SAT Essay Writing and Language
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Here’s the bad news: the SAT is timed.
Here’s the good news: the SAT is timed.

Why is this good news? Well, tasks often expand into the amount of time we give them. This is known as Parkinson’s Law. For example, if I have dinner guests coming at 5 pm, I’m always wrapping up cleaning and preparing dinner at 4:55 pm, just five minutes before everyone is scheduled to arrive. It doesn’t matter what time I start or how simple/elaborate the menu. The same thing goes with writing my tutoring lesson plans. No matter when I start, I’m always finishing up just prior to walking out the door to a session. This also happens to my son. If given all day, $10, and the toy section at Target, he would never make a decision on which toy to purchase. However, when I tell him that I’m leaving and start counting down, he suddenly is able to make a decision.

How does Parkinson’s Law relate to the SAT at the Reading Test section? Let’s talk about the structure first.

  1. You’re given 65 minutes for the Reading Test.
  2. You’ll read 5 selections and answer 52 questions.
  3. That means you have 13 minutes per selection and 1.25 minutes per question.

Yikes, that’s not a lot of time. Don’t panic, remember Parkinson’s Law. Having less time could be a good thing! If time were not a factor, the task of taking the Reading Test might expand into 3 hours and who knows if that would improve your performance! Would your answers be any better? Maybe, but maybe not. The time restriction forces concentration and focus, which are necessary for understanding what you read. Additionally, we can only concentrate for so long, so having a finite time period may limit brain fatigue.

So, now that we’ve accepted that time limits can be our friend (thank you, Parkinson’s Law), what are some reading comprehension strategies to speed things up? Here are 4, but don’t rush through them…

  1.  Understand the passage during the first read-through

Easier said than done. I know. Nevertheless, the goal is to reduce rereading because this is a major time suck. One of the easiest and most effective strategies I recommend for boosting comprehension is tracking words with a finger or pencil. Simply follow along under the words as you read. This increases engagement with the text—both your eyes and body are involved. If you use your pencil, it will be at the ready for any underlining or notes that you want to make.

  1.  Don’t immediately refer back to the passage 

When I look at the questions, I see two types: The first type of question deals with main idea/theme/tone and should not require looking back at the passage. You should be able to determine your answer based on your first read-through of the passage. For example, here’s a question from an SAT Practice Test:

The primary purpose of the passage is to

  1. A) present the background of a medical breakthrough.
  2. B) evaluate the research that led to a scientific discovery.
  3. C) summarize the findings of a long-term research project.
  4. D) explain the development of a branch of scientific study.

This type of question requires understanding the whole-entire-total passage. If you need to refer back to the passage, you’re going to need to reread the whole thing to answer this question. I would recommend reading through the answer choices and choosing the best answer with what you know and remember. If you’re unsure, choose the best answer and make a note in your test booklet to go back if you have time after you’ve answered all 52 questions.

The second type of question refers to specific lines from the passage. You may need to refer back to the passage for these but not always. Here are some examples:

Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?

  1. A) Lines 12-16 (“Many... more”)
  2. B) Lines 42-44 (“It acts... bloodstream”)
  3. C) Lines 44-46 (“But as... antithrombin”)
  4. D) Lines 62-65 (“The researchers... production”)


As used in line 20, “expert” most nearly means

  1. A) knowledgeable.
  2. B) professional.
  3. C) capable.
  4. D) trained

Because these questions are very specific, you may need to refer back to the text, but let’s have a plan. The first example asks you to find evidence from the text to support your previous answer. Before you start rereading, think about the location of the evidence in the text. Then, look at each answer choice and try to remember if you're looking for evidence in the beginning, middle, or end of the selection. This can help you eliminate particular answer choices right away, so you don’t need to reread them. Now that you’ve zeroed in on a couple of answer choices, it’s time to go back to the selection. While you’re there, underline the potential evidence (answer choices)! You may need to flip back and forth from the question to the evidence and underlining will draw your eyes immediately to the section being considered. These strategies for knowing exactly where to look will save you time.

The second example requires you to use context clues and going back to read the words and sentences around the target word could be useful. Always read the answer choices first! You may be able to determine the correct choice from what you remember—then you can refer to the text for a quick confirmation. Also, reading answer choices first allows you to eliminate a ridiculous or absurd choices (there’s usually at least one). Remember, you may need to guess (no penalty) and eliminating obviously wrong answers improves your guessing odds.

  1. Guess

Here's the bottom line - you don’t have all day. You are probably going get a stumper or two. Don’t waste too much of your precious time racking your brain on a question that you’re really struggling to answer. Take a guess, mark it on your answer sheet, and move on. Don’t leave it blank and risk forgetting to go back. Remember there is no guessing penalty, so a blank answer is the same as a wrong answer. Dedicate your thinking time and energy to questions that you feel more confident answering. Don’t forget to make a note in your test booklet to come back to these questions if you have time at the end.

  1. Practice at home

You need to know what 65 minutes, 5 reading selections, and 52 questions feels like. I would suggest timing yourself with one reading selection and its questions to give you an idea of your pacing. Like I mentioned earlier, 65 minutes can be broken down into 13 minutes per passage. So, if after timing yourself for one passage and its questions, you find that it took you 25 minutes, now you know that you’re off pace (too slow). If you spent that much time on all 5 passages, then time would run out before you finished. Once you have a decent understanding of how fast you need to work through a single passage, take one of the Reading Test Practice Tests (5 passages and 52 questions) and time yourself for 65 minutes. Have a clock or stopwatch (not your phone—it’s too distracting) in front of you to keep track. Hopefully, you can speed up or slow down as needed. Also, practicing with the time constraint will help on the actual test day to reduce anxiety. You’re probably going to anxious anyway, so do all that you can to minimize it.   

Let’s not look at the time constraint as a bad thing. Think of it as a decision-making helper. I hope this post has helped you see it as your ally. Also, we’ve had a chance to talk about some test taking strategies that you might not have considered if time weren’t a factor. Do you have any strategies that you use to speed up your test taking? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

As always, thanks for reading. I appreciate your visit to this page.

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