The Critical Reading section is divided into two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, with each section ending with passage-based reading. Passages generally range from 100-900 words, and are presented from shortest to longest. Most questions will include line numbers indicating the location of the information in the passage.
- Official SAT Study Guide
The primary quandary I had with passage-based reading was how exactly to approach it. I’ve broken it down into 4 methods. These aren’t the only way to do it, nor are they mutually exclusive.
1. Read the passage, answer the questions, and refer back to the passage when necessary.
This is the traditional and most common approach. Definitely do this for the shorter passages. If you can read at a reasonable rate with decent comprehension, this can work for the longer passages as well. However, you need to make sure you don’t read too slowly and end up short on time.
2. Skim/speed read the passage, answer the questions, and refer back when necessary.
Personally, my speed reading ability isn’t at the stage where I feel comfortable using it in a test situation. However, skimming will save you precious time on the longer passages. The downside is that you risk leaving with a false impression of the material.
3. Read the blurb, go directly to the questions, and search for the answers in the passage.
The advantage of this method is that you’ll have plenty of time to check your answers. It works well for questions where a holistic comprehension of the passage is not necessary (e.g. questions dealing with definitions). On the other hand, questions which draw from the passage as a whole (e.g. questions about the tone) can become very difficult. Most questions fall in between these two extremes, edging closer to the segregated category.
4. Read the questions carefully (not the answers), read the passage, and go back to the questions.
You’ll only need a quick glance back at the questions the second time around before you can start analyzing the answers. This is a very popular method because reading the questions first gets you thinking about what to look for in the passage. However, reading the questions out of context can make them difficult to remember.
Firstly, all the shorter passages can be dealt with by option 1, as you should be able to go through them quite quickly. The longer passages are where things get tough. I don’t recommend option 3 because it drastically increases your chances of making mistakes on easy questions. Between options 1 and 2, I find that option 1 is better for narratives and descriptions, while option 2 is better for explanations. This is because the mood of a story can be misleading if you only read sections, whereas fact-based writing is more clearly organized and more-suited to jumping around.
Following this basic principle, I juggled both of these techniques in addition to option 4. Although I decided against reading all the questions carefully beforehand because my mind tends to blank out when reading questions out of context, I looked them over quickly marked the indicated lines on the passage. This way, I could concentrate on the necessary information and not waste as much time referring back and forth.
If you come across a paired passage, you should read the passages separately and do the questions based only on the passage you read before you begin reading the next passage. This ensures that you don’t get mixed up between the two.
“Higher-Level Thinking” Questions
Some questions will require you to make inferences on the reading. They’re there to see if you made out the idea or feeling that the author is trying to convey. They can be tricky, and there’s no secret to getting these right. Strong reading skills need to be developed throughout your life, not while studying for an exam.
The key to doing well in Passage-based reading, besides being well-read, is finding the right approach for you. Do all the exams in the Blue Book and experiment with various methods for yourself. Don’t simply take my word for it.
Critical reading complete! Next, we head into the realm of mathematics.
This is part 3 of my article series, How to Ace the SAT in Three Weeks. Click below to read the rest of the series.
Part 1: Introduction
Part 4: Math
Part 5: Writing, Multiple Choice
Part 6: Writing, Essay