While there are plenty of strategies for preparing for standardized tests, there’s no better strategy than this: read, read, read.

The more confident that students feel analyzing texts on their own, the better equipped they’ll be to tackle reading passages on the SAT and ACT, as well as into college and beyond!

Below is a high school reading list of 25 recommended texts based on what students are most likely to encounter on the SAT and ACT.

To aid in selection, we’ve further broken down the list by grade-level and provided a brief description of why we feel each book is worthwhile. Happy reading!

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High School Reading List: Freshman Year

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Synopsis: A retired merchant raises his family in a fictional industrial city in England, surveying the socio and economic realities of the era.  

Why it’s important: Hard Times is perhaps Dickens’s most accessible text and a great introduction to one of history’s most famous authors. As with most Dickens texts, it provides sharp satire that is excellent for helping readers become more comfortable recognizing irony and subtle humor in fiction. 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton 

Synopsis: The story of a well-born but impoverished young woman navigating New York City’s world of high society. 

Why it’s important: This is an insightful character study that helps readers to better understand character, point-of-view, and theme.  

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Synopsis: The coming-of-age story of a naïve young woman who strives to make her life as romantic as the Gothic novels she reads.  

Why it’s important: This is one of Jane Austen’s lesser known but more entertaining reads, and another great introduction to an important author. Additionally, it is perhaps her most humorous novel, and excellent practice for readers looking to get a better understanding of how authors use tone to contribute to theme.  

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Synopsis: The coming-of-age story of a girl growing up in the Caribbean. 

Why it’s important: This is a rich text loaded with complex relationships and themes similar to those we tend to see in the literary fiction passages of the SAT and ACT. 

Hiroshima by John Hershey 

Synopsis: The intersecting stories of six people who survived the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. 

Why it’s important: Often credited as one of the first examples of “new journalism” (i.e. when authors tell non-fiction stories in the style of literature), this is a great place to start for readers who wish to get more comfortable reading non-fiction.  


High School Reading List: Sophomore Year

My Antonia by Willa Cather 

Synopsis: Two pioneer children form a strong bond while living with their families on the land in turn-of-the-century Nebraska. 

Why it’s important: This is a seminal text for an important author who oftentimes gets overlooked in high school curricula. It is also similar in terms of tone and scope to the type of literary fiction passages that get covered on the ACT and SAT. 

Emma by Jane Austen

Synopsis: A humorous, romantic story about a misguided young woman who plays matchmaker for her friends and family. 

Why it’s important: Austen masterfully employs humor and satire, providing helpful practice for readers hoping to get a firmer grasp on understanding tone. 

The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen by Olympe de Gouges 

Synopsis: Written as a response to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, this is a pamphlet about what women’s place in French society should be at the end of the 18th-century. 

Why it’s important: This is a seminal text similar to the sort of historical texts that students will encounter on the SAT. It provides great practice for working through argument and navigating tricky, outdated language. 

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Synopsis: A young lawyer falls in love with his cousin’s fianceé in New York high society. 

Why it’s important: Wharton is another quintessential modern female author who isn’t taught enough in high school. Her writing style and emphasis on complex characters is also similar to the sort of content that is covered in the literary fiction passages of the SAT and ACT reading sections. 

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Synopsis: An extended essay about the importance of finding both figurative and literal space for women in society. 

Why it’s important: This is an essential feminist text that also closely aligns with the sort of historical/sociological texts that students see on the SAT. 

The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde

Synopsis: A handsome young man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for external youth and beauty, only to find that there are horrific consequences. 

Why it’s important: This book both draws-from and invents many literary tropes that we continue to see today. It is a great text for sharpening understanding of symbolism and allegory.  

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Synopsis: A collection of articles in which an economist applies economic theory to diverse subjects not usually coved by traditional academics. 

Why it’s important: This book blends pop culture with economics to make academic material engaging. It is helpful for understanding how to approach the social studies and (to a lesser extent) science passages on the SAT and ACT, as well as how to look at graphs/charts alongside text. 

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High School Reading List: Junior Year

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Synopsis: A British traveler narrates his voyage up the Congo River into the heart of Africa. 

Why it’s important: The language in this text is a bit challenging, providing good practice for working through the sort of writing that students tend to find the most difficult in SAT and ACT reading sections. It is also a good text for thinking about symbolism and ambiguity.  

The Souls of Black Folks by WEB Du Bois

Synopsis: A collection of essays about race in America at the turn of the century. 

Why it’s important: This is a rewarding but slightly difficult read. The collection of essays aligns closely with the types of historical essays that students tend to find challenging on the SAT and provides good practice for working through complicated language.  

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

Synopsis: Widely credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States, Friedan’s book examines the feeling of discontent that many women were experiencing in the middle of the 20th-century. 

Why it’s important: Friedan initially started this project with the intention that it be an article after she was shocked by the results of a survey among college-educated women. Written through a combination of interviews, psychological research, surveys, etc., Friedan makes a strong social argument that aligns well with both historical and social studies passages on the SAT and ACT. 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Synopsis: A strong-willed woman’s family pressures her to marry for wealth in 1800’s England. 

Why it’s important: Arguably Austen’s most famous work, this book has been hugely influential in establishing what’s come to be known as “the marriage plot” and creating a template for stories to come. Not only will it provide a deeper understanding of future texts, but it aligns well with the sort of literary fiction passages found on the SAT and ACT.  

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Synopsis: This novel follows the lives of the members of a Midwestern family as they struggle to find happiness and ultimately fall apart. 

Why it’s important: An in-depth psychological look at the American family, this is a great text for considering multiple perspectives and character. 

History’s Greatest Speeches edited by James Daley

Synopsis: A collection of history’s most important speeches. 

Why it’s important: This is a collection of essays that aligns well with the sorts of essays that students see in the historical passages on the SAT, as well as the SAT writing prompts. It’s also great source material to practice close reading skills and rhetorical analysis. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari 

Synopsis: A survey of the history of humankind. 

Why it’s important: This book blends natural and social sciences seamlessly, providing helpful content for considering both the science and social studies passages on the SAT and ACT. 


High School Reading List: Senior Year

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 

Synopsis: An epic saga that follows a single soul as it is reincarnated through different lifetimes over a span of roughly 400 years. 

Why it’s important: This novel is structured as six different stories that stand alone but inform one another as the same soul progresses through time. Each story is written in a radically different genre, providing an excellent opportunity to practice a diverse set of analytical skills on independent stories while also thinking about how they fit together to contribute to theme. This is a difficult read, but a masterful example of literary craft and character. 

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Synopsis: This novel follows the story of a doctor imprisoned in France and then released to live in London, set against the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.  

Why it’s important: This is maybe Dickens’s most important text, with arguably his most engaging plot and his best built-out cast of characters. It provides a great study for students looking to think about character archetypes and classic tropes in literature.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders 

Synopsis: An experimental novel focused on the ghosts inhabiting the graveyard in which Abraham Lincoln’s recently deceased son finds himself inhabiting. 

Why it’s important: Blending real historical documents with narrative fiction, this is a useful text for becoming comfortable with the sorts of passages students see in both the historical/social studies passages and the literary fiction passages on the SAT and ACT. The experimental nature of the novel makes it a difficult read, but it’s a rewarding challenge for advanced readers looking to stretch themselves before college. 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Synopsis: A non-fiction account of a family of murders that occurred in small-town Kansas in 1959. 

Why it’s important: While this is a non-fiction book, it reads like a thriller and is an engaging way to open students up to non-fiction and varied character perspectives.  

To the Light House by Virginia Woolf

Synopsis: This novel centers on a family’s visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland over the course of a decade. 

Why it’s important: This book is an influential text that has been cited as a key example of “focalization,” meaning that it is written almost entirely as a series of internal thoughts/observations from the protagonist. There is very little dialogue or action, and the plot of the novel is secondary to the philosophical introspection of the characters, providing readers an opportunity for a different sort of critical thinking than they might get from other novels. 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Synopsis: The intense, almost demonic love story of a man and woman in 19th-century England as social expectations and gender norms tear them apart. 

Why it’s important: This is one of the most important examples of Gothic literature, notable for challenging Victorian ideas about religion, morality, and femininity. It’s a great introduction to the genre, as well as a helpful text for thinking about symbolism, mood/atmosphere, and theme.

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Annie

Annie is a graduate of Harvard University (B.A. in English). Originally from Connecticut, Annie now lives in Los Angeles and continues to mentor children across the country via online tutoring and college counseling. Over the last eight years, Annie has worked with hundreds of students to prepare them for all-things college, including SAT prep, ACT prep, application essays, subject tutoring, and general counseling. She is a Master tutor at Princeton Tutoring.