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Need a Reading Plan? Skim, Don’t Scan

Let’s admit it: the SAT Reading passages are not the most interesting things you’ve laid eyes on. They aren’t even a close second. You may be used to reading tales of wizards battling each other for total dominance, or perusing several chapters of your chemistry textbook before a major test, but something about SAT Reading just rubs you the wrong way. Since the passages can be a bit dry, you need a way to get through them without being completely lost when answering questions. That’s how this reading strategy comes into play: when you approach a passage that seems from the get-go that it will be boring or too tedious to read in full (ie: it will take away precious time and you will get nearly nothing out of it) then you need to skim the passage.

What is skimming? This is a question that you probably didn’t ask yourself, but instead probably thought: “Well, I DO skim” or “Oh yeah, I know what that is, and it doesn’t work.” I’ve noticed that students mistake skimming for another reading practice, which I will call scanning. See, skimming means that you actually still read the passage, but you actively think in your head things like “What is the main idea?” and “What are the key points?” Once these questions are answered, you can check them off in the box in your mind. Skimming means that you read the whole passage and pay special close attention to topic sentences and conclusion sentences. Basically, beginnings and endings are your friends, and you want to make sure that you are really really really close with your friends.

When skimming, you should not worry too much about the details. So that means when you read a science passage, for example, you should not try to master the concepts of, say, physics or colonizing Mars; it simply isn’t worth your time. What you should do, if anything, is mark on your test any idea or word that seems important, just so you can reference it easily should a question ask about it. But, for the most part, the questions will guide you to the specific details that are important, and that’s when you will be very acquainted with the specifics of the passage.

People will scoff at the idea of skimming, but that occurs because they are used to scanning the passage. Scanning is a process in which you simply guide your eyes over words but don’t actually process information. It is like pretend reading, and if, by some off-chance, something seems important, it may stick in your head. It is the weakest form of reading, if you can even call it that. The only reason you would want to scan a passage is if you had to really speed up because you didn’t have enough time to complete the section. But, if you find yourself in that scenario, you might as well just head to the questions first.

So, don’t feel obligated to “master” the passage. Instead, tread lightly enough that you get a sense of its main idea and key points, but not so much that you can recite it point-by-point. You just need to get a sense of what it is all about and then let the questions do the rest of the work of guiding your reading. At the end of the day, the SAT Reading test is more about analyzing the details that College Board finds important and less about what you got out of the passage. It’s a sad truth, but at least we know the situation and aren’t kidding ourselves with some false reality. SAT Land may not be a beautiful or super interesting place, but at least someone took the time to pioneer its somewhat-dreary landscape. Now all you have to do is skim along, gliding ever so lightly.

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