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Page 1 Reading Study Guide for the SAT® exam

How to Prepare for the SAT Exam: Reading Section

General Information

This test will assess how ready you are to read and use the information in college-level text. The questions will not only be checking to see if you read the passage or passages, but if you can take that information and come to reasonable conclusions about the topic. You won’t need to have any background in the subject of the passage to answer the questions. All the information you need will be contained within the text.

The passages on the test will be published works of various authors. Sometimes, you will need to read a pair of passages on the same topic or use a graph, along with the information in a written passage. Passages vary among literature, narratives, informative, and argumentative pieces.

The Reading test will be timed for 65 minutes, during which you will read and answer 52 questions about four passages and a pair of passages. You’ve probably figured out that means each passage will have about 10–11 questions. You can expect each passage to be 500–700 words long.

Types of Reading Material

Reading different types of material well takes different kinds of skills. On this test, you will encounter these types of passages. Be sure to consider the types of things you will need to do as you read and answer the questions for each.


Literature questions and passages will likely focus more on exposition, symbolism, and other more “abstract” aspects of language. When reading literature passages, seek out symbolism, character information, setting information, and overall themes found within the passage. Like most passages, reading the questions before reading the passage may assist you in picking out the requisite information.

History and Social Studies

History and Social Studies will likely focus more on dates, events, and outcomes. These are typically easy to identify, as they are more readily plucked from a text than the concepts found in literature. As you read, identify any important dates and events, and take note of their consequences or outcomes.


Science questions usually focus on graphs, statistics, studies, and often use technical jargon. When perusing a science passage, first identify the purpose of the piece (illustrating the relationship between an animal and its ecosystem, for instance), and work from there to identify the supporting information, such as statistics, studies, and illustrations.

Types of Questions

The SAT reading exam includes three types of questions: Information and Ideas, Rhetoric, and Synthesis. Information and ideas questions gauge your ability to identify information and ideas within a text. Rhetoric evaluates your ability to understand how a piece is written, how this impacts its message and effectiveness, and how authors might use different tactics to achieve different results. Finally, Synthesis requires you to demonstrate your ability to draw comparisons and truly understand information presented.

Information and Ideas

This question type will rely on the information you are able to gain from reading the passage and how well you can use it to answer the questions. It is much more that citing stated facts, although that is an important part of the process.

Reading Carefully

As you read, make sure you pay careful attention to the information found within the passage. Rather than simply breezing over a piece and moving on, read carefully and patiently, identifying any parts of a passage that seem important, interesting, or essential to the purpose of the passage.

Finding Evidence

When you have identified the point or purpose of a passage, you must find evidence to support your claim. This may come in the form of a simple sentence, a statistic or figure, or even just an author’s opinion. Whatever your source, make sure you are able to find evidence to support your ideas; if you cannot, you have not found a credible point or purpose.

Main Idea and Theme

Main idea and theme are often used interchangeably, but may also be used separately. A main idea of a piece is the overall purpose behind writing. An argumentative essay, for instance, might have a main idea of “Presidential candidates should not be allowed to receive funds from lobbyists.” Conversely, the theme might be more along the lines of, “Lobbyists introduce copious amounts of corruption into our political system.”

Forming a Summary

To form a summary, you must identify the most important, powerful aspects of a piece, and create a simple explanation of what the text is all about. A summary is used to not only entice readers to engage with a piece, but also demonstrate your understanding of material, and your ability to synthesize information without merely repeating what you’ve read verbatim.

Making Connections

Making connections requires that you understand relationships within a text. Although some information may seem entirely unrelated, if an author has included all pieces (and is a credible source), there is a purpose for their inclusion. To make connections, first evaluate the main idea. From there, you can relate seemingly disparate pieces of information to each other by relating them to the main idea, theme, or thesis.

Using Context

Context is an incalculable tool in determining the meaning of words and the relationship between pieces of information. To use context, identify the word or bit of information you are working with, and then look at the surrounding words and sentences. These will lend insight into the meaning of a word (based on the surrounding words), or the meaning of a portion of information, based on what is being discussed in the phrases and sentences nearby.


These questions basically concern choices the author made when writing, like which words to use and how to organize and express his or her ideas. You will be asked to consider the following things:

Choice of Words

As a reader, word choice might not immediately seem important. As a writer, however, word choice is pivotal. It is no coincidence, then, that being able to understand why an author chose a certain word (or words) is key in understanding the author and piece of work overall. Some word choices are utilized in order to convey a commanding tone, while others are used to suggest that the author is a friend of the reader—an equal. Word choice goes a long way in developing the overall tone and level of authority of a piece.

Text Structure

Similarly, the structure of a text is important when working to determine the importance of phrasing and organization in a piece. Being able to accurately evaluate text structure will demonstrate your ability to both comprehend a piece, and identify an author’s overall tone and style.

Point of View

The point of view is the eyes through which a story or piece is written. Typically, point of view is divided into these categories: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. First person uses the pronouns, I, we, etc. Second person addresses the audience directly through the use of you. Third person limited is a limited narrator, viewing a story from the outside, typically focusing on the thoughts and motives of one person, while third person omniscient is an omniscient narrator, viewing a story from the outside, with the ability to delve into the thoughts and motives of any character.


The purpose of a piece is derived from the author’s reason for creating it. Purpose can typically be divided into simple categories, such as to inform, to entertain, to persuade, etc. To determine the purpose of a piece, you must evaluate the author’s language (is the tone formal or informal?), the subject matter (serious, relaxed, important, casual, etc.), and the main idea of the piece. These combined will reveal the author’s purpose for creating a work.

Strength of Argument

The strength of an argument correlates directly to the amount of information provided and the strength (and presence) of the author’s evidence. Although an argument can certainly sound persuasive, a truly strong argument illustrates its point through the use of observable evidence. In a scientific paper, this might include using real-life biological studies and examples. In an evaluation of English literature, quotes from the text itself or even quotes from the author are necessary to create a strong argument. Whatever the subject, a supported argument is a strong argument, while a weak one is one that may have persuasive language, but does not provide supporting evidence.


Instead of focusing on dissecting the parts of a passage, this type of question will ask you to put parts together. These are the two main components of this task.

Making Connections Between Two Passages

Making connections between two passages will likely come in one of two forms. The first may require you to identify how the author of one piece might react to a claim made in a second piece, or may focus on comparing and contrasting two passages. This means you must be able to identify the author’s purpose, point of view, and tone.

The second type of passage connection will require you to analyze the data presented in a graph, table, or chart. To achieve this, you must be able to accurately identify presented information, and link that information to the question on the exam.

Connecting the Text with a Graphic

As discussed above, some synthesis questions will ask you to evaluate a graphic. As you do this, pay close and careful attention to any information presented, as well as the question. Some questions may prove tricky, such as those that ask, “Which is not likely to…?” These questions require you to identify the least likely answer, rather than the most—a switch that can prove tricky and is often easy to answer incorrectly.

Skills to Practice

You will receive a total score, plus several subscores, for this section. Here is what the subscores evaluate.

Command of Evidence

This skill is also evaluated on the Writing and Language and the optional Essay tests, but in the Reading test, these are the things you will be required to do to show mastery of it:

Find the Best Evidence

Although some questions will require you to identify all supporting evidence, others will ask you to find the best evidence, or the most powerful. When searching for the most impressive piece of evidence, look for the portion of evidence that is most convincing, has the greatest amount of data, and is easiest to understand.

Utilize Data

Utilizing data requires you to not only understand an argument, but also be able to apply its ideas and principles to another—perhaps entirely unrelated—idea or situation. For instance, you might find this type of question in the “synthesize” portion of questioning, asking you to take a table or graph, and apply it to an existing argument.

Evaluate the Strength of an Argument

As discussed briefly above, the strength of an argument may be determined by the amount and quality of evidence used to support its claims. A strong argument will use concrete evidence, capable of being independently evaluated, while a weak argument might use anecdotal evidence alone, or may skip legitimate evidence altogether.

Words in Context

The SAT exam that you will be taking was completely revised in 2016 and there is a large emphasis, test-wide, on making test items relevant. Part of this is evaluating students’ understanding of words in a different way. Here are some things to consider as you study.

”High-utility” Words and Phrases

High-utility words and phrases are those which are commonly used, and should be used, understood, spelled, and recognized with proficiency. Although there is not definitive list of high-utility words, the general consensus is this: high-utility words and phrases are those regularly seen in textbooks, literature, and daily life, and form the basis for both formal and informal language development.

Interpretation of Words as Used in Context

Many words possess multiple meanings—and even multiple spellings—based upon the surrounding context. This is why developing the ability to use context clues is so important; “read” and “read,” though they possess identical spelling, mean very different things based upon the context in which they are used. You read a book, but the book has also been read. Another example is this: “The road was extremely windy. Clive smiled as he drove, the windy air bending branches and kicking up leaves.” The first windy means curvy or unpredictable, while the second is describing a weather pattern.

Rhetorical Word Choice

Rhetorical word choice is word choice used to affect the audience in a specific way. Rhetorical questions, for example, are often used to goad the audience into seeing the author’s point of view. Figurative language, another rhetorical choice, is used to illustrate a story or idea with the author—and reader—imagination. Although the list is exhaustive, pay close attention to rhetorical word choice, as it will lend insight into the author’s point, purpose, and style.

Analysis in History/Social Studies

You will need to use your experience from history and other social studies classes you have taken to reason about the ideas in the two history/social studies passages. One of your subscores will come from your performance on the 21 questions of this type. Although this may seem intimidating, do not fear. Provided that you brush up on your U.S. and world history as you study, you should not experience great difficulty with these questions.

Analysis in Science

Your experience in science classes has prepared you to reason in a scientific manner about passages. Your success on the 21 questions of this type will determine your subscore on this skill. As with social studies, doing well in this area requires you to at least casually peruse some of the ideas and concepts covered in your previous science classes. As you study, go over some of the basic concepts you learned in earth science, biology, and chemistry.