Five Easy Ways to Outsmart the SAT Reading and Writing Section

Parents assume that the more time a student preps for the SAT, the more likely it is that the student will earn a high score on the test.

But that’s not necessarily true.  A student can spend two hours a day for six months prepping for the SAT and still come away with an inadequate score. Why? Because success on the SAT is dependent not so much on time practicing but on a student’s ability to outsmart the test.

Perfect test takers are not smarter than you; they just know how to outwit the test

Does this mean you don’t need to practice to do well on the SAT? Of course not. To do well, all students need to familiarize themselves with the test and practice taking the test, timed and untimed.

But you also need to know how to outfox the test. And in order to outfox the SAT, you need to keep in mind the five tips below:

1. Remember that only one answer is completely correct.

Students who take the time to prep for the SAT Reading section are generally able to eliminate two or three of five answer choices quickly and correctly. But what do you do when the remaining two or three choices both seem equally right or equally baffling? Remember that only one answer is completely correct. That means that something has to be incorrect in one of the two answers remaining. If you find yourself baffled, quickly review each bit of information in the two remaining answers. If any part of an answer is wrong, the whole answer is wrong. As soon as you identify a part of an answer choice that is not correct, fill in the bubble for the other answer. Do not spend time rereading and reevaluating the remaining answer choice; there is no longer any need to think about the meaning of that answer. For example, if a question asks, “Which best characterizes Theo?” and one of the two remaining answer choice reads, “slovenly and lazy,” ask yourself if Theo is represented as both slovenly and lazy. If there is textual evidence indicating that Theo is slovenly but no textual evidence that he is lazy, you know that that answer cannot be the correct answer. Stop thinking, quickly fill in the bubble that corresponds to the only answer left, and move on. 

2. Cross Out Prepositions

Grammar errors almost never occur in prepositional phrases. In the Writing section of the SAT, grammar errors will become more apparent to you if you cross out the prepositional phrase embedded in a sentence. For example, consider this sentence: “Everybody ran under the bridge to escape to their cars.” When you eliminate the prepositional phrase “under the bridge” so that the sentence reads “Everybody ran to escape to their cars” it becomes easier to see (and hear) the pronoun disagreement.

3. Mark Transitions and Transitional Phrases

In the Reading section of the SAT, while reading, highlight, circle, or otherwise mark transition words and transitional phrases (such as however, on the other hand, even more so, above all, whereas, while, but, etc.). This strategy is important for two reasons:

  • Typically, each SAT includes at least one but more likely two reading passages written during the 19th century and before about 1930. These passages tend to contain longer sentences and therefore more ideas in one sentence than students are accustomed to reading. If you train yourself to be alert to the transitions that indicate, for example, that a new or contradictory idea is about to be represented, or that a shade of meaning is about to be emphasized or clarified, you will find it easier to comprehend these denser texts.
  • Many of the test questions test your knowledge of information that is represented as a result of or around transitions and transitional phrases.

 4. Avoid Extremes

Part of the test designer’s goal is to assess how well you have attended a text and how well you can understand and interpret shades of meaning. That means that answer choices in the Reading section of the SAT that include the words “never,” “always,” “absolutely,” and other such extreme words are rarely correct. For example, if a question asks (as many do) “Which of the following best states the main idea of the passage?” and two answer choices read “Science always conflicts with religion” and “Advanced technology is the only route to sustainable scientific theories,” ninety-nine times out of a hundred you can eliminate those answers without even considering them because they include the extreme words “always” and “only.”

 5Practice Panic Management Strategies

One of biggest challenges for all test takers is managing the incipient panic that is aroused when you are not immediately sure of an answer to a question or when a question outright baffles you. This might only happen five or six times during a SAT exam, but the consequent anxiety aroused can mess with your ability to think clearly, and if you freeze, you’re going to waste precious seconds. The best way to manage those panic situations is to remember that the SAT is not an intelligence test. Nor is the SAT an adequate predictor of what test designers call “college readiness.” Rather, it’s a necessary evil. As such, it is there to be defeated by you. 

A note to girls: The SAT poses special problems for girl test takersIf you’d like help coaching your daughter and teaching how to master the SAT, please reach out to me.

Want help learning to outwit the SAT? Call me. I’m always ready to help you!


Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.