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The Most Important SAT Critical Reading Tip

by Jeff Bergman

in Tutorials

The biggest thing you can do to improve your SAT Critical Reading score is to focus on the main idea of the passage.

If you can really get this concept and apply it when you’re taking the SAT, your score on the Critical Reading section will increase dramatically. In fact, if you combine this one tip with my Sentence Completion method, your Critical Reading score will go up by 50 to 100 points.

Here’s why.

If you’re having trouble with the critical reading passages, you’re probably getting stuck on the details and missing the main idea of the passage.

Sometimes when you read a passage, you may get confused by certain words, sentences, or even whole paragraphs. You might be tempted to re-read those parts until you understand exactly what they mean. Don’t do it, it’s a waste of valuable time.


Most of what’s confusing you is details, but not all of the details will be referred to in the questions.

If they don’t ask you about them, you don’t have to know them. That’s why it’s important that you don’t get caught up in the details as you read.

Which details do you have to know? The SAT will tell you. Any question that asks about specific details from the passage will refer you back to specific lines. When that happens, you do need to go back and re-read lines, and usually a little bit before and after as well.

While you don’t need to know all the details, you must know the main idea, which for our purposes includes the author’s opinion on the topic if his opinion is clear.

Most of the questions, even if they’re about specific details, relate back to the main idea in some way. That’s why once you know the main idea, almost all of the questions get a lot easier.

I’ll show you how that works in a moment. First we have to look at our second tip.

In the Critical Reading section of the SAT, unlike in the Math section, you’re not looking for an exactly right answer. You have to look for the best possible answer among the choices they give you.

Sometimes you’ll be doing a question and think to yourself, none of these answers seem right to me. I know. Sometimes none of them seem right to me, either.

Sometimes none of the answers will be the same as how you would answer if you could write anything you want. That’s OK. One of the answers will still be better than all the rest.

All of the wrong answers have something about them that make them wrong. Students who do really well on this section know this. They use the process of elimination to eliminate the answers that are clearly wrong, then pick the best remaining answer.

The good news is that in almost every question, 3 of the answers will obviously be wrong, and you’ll be able to cross them out right away.

In fact, when using the process of elimination, after you’re done crossing off the answers that are obviously wrong, if you’re not sure which of the remaining answers is the best choice, pick pick the one that most closely reflects the main idea of the passage.

Let’s see how this works for the second long critical reading passage in Section 7 of the Official SAT Practice Test for 2009 – 2010. It’s the passage that begins, “Ridiculing television, and warning about its inherent evils, is nothing new.”

Download it now and follow along with me.

The main idea of that passage, and the authors opinion, can be simply stated as:

“The idea that TV is evil and dangerous is not new. In fact, going all the way back to Plato, the primary means of artistic expression have always been attacked like TV is today. I think that people who do that are wrong.”

If you thought the main idea was anything along those lines, you probably did pretty well. Here’s how knowing the main idea applies to the questions.

Question 16: If you know that the passage is about criticizing TV, you know that B, D, and E are wrong. If you know that the author himself is not criticizing TV, you know that A is wrong, and the answer is C.

Question 17: The lines they refer to say, “television has been blamed for corrupting our youth,” and is a, “big, perhaps dangerous, waste of time.” Notice that this detail is just an expression of the main idea of the passage. This question is easy. The least bad television show is D, which is the correct answer.

Question 18: This type of question is asking you about what a word means in the context of the passage. The main idea won’t help you on a question like this. Just plug the answer choices into the sentence in place of the word “drawn” and you’ll see that the correct answer is D.

Question 19: Plato thought those stories, and their heroes, were bad, in the same way some people today think that TV is bad, so you know that A and B are wrong. Since Plato felt very strongly about that, the answer is E.

Question 20: If you realize that the “academic” mentioned in this question disagrees with Plato (and agrees with the author), you know that A, B, and D are wrong. If you noticed that he called Plato an “elitist”, you know the correct answer is E.

Question 21: This question is about the same lines you read for the previous question. The author is building up his argument that Plato was wrong, so the answer is A.

Question 22: Remembering the main idea, the correct answer is D.

Question 23: The author disagrees with Plato, so A, C, and D are wrong. Plato was a Greek philosopher, so E is wrong. The correct answer is B.

Question 24: Again, remembering the main idea, the correct answer has to be E.

Get how this works?

Knowing the main idea and using the process of elimination is like having super powers.

I picked this passage to show you this concept because it’s particularly clear. In some other passages, it’s not quite this easy to apply the main idea to each of the questions. For all passages, though, knowing the main idea is the key.

Let me add a few additional steps that will help you do your best on the reading passages, and put it all together in order.

  1. Read the part in italics before the passage.
  2. Always read the passage before answering the questions.
  3. Read for the main idea and the author’s opinion, not the details.
  4. If a question refers to specific line numbers, always go back and re-read those lines. It usually helps to read a little bit before and after those lines, as well.
  5. For most questions, when you’ve eliminated the answers that are obviously wrong, if you’re having trouble deciding which of the remaining answers is right, pick the one that is closest to the main idea of the passage.
  6. As long as you’re not rushing, always go with your gut on this section of the test.

That’s it. Practice this a few times until you get the hang of it. Then watch your Critical Reading score shoot way up.

Try it and let me know how it works.

If you want a more great tips and a full SAT study guide that will help you raise your SAT score fast, check out my ebook.

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{ 117 comments… read them below or add one }

Lara HM December 1, 2013 at 10:01 am

So i was scrolling down and reading the questions asked and your replies and they helped me, but i have one more question, im applying for the sat on dec 7, which is like after 6 days. I guess i’m well prepared but the thing is that i dont score as high in the critical reading as in math and writing, so do you have any advicesand extra tips? That was about the passage based questions, while for the sentence completions i memorized a lot of words using the cards and the sat book of “hot words for the sat” but on the exam, words still confuse me..
That was all i guess, thankyouu!


Jeff Bergman December 2, 2013 at 11:33 pm
IVY January 4, 2014 at 12:11 am

Hi Jeff,
Is it better to read the whole passage before answering the questions, or is it okay to read according to the questions?


Jeff Bergman January 12, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Hi Ivy,
Most people should read the whole passage first. You can get a pretty good score reading according to the questions, but there are some questions that are much harder to answer if you do that. That’s why the only people who should read according to the questions are those who have a really hard time reading the passage without spacing out.


Divya February 14, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Hi I’m taking the March SAT and I was wondering if there are any tips for reading the long passages faster?


Jeff Bergman February 19, 2014 at 11:51 am

Hi Divya,
Don’t get hung up in the details. Read with the intention of finding the main idea, which is the topic of the passage and the author’s opinion about the topic. Another way you can think about it is to answer the question, “What’s this passage about?” That’s faster than trying to understand all of the little details. Try that and let me know how it works.


hasan February 16, 2014 at 9:48 am

Hey, I am applying for the SAT exam in 2 months or so, and I need to succeed in order to be accepted in the university, please give me some tips or anything that can help me because I am new for this type of exams. Thank you


Jeff Bergman February 19, 2014 at 11:53 am

Hi Hasan,
This really is the most important critical reading tip. Read it over and practice until you understand it and can apply it yourself. Then write back to me again and let me know how it goes.


Habiba March 7, 2014 at 8:14 am

Hey! I’m applying for sat in two months; the main reason I hate my sat score is because of the critical reading section. I REALLY NEED YOUR HELP!


Jeff Bergman April 1, 2014 at 6:36 pm

Hey Habiba,
If you ask me specific questions I’m happy to give you specific help. Let me know what you need help with and what form would be most helpful (meaning a video course, an ebook, just exchanging emails, a class, whatever). Until then, there’s plenty of stuff here on the blog that has helped a lot of students raise their score. This page is the most helpful one, and you should also look at this one about the sentence completions.


Sheldy Shin March 18, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Hi, I am a Korean student who is in junior studying SAT. Sometimes I struggle to get the main idea of the passage because the passage switches in a strange way but I cannot find the connection. (I write a small note on each paragraph) Isn’t there any way to improve how to get the main idea? Or any tips to get main ideas better?


Jeff Bergman April 1, 2014 at 6:39 pm

Hi Sheldy,
You might think of the main idea this way. When you’re done reading the passage, you want to be able to answer the question, “What’s this passage about,” in just a couple of sentences. If you send me a specific example, I’ll be happy to help you with it.


Evelina March 23, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Hi, I’m an international student. I have a huge problem with CR. I’ve improved math (450-620) and writing sections, but unfortunately I am not able to get higher score in CR than 450. Do you have any advice how to solve that problem?


Jeff Bergman April 1, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Hi Evelina,
Great job on the Math sections. That’s pretty impressive. This post is my best advice in a nutshell. You might also check out the posts about sentence completions if you need help with them. As I’ve been saying to others, if you have more specific questions, I can be more helpful to you.


virginia March 26, 2014 at 2:04 pm

hi, I have one month for May exam . My first trial was in Dec 7 last year ,but i got 1130 which is worst score.however, I got it without practicing that much. I’m doing all my effort in this month to get high score . Do U have any advice to get higher in math, writing ,and reading in same month?? I have 12 hours free I can learn in these hours. please I want any help.

Thanks :)


Jeff Bergman April 1, 2014 at 6:51 pm

Hi Virginia,
That’s not a lot of time to get a higher score in all three sections. You might do it, but I would suggest that you put in at least 8 hours each week, and aim for 50 or more points higher in each section. There’s a lot of good advice here on the blog, and here’s a link to my SAT Quick Fix Study Guide, which is specifically designed to help you raise your score in a short amount of time (although it works even better if you have more time).


Jack April 8, 2014 at 9:14 am

Is there an answer key for the Official SAT Practice Test for 2009 – 2010 which you used as an example for this lesson? I would like to complete it and see how many I get wrong.


Jeff Bergman April 9, 2014 at 10:22 am

Yes, the link is in the post.


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