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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How to Tackle the SAT Paired Passages

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When the current SAT launched in 2016, it featured a new challenge to high school students: paired passages. Many students are nervous when they reach the paired passages on the SAT, but with this guide, you’ll be taking the paired passages on with confidence. 


Quick Overview of the SAT Reading Test


Before we dive right into the paired passages, let’s look their general context. The Reading Test is the first of three tests on the SAT, and you have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions.


There are 4 single passages on the SAT, each with 10 or 11 questions. However, there will be a pair of passages that share a set of 10 or 11 questions, allowing the SAT to include variations of standard questions types. The paired passages will be related in topic, either in social studies or science, and they occasionally include graphs or charts as well.


If you need more general information about the Reading Test, check out our Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Reading Test.


Types of Questions


The questions you see on the paired passages are the same as the types of questions for any other passage. While there might be a slight twist to the paired-passage questions, here is a brief rundown of the question types you’ll find.


Big Picture


These questions refer to the passage as a whole, usually regarding a theme, main idea, or claim. A theme is usually for fiction or narrative passages, and claims are specifically for persuasive/argumentative passages, while main ideas are for explanatory/informative passages. Identifying the type of passage as you read can help you know what type of big-picture question you may encounter.


Even though each type of big-picture idea is slightly different, you’ll approach these questions similarly. You need to think about the whole passage rather than focusing on a part of the passage, and select the answer that best captures every part of it. The SAT will make it more difficult by including answer choices that use words that are the same or similar to what’s used in the passage, but may not reflect the passage as a whole.


Little Picture/Detail


These questions refer to specific parts of the passage, and can either cite specific line numbers for you or will require you to hunt for the answer in the passage. Detail questions often deal with specific information and ideas that are explicit in the passage.


Answering these questions often involve finding the answer, so it’s important to develop a quick outline of where everything is in the passage. You may practice this by quickly outlining SAT passages from practice tests, but if you’re aiming for a top score you’ll want to be able to do this mostly in your head. As with big picture questions, don’t necessarily pick the answer that uses the same words as what’s in the passage, but rather conveys the same ideas.




These questions will ask you to form conclusions based on information in the passage, but the conclusions you draw will not be explicitly stated. These types of questions require a little more critical thinking and analysis rather than pure reading comprehension.


To answer inference questions, think about what is implied, or where you had to mentally fill in the gaps to form a more complete picture of the message. It can be helpful to come up with your own answer first and then see which of the answer choices most closely matches the answer you came up with.


Vocab in Context


The SAT changed the way they test vocabulary; on the current version of the SAT, you’ll see questions that refer to a specific line number and asks you what the word means based on the context.


It’s very important that you refer back to the passage itself, as the answer choices are synonymous out of context. Otherwise, you may end up choosing the wrong answer based on your knowledge rather than what makes sense in the passage. You can often find the right answer by substituting the word choices into the original sentence from the passage and seeing what communicates the same idea.




The SAT features questions on rhetoric, or the craft of writing, and Function questions often are about rhetoric. Unlike questions dealing with the information or ideas presented in the passage, these questions are about how parts of the passage contribute to the whole, or how the structure of the passage accomplishes its purpose.


To answer these questions, you’ll need to think like a writer and figure out why someone has written the passage this way. To do that, you’ll need to figure out the purpose of the passage—To entertain? To persuade? To inform?—and then how the part of the passage in question works towards that purpose.


Author Technique


Another type of rhetoric question, these questions will ask you about why an author might have included or excluded certain information, or the effect that particular word or phrase choices have on the passage as a whole. Again, think about what the passage is trying to accomplish, and then how the specific paragraph or word contributes to that goal.

Paired Passages on the SAT


Generally speaking, the paired passages are one of the more challenging passage types on the SAT. That said, they may not be the most difficult passage on the test—what’s difficult for one student may not be as challenging for you, and vice versa.


Each individual passage in the pair is shorter than the single SAT passage, so that the sum total of words in the paired passages is still no longer than the longest single SAT passage. Paired passages are either both in social studies or both in science, but the most important thing in dealing with paired passages is understanding how the passages relate.


There are two main types of relationships between paired passages:


  • General-Specific: One passage may give a general overview, or an introduction to a topic, while the other passage elaborates on a specific aspect mentioned briefly in the first.


  • Conflicting Viewpoints: The two passages may be about the same topic but disagree on it in some way.

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Strategies for the Paired Passages


1. Start by answering questions on individual passages


The questions in the paired-passage set usually follow this pattern: 3-4 questions on Passage 1, 3-4 questions on Passage 2, 3 questions about both. Many students read both passages and then proceed to answer all of the questions at once. A smarter way to handle paired passages is to read Passage 1 and then answer the questions about that passage, then read Passage 2 and answer those questions, then handle the questions about both.


The questions about both passages, what the SAT calls synthesis questions, could be any of the above question types but regarding two passages, and they often involve identifying how the passages are related or compare/contrast. When you answer the questions about each passage individually, you become more familiar with each passage, which helps to keep them straight in your mind and better equips you to answer the comparative questions.


2. Find the hardest question types for you – and focus on them


Everyone has their own question type they struggle the most with from the above list, and question types that come easily to us. We’re all different, so there’s no consensus about which types of question is the hardest.


However, if you want a top score, you’ll need to spend some time working on the question types you struggle the most with so you can begin to get them right. Understand why you have trouble with that question type and develop strategies to prevent poor test habits from arising. Some of us rush through questions while others second-guess themselves, so you need to find the strategy that addresses your weaknesses.


3. Eliminate Answers


While in everyday life there are often no black-and-white answers, on the SAT there is one right answer to each question and your task to figure out which one that is. In order for an answer choice to be right, it must be 100% right, which is why it’s not enough to choose an answer because it borrows words from the passage or is the most familiar synonym


Many answer choices for the comparative questions involve half-right answers, where the part about Passage 1 is right, but the part about Passage 2 is wrong, or vice versa. Use this to your advantage in eliminating answer choices, and only choose answers that are right about both passages.



By preparing for and developing a strategy, every student can do well on the paired passages for the SAT. If you need more tips for preparing for the SAT, download our free guide


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For more information about how to succeed on the SAT, check out these posts:

Short Bio
Gianna Cifredo is a graduate of the University of Central Florida, where she majored in Philosophy. She has six years of higher education and test prep experience, and now works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She currently lives in Orlando, Florida and is a proud cat mom.