Test Prep

What You Need to Know About SAT Reading Passages

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It’s no secret that rocking the SAT — whether you’re taking it for the first time or trying to improve your score — is all about finding your best strategies. One that I mention time and time again is determining your Personal Order of Difficulty. Some questions are definitely harder than others, which means you’ve got to know how to spot the questions that will end up wasting your time on test day. For the Reading section of the SAT, there’s a little more that goes into determining whether a question is going to be tricky. Since these questions all rely on accompanying passages, it’s also important to know what to expect from those passages when you sit down to tackle them.

What Subjects Are in the Reading Passages? 


While the answer to every question you face in this section will be given in the test booklet itself, the subjects themselves will be of varying difficulty for students. Knowing your options here will make it easier to decide if you should jump to a different passage to start, saving those that will cause you more difficulty for later. The SAT will have a total of five passages that pull from the following content areas:

- One US/World Literature passage drawing from a classic or more recent work of literature

- Two History/Social Studies passages relating to fields like economics, history, sociology and political science — these may also contain primary historical documents

- Two Science passages containing information from work in fields like earth science, physics and chemistry — these will address general concepts, information, and/or experiments

The order of the passages will typically (but not always) be as follows:

1. US/World Literature

2. History/Social Studies

3. Science

4. History/Social Studies

5. Science

Now, I always recommend tackling the Reading questions rather than reading the entire passages. However, if you’re able to recognize a subject you love (this can usually be determined by reading the blurb that precedes each passage), you might find that passage easier to tackle.

Beware of Dual Passages

Sometimes you will be presented with a passage that is actually made up of two passages. Don’t worry! In this case, each of the passages will be shorter than a passage that stands on its own. (No one expects you to read twice as much!) Dual passages generally present two views on the same topic or event, and they usually appear in place of one of the History/Social Studies or Science passages.

Whatever the subject, you should always focus your approach to the questions so that you are only analyzing information from one passage at a time. There will be a few questions that refer to both passages at once, but I recommend saving those for last to avoid confusion. Taking SAT practice tests can help you get used to the variations of these so you can identify them on the actual test!

Charts, Tables And Graphs — Oh My!

How dare the test makers throw any of these into the Reading section, right? In reality, any chart, table or graph given along with a passage will be pretty straightforward! As with dual passages, these “informational graphics” almost always show up alongside History/Social Studies or Science passages, and never have more than a few questions asked about the data presented in them.

Even if you encounter a question or two that asks about information in both the passage and the graphic, don’t assume that these will be any more difficult than any other question in this section. Chances are good they won’t be.

For the Reading section (and any other portion of the SAT), knowing what you’re in for is half the battle! You can easily get a handle on the full SAT by checking out books like Cracking the SAT. Having a firm grasp on the structure of the SAT will give you a good idea of how to personalize your SAT prep. And with even just a couple of strategies, you’ll have a much better chance at achieving your target score.

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