Many students struggle with the time constraints on the reading section of the SAT. There are five passages and 65 minutes allocated for the section, so students have 65 ÷ 5 = 13 minutes on average to complete the process of answering all the questions for a passage, and for some, that doesn’t seem to be enough time. There are a number of possible reasons for running out of time on the reading section, but we’re going to discuss one cause that can be instantly addressed: time mismanagement within each passage.

Because the reading section is challenging for most students, and because of the time pressure, students naturally strive to have as much time as possible for addressing the questions after reading the passage, and this desire leads to students trying to get through the reading phase, where no points can be scored, as quickly as possible; the oft-cited conventional wisdom here is that the passage should be read in two to three minutes in order to leave about ten minutes for tackling the questions, which is where points can actually be collected. After all, the more time you have to work on the questions, the greater the chances that you can complete them all within the allotted time, the thinking goes, so reading the passage as fast as possible seems to be the smart approach.

There’s a fundamental error in this logic.

The speed with which the questions can be answered depends on how well you understand the passage, and the depth of your understanding is determined by the amount of time you spend reading the passage (until you’ve reached your maximum comprehension). When you crank up your reading speed so that you are sacrificing comprehension, you might be saving a bit of time, but you are also lengthening the amount of time it will take you to answer the questions, and it turns out that that’s a losing tradeoff. Let’s explore why.

The reading phase should be viewed as an investment, and the payoff of that investment is that you’ll need less time to answer questions if you spend more time reading. Now, the critical question presents itself: On the spectrum that ranges from racing through the reading to taking all the time you need reading to achieve maximum understanding, what is the optimal approach? Too little time spent reading, and comprehension will be inadequate and thus the questions will take too long; too much time spent reading, and the total time will be unacceptably long even if the answering time is minimized. What is the ideal balance?

The answer, based on our extensive exploration of this specific question, is that the least total time is needed for each passage when the student spends as much time reading as is needed to maximize their comprehension of the passage. No skimming, no rushing, no scanning for key words or reading the first and last sentence of each paragraph, but also no dawdling (and if you get stuck on a portion of the text after re-reading it, move on). Put another way, the best place to invest those precious minutes is into the reading, not the question-answering; a minute invested in reading pays you back more than a minute when it comes time to answer the questions about what you’ve read.

We know that switching to and using this approach takes trust in the process, discipline, and patience. You might feel the pressure of the clock, and when you first employ this principle, you’ll sense that time for answering the questions is dwindling while you’re reading the passage thoroughly if you’re not used to doing that. However, once you test this approach with a few practice passages, and you see that it really works, your confidence in it will be established, and that pressure to race through the reading will fade as you recognize that you are making a high-yield investment that will pay off just a few minutes later as you confidently answer the questions with time to spare.

Students are often stunned by how rapidly they can answer the questions when they make that investment in reading the passage; they’re used to spending 2-3 minutes reading, and they’re surprised when we tell them that experts such as us might spend five or six minutes reading, but the payoff is that we typically spend roughly the same amount of time reading as we do answering the questions due to our excellent grasp on the passage’s meaning and content, with the bonus of having the time while reading to make a crude mental map of where various pieces of information appear in the passage, speeding lookups when answering the questions.

To give you some real-world data on the efficacy of this approach, here are a few breakdowns of reading time vs. answering time for a perfect scorer:

Test Passage Reading Time Answering Time
1 1 69% 31%
3 38% 62%
4 57% 43%
5 1 57% 43%
2 48% 52%
5 59% 41%
10 1 64% 36%
2 48% 52%
3 55% 45%

You can see that the investment in reading time is paying off handsomely; in nearly every case, the answering time is about the same as, or less than, the reading time.

Will this approach cure every case of running out of time on the reading section of the SAT? Of course not. Insufficient reading comprehension skills and inadequate reading speed can still sink you. But we’ve seen remarkable results when students have made this valuable adjustment. If you’re running out of time on the reading section, give it a try, and stick with it; we think you’ll reap the rewards of the smart investment advice we’re dispensing.

ADDENDUM: After publishing this post, we received these responses from students:

"I must admit that I employed the strategy you suggested and I'm really surprised that it ACTUALLY works. I'm surprised because I've seen a LOT of tutors telling students to read really quickly, just skim through the passage using max 3-4 mins. For me, that doesn't work. I'm the type of person that needs to grasp the content really well to be able to score perfectly or nearly perfectly at the passage. Thank you for sharing your invaluable approach."

"I feel like I had this exact problem. I would spend too much time on the questions and not enough on the passage itself. When I actually spent more time on the passage I was surprised at how I could answer the questions so quickly and easily."