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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.

P.S. If you want a full length Critical Reading video course that will help you raise your CR score fast, check out my SAT Critical Reading Quick Fix.

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{ 209 comments… read them below or add one }

may April 17, 2015 at 4:45 pm

Hello…great information
my test is in two weeks time but my CR is not improving .i had a 580 on my first test and this is going to be my second and last try on the Test.Its difficult for me to choose between two answers and the double passages is also not good , i run out of time and the questions about what can be inferred and those between the two passages are a challenge.What can i do?….i normally underline the line references so that i know when to Answer a question.Thanks.


Jeff Bergman April 21, 2015 at 2:36 pm

Hi May,
Thanks for the kind words!

When you’ve eliminated 3 answer choices, and you’re choosing between the 2 that remain, pick the one that is more closely related to the main idea. This will guide you to the correct answer about 80% of the time. Of course there are a few questions where this advice doesn’t apply, such as a question about a vocabulary word in the context of the passage, but you’ll be able to easily recognize those few times when that strategy won’t work.

In the double passages, all of the questions that compare the two passages relate to the main idea of the passages.

I recently answered a question about the inference questions, using a specific example from this year’s official practice test. Just look through the comments and you’ll find the help you need.

There are a few things you can do to help with managing your time. Here’s the most important one:

You probably notice by now that there are some questions that take you longer than most of the others, you can probably tell which ones they are pretty quickly, and it’s probably true that you’re more likely to get these questions wrong (and more likely to get the other questions right). The most important thing you can do to help you with time management is to recognize the questions that take you longer to answer, and are harder for you, and to quickly skip those questions. You want to make sure that you have a chance to answer all of the questions that you’re most likely to get right before you run out of time on the test. If you have extra time after doing that, then you can go back and try those other questions that you skipped.

The second most important thing you can to to help with managing your time is to focus on the main idea of the passage, rather than getting bogged down in details when you read. I’m not suggesting that you skim the passage. What I am suggesting is that if you encounter words, phrases, or even whole sentences that you don’t understand, just keep reading, knowing that the most important thing you have to do is to have a fairly good idea of the author’s main point. This helps with time management because it should help you read faster while still allowing you to get the most important information from the passage.

I hope this helps! Good luck on May 2, and please let me know how it goes for you.



Phuong Do March 8, 2015 at 6:22 pm

Hi, I’m having trouble with the type of questions that asks about the indication or implication of the authopr to say this. How can I improve it? and also the one who asks you about the meaning of the words. I find it sometimes difficult first, because I don’t know the meaning; second, most of the choices are suitable.


Jeff Bergman March 9, 2015 at 11:18 am

Hi Phuong Do,

Do you implication or inference questions? The first thing to know is that there aren’t very many of these on the test. That means that you don’t have to worry about that type of question too much. For example, I’ve just looked through this year’s official practice SAT by the College Board.

The only question like that is question 14 in section 7. (Download the test from the link and follow along.)

The question says:

It can be inferred that, for Julian Bond, a portrait of “the complete Martin Luther King” (lines 10-11) would
(A) celebrate King’s influence both within and out- side the United States
(B) acknowledge the logical lapses in some of King’s later work
(C) compare King with other significant figures of his era
(D) achieve a balance between King’s earlier concerns and his later ones
(E) reveal information about King’s personal as well as his public life

Here’s how you answer it. First find the complete sentence that contains those lines in the passage:

Former Georgia state legislator Julian Bond said in 1986 that commemorations of King seemed to “focus almost entirely on Martin Luther King the dreamer, not on Martin King the antiwar activist, not on Martin King the challenger of the economic order, not on Martin King the opponent of apartheid, not on the complete Martin Luther King.”

In that sentence, “Bond said that commemorations of King seemed to focus almost entirely on MLK the dreamer… not on the complete MLK.”

We can infer that Bond thinks the commemorations should focus on the complete MLK, the one who did all of those other things listed in the sentence (the opposite of what he says is happening now).

Once we know that, we can look at the answer choices to see which ones don’t match at all, and which one is the best match.

It’s easy to see that answer choices A, C, and E are wrong. They have nothing to do with that sentence. Answer choices B and D mention King’s later work or later concerns. The word “later” isn’t in the sentence we read. That means we have to look at the rest of the paragraph to clear this up. But we don’t need to clear it up too much, because if we know that the phrase “logical lapses” in answer choice B criticizes King’s later work, we only have to see if Bond criticizes King’s later work or not. And we can see that Bond likes King’s later work so the best answer choice is D.

That’s just one way to answer that question, but if you’re having trouble fully understanding the passage it’s probably the best way.

So I hope that helps with that type of question, but most importantly remember that those types of questions don’t come up too often.

Now, for the questions that ask about the meaning of the words, they are almost always asking about the meaning of that word in the context of the passage. Some of the other answer choices give other meanings of the word they’re asking about, but those meanings wouldn’t work in the passage. You should read the sentence containing the word and substitute the answer choices until you find the one that works best. If you’re doing that and still having trouble, it’s just a question of needing to learn more English vocabulary.

Let know if this helps, and feel free to write back to me directly at



Tim March 8, 2015 at 6:44 am

This is a great post on the Critical Reading Jeff. I have my SAT next week but I am Really Struggling on CR a lot. Its probably the focus that makes it quit when I’m still in the middle of the passage and also without understanding it fully. Is there any other recommendations that you could provide? I did a lot of practices but it had not gone well.

Thx a lot


Jeff Bergman March 9, 2015 at 10:42 am

Hey Tim,

There’s a couple of things you can try. When you’re reading the passages, see if you can summarize each paragraph in one sentence, or even just a few words. Usually that’s all you’ll need. If you can do this, you’ll read faster and understand it better. I just made a new video showing how to do this. It’s not ready for youtube yet, but if you email me privately I can send you a private link. It’s

If you simply can’t finish reading the passages on time, or if you just can’t focus on what you’re reading no matter what you do, you could try reading just enough to answer each question as you go. You can’t get a great score that way, but if nothing else helps you and you’re just looking to do average or a little better than average, it might work.

In case it’s not clear what I mean, let’s say the first question for a passage mentions lines 11-12. Then you would read from the start of the passage until you’ve read enough to answer that question. If the next question asks about lines 23 – 25, then you’d continue reading from where you left off until you’ve read enough to answer the second question, and so on.

Try it and let me know how it goes.



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