Post image for The Most Important SAT Critical Reading Tip

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.

Why?

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.

Bookmark and Share

{ 223 comments… read them below or add one }

amanda June 15, 2015 at 11:40 pm

Hi, i got 320 on my critical reading, which i know is very bad. i am really bad in reading because i hate reading book thus i found it hard to read quickly. on the reading section, should i read all the paragraphs? if i read all the paragraphs i will not have any time left to answer the questions..

Reply

Jeff Bergman June 19, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Hi Amanda,
Since your score is so low, you probably shouldn’t read everything. To raise your critical reading score to the mid 400s, you’d have to answer about 7 questions correctly in each of the 3 critical reading sections. The best use you can make of the time they give you for each section is to figure out which questions you can answer. Leave the rest of the questions blank.

Of course, if you want to improve more than that, you’ll have to practice reading and get better at it. That takes a lot more work, especially if you hate doing it. You have to decide what’s best for you.

Good luck!

Reply

Nicoru June 5, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Hello, Jeff!

I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to type up the tips and to link the passages to follow along. Actually, following the passage with you, I ended up getting every question right…I was kind of amazed haha. It really makes sense to go ahead and skip questions that cause time to linger because then the stress on time about completing proceeding questions causes an unclear mind and inability to analyze as efficiently as just skipping more difficult questions and moving along to the questions with better honed skills.

One thing I may suggest is to go into a bit more explanation as to why some questions are wrong; such as when you said “A, C, D, are wrong….so E is the answer” ; it would be nice if we could see why, whether it’s a word of the answer, the idea, or even the incorrect parallelisms between choices (I’ve come to notice that 3/4 of the choices are incorrect because they all share a common factor, whilst the correct stands out).

Thank you very much once again! I look forward to delving more into your tips! :)

Reply

Jeff Bergman June 11, 2015 at 4:33 pm

Hi Nicoru,

You’re welcome, and thank you! I appreciate your suggestions. Since they’re changing the SAT next spring and I’ll be making a new set of articles and videos, I’ll certainly make use of them.

In case you’re interested, here are a couple additional videos about the critical reading section that I just put up today:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5-ZDvVD9UE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhDgCmoLiP0

Best regards,
Jeff

Reply

Gerardo Martinez June 5, 2015 at 1:28 am

Hi,
Jeff I’ve you helped a lot of people, that is just great, keep up the good work.

I had a question regarding the three reading sections. I would describe myself as a slow thinker and analyzer, not necessarily a slow reader. I’ve taken the princeton review course fundamentals and they suggested that when we answer long passages we read only the blurp and some introductory and conclusion sentences. Unfortunately this strategy is not quite helping me get more answers correct although I do answer more questions. For the section of 2 short passages and 2 long passages of the SAT, would you recommend me using the princes ton strategy or reading at my own pace (answering less but getting a higher percent correct). I get similar scores on my practice tests (470-550) . thanks :)

Reply

Jeff Bergman June 11, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Hi Gerardo,
Thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate it!

Read the passage first, then answer the questions. The strategy you got from the princeton review is only helpful for a small percentage of people (for example if they have adhd or some other condition that makes it hard for them to pay attention and remember what they’ve read), and if it hasn’t helped you until now then you’re not one of them.

Also, remember that you’re looking for the best answer, not an absolutely correct answer. If it was a fill in the blank test, then there could be many different ways to write a correct answer for many of the questions. However, one of the answer choices is always better than the others. The key is to quickly identify the 2 or 3 answers that couldn’t possibly be correct, cross them off, and then ask yourself which one of the remaining choices is best. There will either be a reason why one is better than the others, or a reason why one of them can’t be right. In most cases, the better answer is the one that’s more closely related to the main idea of the passage.

If you’re on my email list then watch the videos you’ve gotten again to see how this works. If you’re not, then you can sign up here. And here are a couple additional videos about the critical reading section that I just put up today:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5-ZDvVD9UE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhDgCmoLiP0

Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

-Jeff

Reply

Nicole June 4, 2015 at 4:54 pm

Hi Jeff!
I really hope you can answer this in time since I’m taking my second SATs on June 6th.
My first language is not English, since I’m from Argentina. But I’m applying to a design school in New York and, although I don’t need the highest score (I’m not applying to medical sciences or chemistry, I’m going for photography), I would like to have a good score in order to compete with those who are actually really good in their language. On May I had a 1610 score, 550 in both maths and critical reading and 510 in the writing section. Are there any tips you can give me? Is my score way too low? Thank you SO much!
Nicole

Reply

Jeff Bergman June 11, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Hi Nicole,

First of all, sorry about not being able to respond before you took the test. Hopefully you’re able to take it again in the fall. I don’t know if you’re score in May was too low, because different schools are looking for different scores. You can probably get an idea by looking at their website.

Have you signed up for my email list? If you have, the emails and videos you’ve gotten are the best tips and techniques that I can give you for raising your score. If you haven’t signed up for it yet, you can sign up here. And here are a couple additional videos about the critical reading section that I just put up today:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5-ZDvVD9UE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhDgCmoLiP0

You’re going to love NYC!

-Jeff

Reply

Ashna June 1, 2015 at 10:25 pm

I am getting a score around 600 in all the practice tests for both writing and critical reading. How can I improve?

Reply

Jeff Bergman June 3, 2015 at 11:48 am

Hi Ashna,

A 600 is a fairly decent score so general advice might not help. Think about it; how can I tell you how to improve unless you tell me what you’re having trouble with?

So perhaps the first thing you should do, if you haven’t done it already, is to analyze you’re current performance to determine what you’re having trouble with.

(When you do that, make sure you’re practicing with official college board practice tests. It’s the only way you can accurately gauge your performance and your sticking points. They have a book and an online course, and you can find more by searching on scribd.com for official sat practice tests and then clicking on the documents tab.)

For Critical Reading, look at these areas:
1) Are you having trouble with the sentence completions and/or passage questions that require you to know the meaning of “difficult” words? If you are maybe you should work on your vocabulary.
2) For the passage questions, on the ones you’re getting wrong are you usually able to eliminate three answer choices but pick the wrong one out of the remaining two? In that case, for almost every question that doesn’t rely on your knowledge of difficult words, the correct answer is the one that’s closest to the main idea of the passage.
3) Are you having trouble finishing the section in time, without feeling rushed? If so, perhaps you’re spending too much time on questions that are harder for you and that you’re less likely to answer correctly. If you’ve practiced a fair amount, you can probably identify these questions by now. Get in the habit of skipping these questions as soon as you recognize them. You can go back to them if you have time at the end of the section.

For the Writing section (the multiple choice part):
1) See if you can figure out a pattern to the questions you’re getting wrong. Are there grammar rules you don’t know that you have to learn?
2) Are you overanalyzing every answer choice? If you are, stop. Learn to identify the grammar rules that are consistently tested and focus on those. A handful of questions don’t fit the “normal” pattern but don’t worry about them until you’re consistently getting all of the questions right that test your knowledge of regular grammar rules.
3) Are you getting every question correct that tests regular rules but missing the ones that just seem random? If so, then the only remedy is to read more well written English than you’re currently reading.

See if this helps. Feel free to write back with more specific questions.

Reply

ahmed May 27, 2015 at 5:03 am

hello, iam not good at critical reading because i am not an american and i from asia and my english is not good at all . my question how can i improve my score and i have a low score of 350 and i confuse between reading question firsts or reading the passage … please answer in the nearest time because i dont have time and i have exam on june 6

Reply

Jeff Bergman June 1, 2015 at 12:21 am

Hi Ahmed,

A 350 is a pretty low score. It reflects a raw score of about 8 or 9, which mean that you only answered about 3 questions correctly on each reading section (or you answered a few more correctly but a large number incorrectly.

So there are 2 major areas for improvement. The first, as you realize, is to keep better at reading they kinds of English that you’ll find on the SAT. That will help you the most long term, but not for taking the test on Saturday.

The second area for improvement is better management of his time and better decision making about which questions to answer. A raw score of 21 – 24 will place your score in the 450 range, a substantial improvement from what you’re scoring now. To get that score, you has to answer 7 or 8 questions correctly in each of the 3 sections (assuming you gets none wrong). Try to identify those questions and to be able to answer them in the time allowed for each section.

Also, when you do this, make sure you’re working with official College Board practice tests. They have a book and an online course that you can purchase. You can also find many additional practice tests on scribd.com. Search for “official sat practice test” and choose the documents tab.

Once you’re helping scoring in the mid 400’s my specific methods can be of more help to you.

I hope this helps! Let me know how it goes!

Best regards,
Jeff

Reply

JACOB May 22, 2015 at 1:17 am

I have trouble of time management in my critical reading section and also my score in this section is very low, what can I do to improve because am soon doing the June test.

Reply

Jeff Bergman May 24, 2015 at 11:43 am

Hi Jacob,

Time management in the critical reading section can really be a challenge. There are a couple of things you can do.

1) Answer all of the questions that are easier for you first. Don’t worry about saving time for the questions that are harder and that you think you probably won’t get right anyway.

Some questions take you longer than others, and if you’ve practiced for a little while you can probably tell which ones they are as soon as you read them. Skip these questions. Make sure you have time to answer all of the questions that you can answer correctly. If you have time left, then you can go back and try the ones you skipped.

2) Focus on the main idea of the passage and don’t worry about the details the first time you read it.

When you come across words or sentences that you don’t understand, just keep reading. They don’t ask questions about everything. So if you spend a lot of time trying to understand a sentence, or whatever, and they don’t ask you about it, then you’ve wasted all of that time. On the other hand, it’s very helpful to know the main idea of the passage when you’re answering the questions, and you can’t simply go back and find it later.

Most importantly, re-read this blog post until you really get it, and keep practicing this method. Also read the posts about the sentence completion questions too. Understanding and applying these concepts is the biggest thing you can do to improve your score over the next two weeks.

I hope this helps! Good luck in June, and please let me know how it goes for you!

Best,
Jeff

Reply

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.

Reply

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.

Best,
Jeff

Reply

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.
Thanks.

Reply

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 jeff@satsuccesssecrets.com

Best,
Jeff

Reply

Tim March 8, 2015 at 6:44 am

Hi,
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

Reply

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 jeff@satsuccesssecrets.com.

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.

Best,
Jeff

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: