Our level of enjoyment of the text aside, this interaction generally works, as long as you’re willing to put in the work and look up the occasional vocabulary word. You can grind out a solid grade in the course, and you’ll deserve it. Your teacher is interested in developing your skills and rewarding diligence.
So why do you struggle so much with Critical Reading on the SAT? Let’s look at a few important differences between reading for English class and reading for the SAT.
When you’re reading for school, you can look up a word you don’t know. You obviously don’t have that luxury on the SAT. While vocabulary is most directly tested on the Sentence Completion format questions, you’ll find quite a few tough words in the Passage-Based portion of the test. These words can be in the passage itself, in the questions, or the answer choices. Fortunately, the SAT tends to use the same high-value words frequently. Your first course of action is to learn these words. You can find online flashcards for the 50 most frequently tested words in Critical Reading at <insert link here>. Remember, this list is just a start. Once you have these words mastered, you can move on to a comprehensive list.
When you’re reading for school, your teacher gives you a due date; you get to choose when you do the reading within that time limit. You can choose to read when you’re feeling motivated. Also, your teacher encourages careful, deliberate critical reading. She wants you to take your time with the text.
On the SAT, this isn’t the case. You generally have seven to fifteen minutes for any passage and its corresponding questions. Clearly, poring over the text isn’t always an option. Students who naturally read slowly are at a distinct disadvantage here. Additionally, the way most students approach the passage-based questions portion of the test plays a role. Here is what most test takers do:
1. Read the passage slowly and carefully, trying to absorb as much as possible so the questions are easier to answer.
2. Read the question.
3. Go back to the passage and quickly reread the lines that were referenced in the question (about 85%) of passage-based questions have line references.
4. Go to the Answer Choices. Evaluate each one on how strongly it is supported by the text. If more than one Answer Choice remains after this process, either skip the question or choose the answer that sounds best.
The problem with this approach is that it misallocates your (very limited) time. You spend precious minutes reading the passage and evaluating the Answer Choices. Unfortunately, you don’t earn points for doing those two things. The only thing that earns you points is bubbling in the correct circles on your answer sheet. Your time allocation strategy is a lot more important on the SAT than for school work. We’ll talk more about this when we circle back to developing an effective strategy for passage-based questions.
When your teacher gives you a reading assignment, she has a fairly clear set of objectives:
1. At the minimum, ensure your performance aligns with state educational performance standards.
2. Help you to understand and appreciate the significance of important works of literature.
3. Develop your ability to think critically and understand the art of writing on a deeper level.
On the SAT, however, the test writers’ objectives are very different:
1. Design a test that is difficult enough that very few people will ace it, but not so difficult that everyone gets a terrible score.
2. Create questions that feel – but aren’t actually – familiar.
3. Create incorrect answer choices that aren’t too obviously incorrect.
4. Create correct answer choices that aren’t too obviously correct.
Which of these two do you think has your educational interests in mind? This difference alone should explain why you shouldn’t approach the SAT the same way you would a school test. The test makers are NOT your teachers.
So why does this matter?
First, you need to remember that you’re being evaluated on different criteria. There is no reward for creative interpretations of the text, using outside knowledge, or getting inside the author’s head.