How I Improved My SAT Critical Reading Score by 150 Points

By | April 16, 2008

SAT Critical Reading - Reading PassagesThis post refers to how I learned to tackle the reading passages portion of the Critical Reading Sections. Many students struggle with the reading passage questions, so I thought I’d tackle them first before I go into the sentence completions or emphasize the importance of vocabulary.

When I first set out to master the SAT Critical Reading passages, I began by focusing my effort on the passages themselves, thinking that perhaps I was not reading properly or thoroughly enough, all the while wasting valuable time. Only after hours of analyzing the numerous Critical Reading Sections did I realize I was going about it incorrectly. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but I realized, the key is to focus on the Questions and their Answer Choices, not the passages the passages themselves.

The single most important skill for succeeding on the SAT Critical Reading Passages is to learn to evaluate the ANSWER CHOICES! I can’t emphasize this enough.

Have you ever read an SAT passage and not understood what it was about?? No, of course not. The passages are relatively straight forward. Most 5th graders can understand what the authors are saying and give a fairly good summary. I’ve never had a student read a passage and ask, “what the heck was that about?”

Take a look yourself at this passage from the CollegeBoard’s Official Web Site: here. This is a typical passage you would encounter on the actual SAT. After just a quick read of this passage, you would realize that the passage is simply a personal narrative about the author’s first experience witnessing a live theater show.

It’s just as easy to understand any of the passages in the CollegeBoard’s Official SAT Study Guide. For example, take a look at the first reading passages offered in Practice Test #1 (Section 2, p. 391). After a quick read, you can easily see that each passage is simply providing its author’s perspectives on dolphin intelligence. Look at the longer passage on the next page. Again, one could easily conclude that the passage is about the perception (or misconceptions) that outsiders have had of Native Americans throughout history. Was there anything that was difficult to understand? Not really.

So, then why do so many students do poorly on the Critical Reading passages??

If you think about it, each question can have only one correct answer (obvious, right?). Well, this means that the test makers have to create four other answer choices that are incorrect – choices that are meant to lure you to them. Therefore, focus on the questions and answer choices, not the reading passages themselves! This does not mean to ignore the passages altogether. That would be foolish. Instead, get through them as quickly as possible while still getting the gist of them, so that you can focus your energy on what matters. You don’t get points on the SAT for reading the passages; you only get points for each question you answer correctly. So why waste time and energy overanalyzing the passages?


You should spend, at most, only two minutes reading each passage, then one full minute on each question. For some of you that may mean skimming the passages (I’ll explain in another post how to do this while still reading critically). But know, that overall, you should spend considerable more time on the questions than you do reading the passage itself.

OK, so what do you look for among the answer choices?

Let’s start with things to avoid. The following are indicators of bad choices that should be avoided:

1. Extreme or absolute words

One of the clearest indicators of poor choices are those words that make a statement extreme or absolute. On the SAT, you have to take every word literally. If you do, you’ll realize that certain answer choices that seem plausible, or in accord with the overall theme of the passage, are actually poor choices. For example, take a look at the following sentences:

– You should never eat right before going to bed.

All children should play as much as possible as exercise is good for their bodies.

While these two sentences are examples of how we speak in daily conversations, they make for poor choices on the SAT because, when taken literally, they mean very different things than what is intended. Words such as “never” and “all” are very strong words in the context of the SAT and are rarely contained within the correct answer.

Some other words and phrases that often indicate extreme answers that are rarely the correct choices are:

-All, always, the only, oldest, the first, same.

-superlatives (such as best, biggest, greatest)

-and “less” words (such as pointless, useless, endless)

The words above often suggest sweeping generalizations that are often too extreme. Correct answers for the Critical Reading Passages are usually presented in more moderate terms such as:

-Not all, not always, seemed the only, oldest known, among the first, about the same

*Keep in mind that there are no fool proof rules on extreme words.These are just some of the words that often – but not always – indicate good or bad choices. What’s more important is the principle underlying them. Always remember to keep context in mind.

Here they are listed side-by-side so that you can more clearly see the differences:

Indicators of Extreme Answers

(poor choices)

More Moderate Versions

(better choices)


not all


not always

the only

seemed the only


oldest known

the first

among the first


about the same

Notice that while “only” almost always indicates a poor choice, the phrase “not the only” is often correct. Therefore, it’s not enough to just look for extreme words, but also to consider their context.

2. Politically Incorrect Choices

Avoiding politically incorrect choices is especially important when dealing with a passage that refers to a specific person. While the passage may highlight some of his or her faults, the overall tone of the passage will be positive. When the passage is about a woman or a member of any minority group, the answer will almost always be positive.

3. Choices that defy common sense

This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the passages that you overlook these. In each set of answer choices, there will almost always be at least one answer choice that you know is so ridiculous that it most certainly cannot be the answer. Your intuition is correct. You should certainly avoid these choices.

4. Choices that require you to infer beyond the limits of the passage

There are something called an “inference” questions on the Critical Reading passages, but they’re not what you think. These questions are usually phrased in such a way as, “Based on line 8-12, you can infer that the author…” Many students mistake this as an opportunity to assume something beyond the limits of the passage. These questions are not asking you to guess or jump to some conclusion; DO NOT read into things. These questions simply require you to look into specific parts of the passage and find the answers. If you find yourself thinking up a hypothetical question in your head to justify an answer, it’s probably the wrong choice. Remember this is a standardized test. The answer must be something that most other students can “infer” from the passage, not something random you draw up in your head. This also applies to the sentence completion questions that I’ll get to later.

So now that I’ve gone over what types of answer choices to avoid on the Critical Reading passage questions, in my next post I’ll go over the qualities of good answer choices.

Check out my next post here: How to Answer SAT Critical Reading Questions without Reading the Passages

Also, for more advice and practice on SAT Critical Reading Sections, get Adam Robinson’s Rocket Review Revolution: The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT.

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Topics: Reading Passages, SAT Critical Reading | 25 Comments »

25 Responses to “How I Improved My SAT Critical Reading Score by 150 Points”

  1. How to Answer SAT Critical Reading Questions without Reading the Passages | // SAT Ninja Says:
    April 17th, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    […] my last post – How I improved my SAT Critical Reading Score By 150 Points – I emphasized the importance of focusing on the Questions and Answer Choices, rather than the […]

  2. Sergio Flores Says:
    May 15th, 2008 at 2:47 am

    I liked your post, I will try your advices. Anyway, let me say that the Critical Reading section is so difficult.. haha It’s sometimes frustrating to know that you actually understand the passage, but you get more than the 40% of the answers wrong!.. It makes u feel like you can’t read.. !

  3. Kelly O'Donnell Says:
    July 8th, 2008 at 3:00 am

    I really think that this advice is awesome!!! I do awesome in the math and writing section, it’ just the reading that kills me! This looks like it will help me when i retake the sat in september. thanks!!!

  4. nh2433 Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    I hate the CR section…
    Let’s see if u help me…

  5. fj Says:
    August 8th, 2009 at 12:55 am

    well i will try to follow your advice do you have any advice for math and Writing?

  6. jake Says:
    October 7th, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    im sleeping

  7. Rak89 Says:
    December 15th, 2009 at 7:20 am

    Thanks Buddy. You are a life saver

  8. Kishan Amratia Says:
    January 1st, 2010 at 7:52 am

    I hate the CR section. it kills my entire score. i hope this advice will help, its great!!. Thanks alot!!

  9. Ryan Says:
    January 2nd, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    Hey do you have any info or tips on how to rise my MATH AND WRITING (should get a great score on) for SAT … i gota 610 on math and 660 🙁 on writing and 400! on critical reading I NEED YOUR HELP ADVICE AND HOW I SHOULD STUDY

  10. NR Says:
    January 5th, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    I strongly agree with your post regarding to eliminating answer choices. Another thing I need help on is reading the SAT passages. SAT passages are totally different from passages from books I have read. Sentences are long and unorganized. How should I deal with this problem?

  11. ummmmm Says:
    March 1st, 2010 at 1:53 am

    tnxx sooooooooooo much this helped me a lot..i absolutely suk at the cr section and have been looking everywhere on the web for advice and this helped me so much…tnx again

  12. How to Answer Inference Questions on SAT Critical Reading Passages | SAT Ninja: SAT Test Prep Expert Says:
    May 20th, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    […] How I Improved My SAT Critical Reading Score by 150 Points […]

  13. Lei Says:
    May 23rd, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    This stuff is amazing cause it really points out the mistakes students make when taking the SAT. I usually find the passage parts of the critical reading to be really difficult since that portion seems to be my lowest score. Thanks for this advice.

  14. Collegeboard :) Says:
    July 15th, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Thanks a lot.

    I hope this advice would help me to get at least 650

    on CR.

  15. Mayar Says:
    November 28th, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I’m Soo Poor In CR. And I Wish I Can Improve It By Your advices ..

    Because its the only section I Fail in…

  16. Usman Says:
    December 30th, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    I always score 700+ in the math and writing section, however I always end up with a score of 500 in the critical reading section. I’ve take 5 practice tests and get a 1900+ but as an Canadian student I need a minimum of 2100 just to have a shot at ivy.

  17. subzi Says:
    July 2nd, 2011 at 11:02 pm


  18. Maryam115 Says:
    September 4th, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Wow, that was good. I hope it does help me in my exam, I really need to improve my score at least 120 points. Thanks a lot for your help! Amazing site!!!

  19. Christian Says:
    November 7th, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Sorry, should say “your methods or ‘mine'”, heh. I’m a little OCD about spelling mistakes in my comments 🙂

  20. ravi Says:
    March 7th, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    i found this site very helpful…but my only question is… Is it possible to got from 1400 to 1800+ on the sat with only 1 month of studying..because i have been using this website quiet often and find it helpful….

  21. summer Says:
    March 16th, 2012 at 1:05 am

    I think this strategy of reading the questions instead of the passage sounds really good I am going to try it on sample questions thanks a lot for your help.

  22. summer Says:
    March 16th, 2012 at 1:06 am

    I am going to try it on sample questions thanks a lot for your help.

  23. Jeremy H Says:
    June 1st, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Thank you so much for all the tips! these will be very beneficial when i retake the SAT tomorrow! i was able to get a 1850 the last time i took the SAT, and i think that these suggestions will exponentially increase that score. Again, thank you.

  24. Joe Blogs Says:
    November 24th, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Well SAT passages are difficult to fathom
    take look at small passage from OCT 2007 section 4 just Google the test read it and have the feeling about tricks ETS plays with innocuous Test Takers

  25. Anna Velshi Says:
    January 24th, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    I did my SAT today, and breezed through it because of this advice. Thanks so much!


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