Be a Smart Reader: Think Like a Writer
This tip for improving your SAT score was provided by Courtney Tran at Veritas Prep.
Picture this: You have only seven minutes left to complete the Critical Reading section, and you still don’t understand the last and longest passage. You’re stressed, you’re tired, and you don’t know what to do.
Does this sound familiar? Nearly everyone has run into this problem before, on the SAT or another timed reading task. Sometimes a passage is just too long or too dense to finish in a given amount of time. What’s a test-taker to do?
The best way out of this puzzle is to think like a writer. When you first learned to write essays in elementary school, you were taught the five-paragraph format. It looked something like this:
• Introduction and Thesis
• Topic Sentence & Body Paragraph 1
• Topic Sentence & Body Paragraph 2
• Topic Sentence & Body Paragraph 3
Think like a writer. If you were writing an essay using this organization system, you would put the main idea of your paper in your thesis. You would put summaries of other important information, as well as repetitions or rewordings of your main idea, in your conclusion and in your topic sentences.
Here’s the trick: The authors of the passages on the SAT do the same thing. To quickly grasp the main idea of a passage, just read the introduction. To quickly confirm that you’ve correctly identified the main idea, read the topic sentences and conclusion.
Obviously, not all the passages in the Critical Reading section are five-paragraph essays. This doesn’t affect our strategy much because most writers follow organizational systems similar to the one you learned in elementary school. See for yourself: Try reading some SAT passages while keeping a watchful eye out for main ideas. You’ll find them most often in introductions, and you’ll find that they are often reiterated in topic sentences and conclusions.
Let’s try an example. Quickly scan through the following SAT passage. You don’t need to read it; just get an idea of its length.
Generations of science-fiction movies have conditioned us to consider bug-eyed monsters, large-brained intellectual humanoids, and other rather sophisticated extraterrestrial creatures as typical examples of life outside Earth. The reality, however, is that finding any kind of life at all, even something as simple as bacteria, would be one of the most exciting discoveries ever made.
The consensus within the scientific community seems to be that we eventually will find not only life in other parts of 10 the galaxy but also intelligent and technologically advanced life. I have to say that I disagree. While I believe we will find other forms of life in other solar systems (if not in our own), I also feel it is extremely unlikely that a large number of advanced technological civilizations are out there, waiting to be discovered. The most succinct support for my view comes from Nobel laureate physicist, Enrico Fermi, the man who ran the first nuclear reaction ever controlled by human beings. Confronted at a 1950 luncheon with scientific arguments for the ubiquity of technologically advanced civilizations, he supposedly said, “So where is everybody?”
This so-called Fermi Paradox embodies a simple logic. Human beings have had modern science only a few hundred years, and already we have moved into space. It is not hard to imagine that in a few hundred more years we will be a starfaring people, colonizing other systems. Fermi’s argument maintains that it is extremely unlikely that many other civilizations discovered science at exactly the same time we did. Had they acquired science even a thousand years earlier than we, they now could be so much more advanced that they would already be colonizing our solar system.
If, on the other hand, they are a thousand years behind us, we will likely arrive at their home planet before they even begin sending us radio signals. Technological advances build upon each other, increasing technological abilities faster than most people anticipate. Imagine, for example, how astounded even a great seventeenth-century scientist like Isaac Newton would be by our current global communication system, were he alive today. Where are those highly developed extraterrestrial civilizations so dear to the hearts of science-fiction writers? Their existence is far from a foregone conclusion.
Here is an introduction, a set of topic sentences, and a conclusion taken from the above passage.
Introduction: Generations of science-fiction movies have conditioned us to consider bug-eyed monsters, large-brained intellectual humanoids, and other rather sophisticated extraterrestrial creatures as typical examples of life outside Earth. The reality, however, is that finding any kind of life at all, even something as simple as bacteria, would be one of the most exciting discoveries ever made.
Topic Sentence 1: The consensus within the scientific community seems to be that we eventually will find not only life in other parts of the galaxy but also intelligent and technologically advanced life. I have to say that I disagree.
Topic Sentence 2: This so-called Fermi Paradox embodies a simple logic.
Conclusion: Where are those highly developed extraterrestrial civilizations so dear to the hearts of science-fiction writers? Their existence is far from a foregone conclusion.
The second topic sentence doesn’t help us very much, but the introduction and conclusion point very clearly to a main idea: that the existence of extraterrestrial life is far from certain. Topic Sentence 1 confirms our interpretation. This collection of information is 123 words, while the passage itself is 363 words. Notice how our strategy involves only 1/3 of the reading, while preserving the main idea of the passage!
If you’re a perfectionist, as I am, resist the gnawing suspicion that, by skipping through the passage, you missed something vital. If it’s really bothering you, practice this strategy extensively before using it during your SAT. The frequency with which this strategy correctly points out the main idea of a passage should ease your mind. On the SAT, it is not necessary to perfectly understand every minute detail of a passage; once you have the main idea, you’ll be excellently equipped to decide how much more reading is necessary for you to answer a given passage-based question.
Keep in mind that this strategy will not give you a detailed understanding of the passage. To answer line-specific questions or to analyze details and evidence, you’ll probably need to go through parts of the passage more slowly. Thinking like a writer will, however, serve as an excellent first step to getting acquainted with a passage; and, as a last resort, can save you valuable time on the Critical Reading section should you ever find yourself racing against the clock.
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