The New SAT Reading Test: Strategies for Question Types

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It’s SAT frenzy season! Hopefully you juniors (and uber-ambitious underclassmen) have been drilling practice questions daily in preparation for test day. This guide should clear up the mystery around the ever-elusive SAT Reading Test by providing you with an in-depth analysis of the five specific types of questions you’ll encounter. Understanding how to recognize and approach these types of questions will help you hone your focus when practicing and walk in on test day with confidence.


The first step is to recognize that above all else, SAT reading evaluates your analysis skills. Test writers want to know how well you can understand and break down a passage, which means that everything you need to know can be found in the passage.


Keeping that in mind, there are two overarching strategies we will be applying for every type of question:


  1. Go back to the passage for every single question. Among other things, the SAT punishes memory, personal interpretation, and in some cases, even prior knowledge — all avoidable if you constantly refer back to the passage! In fact, for every question, you should literally be able to underline the evidence in the passage that led you to your answer.
  2. Whenever possible, prepare your own answer before looking at the choices you’re given. The best defense is a good offense, and since the false answer choices are specifically designed to trick you, having your own answer in mind before wading into the minefield means you’re much less likely to fall for any deliberately placed traps.


Now that we’ve established the foundation, let’s dive into some specifics.


Fact Recall/Detail Questions


These ask you about something specifically stated (or almost specifically stated) in the passage. Examples include “According to the passage, what are the symptoms of pinkeye?” or “Both passages discuss the issue of slavery in relation to…”


To answer these questions, you should find the relevant paragraph or line, reread that paragraph or group of lines (5 lines above and below should be more than sufficient), and prepare your own answer before looking at the provided choices. The key here is to make sure that you’re actually answering the question. Read the question carefully, and check that the answer you’ve got in your head actually answers what the question is asking. Then, look at the answer choices you’re given and pick the one closest to your own answer.


Words in Context


These ask you about the meaning of a word in the context of a sentence. They always come in the roughly the same format: “As used in line 43, “raise” most nearly means…”


To answer these questions, you should find the line in which the referenced word appears, read a line above and below for full context, and then decide on your own synonym/phrase with which you could replace the word in question. Your replacement should not change the meaning of the sentence in any way; it should fit in so smoothly, the writer could have plausibly used your word instead of the word in question.


Then, look at the answer choices and pick the one closest in meaning to your word.  Remember that all the given answer choices will be synonyms of the word in question, so it is important to have your own answer in mind before looking at choices you are given.


Quality Check: Replace the word in context with the answer choice you’ve picked and read the sentence again. Does it sound natural? (If not, try again!)

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Author-Based Questions


These are probably the most difficult questions on the SAT. They come in two sub-types:


Type 1: Author’s Intent/Purpose

These are questions like “What is the main purpose of this passage/paragraph?” or “The main focus of this passage shifts from…” or “The author asks a rhetorical question in line 5 to express…”


These questions are a great deal easier if you annotated well when skimming the passage. Go back to those notes, decide the purpose of the paragraph/sentence in question, and have an answer in your head ready before you look at the answer choices. If the question asks about the entire passage as a whole, don’t fret! Your paragraph-by-paragraph notes are still useful, so review those and again, prepare your own answer before looking at the choices.


Quality Check: The correct answer will always be relevant and of the appropriate scope. Is the answer you’ve chosen too narrow to encompass the purpose of an entire passage, or too broad for the purpose of a specific paragraph? (If so, try again!)


Type 2: Extrapolation/Inference

These are questions like “Which of the following would the author most likely agree with?” or “The author of Passage 1 would most likely find this claim made by the author of Passage 2 to be…”


These are probably the trickiest questions since there’s a deliberately increased room for error. Specifically, you want to avoid English-class answers, or the answers…


  • …that could be true, but are not necessarily true based on the passage.  
  • …that you could write papers supporting, with a thesis of “The author believes _____ (insert answer choice),” followed by three body paragraphs presenting evidence from the passage.
  • …that the SAT will deliberately offer in hopes of tricking you. Test writers are well aware that you’ve been taught to go for these types of answers in school, so there’ll be lots of them lying in wait.


Remember: all the information you need is in the passage, which means that you should be able to back up every answer choice you pick with specific evidence from the passage. This principle especially applies to extrapolation/inference questions To answer these types of questions effectively, you should go back to the passage, decide what is most directly implied, and pick the answer choice that is both relevant and extrapolates the least.


Quality Check: Remember, the SAT punishes memory, personal interpretation, and in some cases, even prior knowledge. Are you inferring too much? Relating so heavily to a character or historical figure that you’re interpreting their feelings on their behalf? Relying on your own knowledge base to answer questions, despite the passage providing significantly less information? (If so, try again!)


Supporting Evidence


If you get these right, it’s two for one! The first question will be a fact recall or author-based question, and the second question will ask for the evidence in the passage that led you to your answer for the previous question.


To answer these effectively, follow the strategies above to find the correct answer to the first question. Underline the evidence in the passage that led to your choice, and then match up those lines with the answer choices you’re given for the second question.


If your underlined evidence doesn’t match with any of the choices:


  1. Scan the passage quickly to check if there’s another part that may also support your answer to the first question.
  2. Read the answer choices presented in the second question and determine how they relate to the evidence you’ve underlined.
  3. Worse comes to worst, make a t-chart that lines up which answer choices in the second question support which answer choices in the first question. Read the first question again, carefully, and pick the pair that best answers the question.


Dual Passage Questions


These questions are presented after two passages that discuss the same issue from different perspectives. You will still find fact recall, author-based, and supporting evidence questions, but now, some of them will draw upon content from both passages.


To answer these effectively, we suggest reading the first passage and answering Passage 1 specific questions first, before doing the same for the second passage. Then, look at questions that connect both passages, and answer those using the same strategies discussed above.


Additionally, we recommend reading the Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Reading Test if you haven’t done so already. Practice, practice, practice, and good luck for test day! Most importantly, remember that you’ve got this.


For more information and tips, be sure to check out these CollegeVine posts:


Can You Answer These 5 Reading SAT Questions?

Five Common Mistakes to Avoid on Your Reading SAT

Five Tips to Boost Your Score on the Reading SAT


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Short bio
Lauralyn is a junior at Wellesley College studying political science and psychology. She's been with CollegeVine for two years now as a test prep consultant, marketing intern, and livestream host, and spends the rest of her time on ballroom dance and books.