italian immigrant shares her experience of coming to America for the first time.' Something like that. After you get that context you're going to read the first paragraph, the topic sentences for all the body paragraphs in between and finally the last paragraph. From doing that you'll have a sort of a general lay of the land that you'll need and the individual questions will tell you where to go from there.
Now why not read everything? Simply there's not enough time, very few people find they have all the time they need on the critical reading section, if you do then fine, you can be one of the few people who does read everything, but for the rest of us, reading particular parts is going to be the best way to maximize our scores. Instead of reading everything you should keep in mind that you get points for answering questions not just for reading, it's kind of obvious but also a helpful realization, if you get points for answering the questions maybe you should focus on the questions more than the passage as a whole.
Also even if you do read everything you'll find you won't know the answers to most of the questions anyway, in a moment I'll show you what the questions look like and why as a result you even having read the passage, won't be able to answer them, it's pretty remarkable. And lastly the questions are going to tell you where to look, so why would you read the whole thing and try to sort of memorize everything that was going on if the questions told you where you need to look for the answer anyway and we'll look at this in more detail as well.
So back to the point here, you won't know the answers anyway. Now it'd be cool if the questions on the SAT were super easy and then you would, having read the passage, automatically remember the answer, for instance if the questions look like this; 'The country that this passage takes place in is...' well you probably would remember the country, or if the question looked like; 'The narrator laughed hysterically because...' well you'd probably remember why the narrator laughed or 'The author attacks people who...' and again you'd probably remember who the author was attacking.
But the bad news is that is not what the SAT looks like, the questions are more like this: 'The author characterizes such people, in line 14, as...' and then you have to ask yourself, 'Do I remember him mentioning such people and what he characterize them as?' And the answer is probably not, even if you read the passage really thoroughly and were paying attention and absorbed it pretty well, chances are pretty good you'd have no idea and it gets even more obscure, like this sample question; 'As used in line 22, 'easy' most nearly means...' That's just laughable, like if you read a passage and somebody asked you 'hey do you remember seeing the word easy in there?' Like 'Do you know how the author used it?' You'd be like 'Are you kidding me?' Of course not.
Last example, 'The author makes a comparison in lines 43 to 47 in order to...' And yet again, even if you read the passage and understood it, you wouldn't be like 'Oh yeah I totally remember a comparison being made.' So the point is the questions are so specific that even if you invested all that time and energy in reading the passage, you probably wouldn't know the answers, the questions are very specific.
The flip side of this specificity is that the questions tell you where to look and that's a great benefit. Let's look at the same with the questions, here we know that we may not remember who such people are but they're in line 14 so we can go find out, 'easy' we might not remember exactly how it's used but hey, it's line 22 and we might not remember what the comparison was doing but again we know where to find it, so that's pretty sweet. And on the rare occasions where you aren't told exactly where to look, by being given a specific line or several lines, or maybe something like paragraph two, you'll still be able to find what you're looking for, let me show you.
Some questions are sandwiched, so let's say the fourth question is talking about line 11, and the fifth question doesn't say what is talking about and the sixth question is talking about line 19, well good news, you know that your mystery question is somewhere between 11 and 19, no problem, you know where to look.
And the other thing is, you might have questions that are general so they might ask about the main point or the tone, or the structure and in that case, of course you're not looking at a specific line, you just want to leave these questions till the end when you've gone through the other questions and really gathered a good sense for what the passage is about or the flavor of the passage on the whole.
In addition, because you're told where to read you know where to look, but you should keep in mind that you should read above and below, so don't just read the lines you're told but read two above and two below or a little more if that would help you and you get two benefits from that. First of all you get more context, if you just read a single sentence you might be lost but with a couple of lines before and a couple of lines after you'll probably know what's going on and in addition, this is really interesting, you'll also get a clear answer because a lot of times the SAT will ask what's going on in a particular line and if you read only that line you'll think 'I have no idea what they're getting at,' and yet maybe the line right underneath will reiterate the same idea in super simple easy to understand language, and so a lot of times the same exact idea is rephrased right above or right below and that will answer the question for you.
Here is a sample question, we're not going to do it, although if you want to, it's in the bonus materials but I just want to point out this question tells us to look at lines 15 to 17, so we go over here and we're looking somewhere in here and if you didn't have time to read the whole passage, which is true of most people, you just want to start two lines above, so maybe right around here and if you wanted to back up a little more you could and two lines below, so down here and if you wanted to keep reading a little more you could. So reading about two lines above and about two lines below should be the amount of information you need because these questions are very specific about very particular parts of the passage and let me give you one last tip.
Sometimes you'll have a pair of passages, now most passages are written by a single author and they stand on their own but occasionally you'll get these dual passages where it's two authors writing two passages that somehow address the same subject. In that case here is how you should deal with these. You want to first deal with the first passage and its questions and it will be pretty clear which questions have to do with which passage because you'll be given a line reference and when you go to look you can see whether that line falls in the first passage or the second, not complicated. After you finish those, then you're then you're going to deal with the second passage and its own questions and then finally do the joint question, that will ask you things like, 'What would the author of passage two say about this part of passage one?' And why do you want to do it this way, couple of reasons.
First of all you definitely don't want to get the passages confused and that's so easy to do because they are about the same topic more or less and in addition, you're going to deal with the hard questions which are the joint questions last and since you know the test is tight for time and you might run out of time and be unable to do all the questions, you want to leave off the questions you're most likely to get wrong and most likely to spend tons of time on. And these fall in that category because it's very complicated to try to keep track of what would this guy think about what this guy said about this issue, that's a lot of thinking for just one question. So let's sum up everything we've covered in this episode.
So here's a quick recap on how to read the SAT passages, first of all don't read everything, if you read the italicized blurb that starts the passage, the intro paragraph, the topic sentences in the body paragraph and the conclusion paragraph you should be in pretty good shape because remember the individual questions overwhelmingly tell you where to look and then when you get to those questions read above and below, so if you're told look at line ten start on line eight and go to line twelve, that should be enough context to give you the information you know to answer the question well. And then on the rare occasions when you have those dual passages remember to deal with one passage at a time, do the first passage and its questions and the second passage and its questions and then if there's time remaining you can do those very hard questions that relate to both passages at once. And that's how to approach reading on the SAT critical reading section.