SAT: Strategies for Critical Reading Passages

There are three Critical Reading sections that count toward your SAT score — two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. These sections will include short paragraph-length critical reading passages, longer reading comprehension passages, and/or paired passages or related passages. The reading passages and the questions following the reading passages are not in order of difficulty.

Ability Tested

This section tests your ability to understand, interpret, and analyze reading passages on a variety of topics. The passages on each exam will come from four content areas: humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and narrative (fiction or nonfiction).

The common types of questions are those that ask you

  • about the meaning of a word or phrase in the passage.

  • about the main idea, main point, purpose, or even a possible title of the passage.

  • about information that is directly stated in the passage.

  • about information that is assumed, implied, suggested, or can be inferred.

  • to recognize applications of the author's opinions or ideas.

  • to evaluate how the author develops and presents the passage.

  • to recognize the style or tone of the passage.

Basic Skills Necessary

Students who have read widely and know how to read and mark a passage actively and efficiently tend to do well on this section.

Analysis of Directions

  1. Answer all the questions for one passage before moving on to the next one. If you don't know the answer, take an educated guess or skip it.

  2. If there is an introduction to the passage, read it carefully. It may be helpful in answering the questions.

  3. Use only the information given or implied in a passage. Do not consider outside information, even if it seems more accurate than the given information.

General Strategies

  • Read Actively. Read the passage actively, marking main points and other items you feel are important, such as conclusions, names, definitions, places, and numbers. Make only a few such marks per paragraph. Remember, these marks are to help you understand the passage.

  • Preread a few questions. You may want to skim a few questions first, marking words that give you a clue about what to look for when you read the passage. This method can be especially helpful on unfamiliar passages. Try it on a variety of passages to see how it works for you.

  • Pace yourself. Don't get stuck on the passage or on any one question. If you have difficulty with one question, either take an educated guess by eliminating some choices or leave it blank and return to it briefly before you read the next passage (if there is more than one passage).

  • Answers are from information given or implied. Base your answer on what you read in the passage, the introduction to the passage, or footnotes given following the passage. The passage must support your answer. All questions can and should be answered from information given or implied in the passage.

  • Be sure to answer the question. Some good or true answers are not correct. Make sure that the answer you select is what the question is asking for according to the passage.

  • Read all choices. Be sure to read all of the choices to make sure that you have the best of the ones given. Some other choices may be good, but you're looking for the best.

  • Avoid the attractive distractor. Watch out for "attractive distractors," that is, answers that look good but aren't the best answer. These attractive distractors are usually the most common wrong answers. They are answers that are carefully written to be close to the best answer. When you narrow your choice down to two answers, one is probably the attractive distractor. If you are down to two answers, reading the question again can help you find the best one.

  • Eliminate. Use an elimination strategy. If you know an answer is incorrect, mark it out immediately in your question booklet.

  • You can skip passages. When more than one reading passage is given, you may want to first read the passage that is of more interest or familiarity to you and answer those questions before reading the next passage. But be careful if you skip a passage to mark your answers in the proper place on your answer sheet.

Strategies for Questions Based on Single Passages

  • Read the passage looking for its main point and its structure.

  • Make sure that your answer is supported by the passage.

  • As you read, note the tone of the passage.

  • Take advantage of the line numbers.

  • Use the context to figure out the meaning of the words, even if you're unfamiliar with them.

  • Read all the choices, since you're looking for the best answer given.

  • Read the passage actively, marking the main points and other items you feel are important.

  • Mark the passage by underlining or circling important information. But be sure you don't overmark, or you'll defeat the purpose of the technique. You may find that circling or using other marks that you personally find helpful works better for you.

Strategies for Questions Based on Paired Passages

  • Carefully read any introductory material describing or giving information about the two passages.

  • Note that the first group of questions refers to the first passage; the second group of questions refers to the second passage; and the last group of questions refers to both passages as they relate to each other.

  • Consider reading the first passage, then answering the first group of questions, and then reading the second passage and answering the remaining questions.

  • Be aware that the first question can (and sometimes does) ask for the primary purpose of both passages.

  • Be aware of how the passages are alike and different.

  • Watch out for choices that are true for one passage but not the other.

  • Read the passages looking for the main point and the structure of each passage.

  • Make sure that your answer is supported by the passages. Some good or true answers are not correct.

  • As you read, note the tone of the passage.       

  • Take advantage of the line numbers.

  • Use the context to figure out the meaning of words, even if you're unfamiliar with them.

  • Read all the choices, since you're looking for the best answer given.

  • Use an elimination strategy.