How to Get 800 on the SAT Reading

If you think the SAT Reading test is designed to trick you, you’re right. It is. But if you know what the tricks are and where in the text they are likely to occur, you can optimize your score.

Below you will find the 16 best strategies for success on the SAT Reading. These practices will help you make most of your time, improve your comprehension, and help you answer quickly and correctly.


1. Practice reading the information blurb and sample passages.

I generally recommend that students read four to six sample passages every day starting eight weeks before the test date and double that number each week before the test. This practice will familiarize you with conventions of the kinds (genres and styles) of the writing the test designers privilege. As you do, pay special attention to the conditions and qualifications in each passage and note where they occur (see tip number 6 below for more on why this is important). This practice will not only familiarize you the kinds of density (complexity) the test designers value, but will also speed up your reading. Ultimately, you want to be able to skim-read before the test date.

2. Read the questions, but not the answer choices, before you read the passage.

As you read the questions, underline or circle a word in the question that will help you remember the idea posed in the question.  Once you know the ideas the test designer is concerned with, you are better able to target your reading. After all, you now know what you are going to be asked. This practice will also speed up your reading.

3. Read with your finger.

When you trace a line of text with your finger you are using your body to help your mind focus on the task, reading. While finger reading is falsely associated with early reading and reading deficiencies, finger reading is used by top-ranked scholars and professionals in all fields to help them stay focused on the task at hand and to speed up their reading. Over time, this practice will also help you comprehend faster.

4. As you read, underline or circle words or phrases associated with the ideas posed in the questions.

This practice, sometimes called targeted annotation, not only helps you answer correctly and quickly, but helps you make quick sense of what you are reading. Targeted annotation also helps you quickly relocate a passage in the text should you need to when answering the questions.

5. After reading each paragraph, spend a few seconds answering this question: “What’s the main idea of this paragraph?”

It doesn’t have to be a quality (that is, a school essay) summary; one cobbled-together sentence will do. If you can do this, you will be able to read the subsequent paragraph quicker and understand the idea(s) in the subsequent paragraphs more easily because you have already started thinking about and anticipating the relations (connections) between the ideas in the just-read paragraph and the ideas to come. This practice will improve your comprehension and speed up your reading.

6. While reading, underline or circle transitional words and phrases such as “on the contrary,” “however,” “while,” and “despite.”

The test designer wants evidence that you pay close attention to and understand dense passages, passages that represent the authors’ ideas with complexity. Rarely, will you read a passage that represents a straightforward assertion and support of an author’s claim or intention. Instead, the test designers generally present passages in which the author has modified or qualified her own thinking, or which indicate reservations or conditions in the author’s thinking about her topic. Think of a qualifying essay and you’ll have the right idea. By tracking the transitional phrases, you give yourself a map of the shifts in the author’s thinking. This practice helps you comprehend and helps you prepare for the question or questions that offer two very similar answer choices (see tip number 10 below).

7. Read only what you need. 

You can always read more of the passage if you have to, but you never want to read more than you have to. If you think you’ve found the correct answer to a specific question, you’ve probably done enough.

8. Answer every question in your own words before you look at the answer choices.

While this may seem like a time eater, it’s not. When you provide yourself with a sense of the correct answer before looking at the test designer’s choices, the misleading answers will be more apparent and the correct answer will emerge in high relief.

9. When answering, cross out the answers you know are wrong.

10. After crossing out the answers you know are wrong, if the right answer is not immediately apparent, spend about ten seconds trying to answer the question. If answering takes you longer than ten seconds, move on.

11. Eliminate answer choices that contain extreme language.

Watch out for words like “always” and “never.” These are rarely right answers.

12. Look for answer choices that are similar.

Not always, but often, the correct answer is one of those.

13. If you are convinced that two answer choices are correct, paraphrase the answer choices.

You may have misread one. If not, check to see if one answer contains information that is beyond the scope of the ideas in the passage.

14. In the last few minutes of the test, review your answers.

If you have not answered any questions, try one last time to eliminate even one possible answer option. Eliminating just one answer raises your odds of answering correctly from 25 to 33 percent. If you cannot eliminate even one, guess and quickly fill in the bubble.  Remember you are not going to be penalized for wrong answers. Have fun with it. Some of your guesses are going to be correct.

15. Take five minutes a day to practice simple relaxation techniques.

Anxiety interferes with your ability to approach and tackle problems, and effects your short-term memory and your ability to think quickly and clearly. Find a simple way to manage your anxiety and practice it while studying for the test and during the test. Here’s an easy one to learn: Close your eyes and slowly inhale to the count of ten. Try to breathe into your tummy not your chest. Now slowly exhale to the count of ten. Repeat this process five times. Sound silly? Well, here’s the benefit: When you do this, you encourage your tense muscles to calm down and you restore a more optimal flow of oxygen to your brain. That calms down your brain. And when your brain is calmed down, it thinks better and faster. (Look for my upcoming blog on test anxiety, how it can mess you up, and how to beat it!)

16. Remember, attitude matters.

If you enter the test with a defeatist mentality, you’re not going to do as well as if you enter knowing you can do it. This may sound witless, but scientific studies show that when you think positively, you perform more successfully than when you think negatively. So just remember: You can do it!

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.