Time is of the essence on the SAT.  On the Reading section, you have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions.  That isn’t a ton of time; just over a minute per question.  But you also have to read, comprehend and analyze five passages, totaling over 2,500 words which also include complex graphic representations of data.  Suddenly, your minute per question has shrunk to forty-five or even thirty seconds per question, depending on how quickly you can read.  Fortunately, unlike the Math section, students typically have the skills to work through the answer to each question, if they have sufficient time.  You can create more time for yourself on two fronts. You can answer questions more quickly, giving yourself more time for the trickier ones. Or you can learn to read at a faster clip.  But, both of these solutions come with a similar disadvantage. Rushing means that you might gloss over important details or make avoidable mistakes in your haste. There is, however, another way to increase your efficiency on the Reading section.

Passage mapping.  It’s a technique that will improve your memory and more quickly guide you to the correct answers.  To map passages, you want to efficiently annotate the passage as you read it. That goes beyond just underlining key phrases or ideas.  At the end of each paragraph, make a note of the author’s major points. If the opening paragraph gives biographical information about our founding fathers and nation’s birth, then note that in the margins.  Then, say the following two paragraphs compare and contrast Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson with a fourth, concluding paragraph discussing their personal relationship, that should all be written in the margins as well.  You don’t need to a full Harvard style outline. You just need enough information that when you return to the passage later, you will know immediately where to look. Decades of cognitive psychology research have shown that organizing information the first time improves your recall ability.  To that end, you’re basically creating an index of the information presented in the passage. A map of our example passage look something like this:

  1.    General biography + history
  2.    Similarities
    •    Upbringing
    •    Neither has a Broadway musical named after them (yet!)
  1.    Differences
    •    Attitudes toward federal government
  1.    Friendship between BF and TJ
    •    Collaboration on the constitution

Now, if you see a question about constitution’s formation, then you immediately know to look at the last paragraph.  If you hadn’t used this method, then you might spend valuable time scanning the passage again which you could have used coming up with the right answer.  You can make your own more or less detailed as needed. Some of our students add an additional point whenever an author uses a word like “furthermore” or “however” to express a change in the flow of ideas.  But that’s your own prerogative. Passage mapping is a tool and use it as you see fit. But, don’t underestimate its power.


In addition to passage mapping, I often tell my students to quickly gloss over the questions before reading the material.  That way they will be on the lookout for key lines and will reduce the amount of time spent flipping back and forth between the passage and questions.  I also remind my students to read the passage’s opener. The little blurb at the top informs the test taker of when the passage was written, by whom and for what purpose.  Sometimes it’s just extraneous information, but other times it can provide valuable context when a question asks about the author’s intent.

Lastly, there are a few other testing techniques that can bring your score to the next level.  Elimination is always an effective strategy. We outline the best way to use elimination in the vocabulary section in our blog post here.  The quick gist is that if you can pare the potential answers down to three or fewer, then it will be profitable to guess. Otherwise, skip the question.  You can also try skimming the passages by reading the introductory paragraph, alongside the first and last sentence of each subsequent paragraph. Students have had mixed success with this technique.  Some swear by it; others just swear at it. Developing the best test taking strategy takes time and experience, qualities that Ivy Admissions has in droves. We’ll work with you to discover what techniques work best for you while building all the requisite skills to maximize your performance.