Reading Comprehension (also known as Critical Reading) questions test your ability to understand a passage and answer questions on the basis of what is stated and implied in the passage.
You need to read the passage first so that you can identify the main idea of the passage and appreciate features such as the author’s tone and attitude as well as the organization of the passage. Scroll back to the relevant point in the text as you do each question.
Passages on the SAT vary in length from short paragraphs that take 3 minutes to read and answer two questions, to ones that take 15 minutes to read and answer 13 questions. One section will contain two related long passages.
The Reading component consists of 52 multiple-choice questions and is designed to be completed within 65 minutes. There are four types of passages that are always found in the reading section:
- Science: Two passages or pairs of passages about topics such as Earth science, physics, chemistry, or biology.
- Social sciences: A passage or pair of passages related to psychology, economics, sociology, or a similar topic.
- History: One passage or pair of passages from a historical speak or document
- Literature: One passage from a classic or contemporary literary work. This will never be a poem.
Typically passages are 400 to 850 words long and can be accompanied by a chart, graph, or image. All questions are based strictly on the text, meaning that you won’t need any outside knowledge about the topics.
What are you being tested on?
What many students don’t realize is that the Reading section isn’t testing your ability to read, but rather your ability to process information and search for answers. The key to success with any critical reading test is to read with a specific purpose in mind, know how and when to look for details, and figure out unfamiliar information through the clues within the text.
You can think of this as an open book test. All of the information you need to know can be found within the passages, you just need to find it.
There are two categories of questions that you’ll be asked on the Reading section: little picture and big picture.
Little picture questions focus on the information found directly within the text. This can be defining words, or pulling details for a specific line of text.
On average, these account for about 70% of the questions. Big picture questions are those that require you to take a step back and analyze the passage as a whole.
These questions aren’t about specific details within the passage, and require you to make an inference based on the information provided.
There are a number of different themes you’ll find within the questions, including vocabulary, point-of-view, comparisons, inferences, and specific details to name a few.
Each different theme of question is designed to test your critical reading and information recollection in a different way.
Believe it or not, the passage is the least important aspect of this test section. Many of the questions can be answered without reading the text just by taking clues from the wording and language used within them.
However, we strongly discourage you from using this technique as it is not a time efficient way of ruling out irrelevant answers.
The ultimate strategy
Now that you have an idea of what to expect, you can start to come up with your strategy for the test. We recommend the following these three steps to help maximize your efficiency and success during the SAT Reading section.
1. Read the instructions
It may seem like common sense, but it’s important enough that we need to say it. Always read the instructions at the beginning of the test. Even if you think you know what the instructions are, read them again to be sure. This is an excellent habit to get into for all tests throughout your school and college career.
In case you want to familiarize yourself early on, the instructions are as follows:
Each passage below is followed by questions based on its content. Answer the questions following each passage on the basis of what is stated or implied in that passage and in any introductory material that may be provided.
2. Read the passage
Remember that the purpose of this section of the SAT is to test your ability to find information within a text.
Start by looking over the questions before reading the actual passage. This will give you an idea of the type of information.
Then, skim or lightly read through the passage. This does not mean reading the text as fast as you can, nor does it mean reading everything as carefully as possible.
You should read with enough depth to understand the overall feel and theme of the piece without analyzing every single word.
In other words, use a balanced reading approach. Read to find the main topic or idea; organization and how the topic is discussed; author’s point of view; and the author’s purpose, or the point of the piece.
For longer pieces, start with the descriptions in italics at the beginning of the text. This will give you a general idea of the topic.
Then begin reading the first paragraph to gain a sense of the main idea within the text. Next, read the first sentence of the following paragraphs to determine the layout and organization of the piece.
Finally, read the final sentence of the last paragraph in order to determine the done and point of the passage.
Don’t be afraid to write in your test booklet! Many students are hesitant to leave marks on their tests, but it’s an incredibly helpful strategy. It can help you maintain focus, especially when reading longer piece. This will also help you when you are re-reading the text to find answers.
Here are a few tips for making the most out of your mid-reading notes:
- Make notes about what’s covered in each paragraph: the topic, the purpose, and key points or arguments
- Underline words or phrases that indicate the author’s feelings about the topic
- Make note of any words or phrases that provide clues about the author’s viewpoint, or suggest what’s happening below the surface
3. Translate the questions
Sometimes reading SAT questions can feel like trying to read another language. It’s alright if you feel this way, because the questions are often written to confuse students. Before letting a question confuse you, take a moment to simplify and reword the question.
For example, look at the following question: According to the passage the “language of bureaucracy” and the “language of liberation” are alike in that they take into account which of the following?
It’s a mouthful to say the least! However, when you break it down this question can be translated to:
How are the “language of bureaucracy” and the “language or liberation” alike?
Using this technique makes questions much less intimidating and easier to answer.
One of the best ways to ease any concerns you have is by taking practice tests. The College Board offers an Official SAT Study Guide with 8 practice tests available. These tests contain actual questions and passages from past exams, and will give you an accurate idea of what to expect on test day.
Above all else, the best way to be prepared for the SAT Reading Section is to read! Read everything and anything that you can. Magazines such as Scientific American and Discover both offer short, sophisticated articles similar to the passages that you might find on the Reading section.
Hopefully this guide has helped ease your nerves and give you an idea of what to expect during the SAT Reading section.