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The SAT has included some kind of reading and verbal assessment on every test administration since its first in 1926. Though its content has changed over the years, reading skills have always been a primary focus of the exam.


The SAT has been consistently adapted over time to reflect ongoing changes in the American education system. Since 1994, it has changed to include the use of a calculator on the math section, the addition of writing skills, and the elimination of analogies.


Still, when the most recent changes were announced in 2014, to be enacted in 2016, a wave of discomfort swept over college admissions advisors, high school students, and test prep experts. What would the new test look like? How would test prep need to change to best suit it? How would student performance on the new test measure up?


Well, the results are in now, and advisors, students, and test prep experts alike can relax. Enough data has been gathered and insights lent; the prep materials for the newest version of the SAT are here. The experts at CollegeVine have spent the past six months consulting and revising, pouring over resources from the College Board, Khan Academy, and private sources, to develop a fine-tuned and accurate prep guide for the new SAT, and we are excited to be able to share a preview of it here with you now.


Read on for CollegeVine’s Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Reading Test.


What is the format of the new SAT Reading Test?

The SAT Reading Test is part of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT. Previously known as the Verbal portion of the test, this section still focuses on critical reading and writing skills.


The new SAT Reading Test is comprised entirely of multiple-choice questions based on passages. Specifically, it includes 52 multiple-choice questions based on five passages that you’ll read and respond to over the course of 65 minutes. Each of the passages will be between 500-750 words unless it is paired with another passage, in which case the passage pair will total 500-750 between the two of them. 


Some of the passages will be paired with other passages, and some passages will include additional informational graphics such as tables, graphs, or charts. You’ll need to be able to interpret these visuals, but no math will be required on this part of the SAT.


What skills does the SAT Reading Test assess?

The College Board’s answer to this question is somewhat broad, stating that the SAT Reading Test “focuses on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education: the stuff you’ve been learning in high school, the stuff you’ll need to succeed in college.” And while this is definitely accurate, it’s not any truer for the Reading Test than it is for the Math or Writing and Language tests.


So, to be a bit more specific, the SAT Reading Test assesses your basic reading comprehension and analysis skills. This test measures your ability to analyze, apply, and synthesize written information. You’ll be asked to read critically and to find direct context clues. Unlike in years past, there is no longer an explicit vocabulary section, but you will still be asked to determine the meaning of some words in context.


Specifically, you will answer 10 questions to demonstrate your Command of Evidence, 10 questions to show mastery of Words in Context, and 21 questions each to show knowledge of Analysis in History/Social Studies and of Analysis in Science. You can find a complete list of learning objectives broken down by specific skill on page 45 of the Test Specifications for the Redesigned SAT.   


Prior topic-specific knowledge is never tested, keeping in line with the College Board’s commitment to assess critical thinking skills rather than knowledge gained.


What are the key strategies for the SAT Reading Test?


1. Know and Recognize the Types of Passages to Expect

The SAT Reading Test will consist of five passages. These will always include:


  • One passage from a classic or contemporary work of U.S. or world literature
  • One passage or a pair of passages from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the great global conversation they inspired (such as the U.S. Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela)
  • One passage about economics, psychology, sociology, or some other social science
  • Two science passages (or one passage and one passage pair) that examine foundational concepts and developments in Earth science, biology, chemistry or physics


Recognizing the type of passage you’re reading will help to focus your thinking. For example, if you’re reading an excerpt of fictional literature, you should be thinking about the literary devices used by the author, such as foreshadowing or allusions, and the purpose that these devices serve to the whole.


If you’re reading a founding document, you should be considering its context in U.S. history and the point of view it represents. Nonfiction social science or science passages will often test your ability to apply context clues to make sense of an often-unfamiliar topic.


As you prepare for the test, practice recognizing the type of passage presented and keep in mind a few key skills that you can expect to use for each type of passage.


2. Know and Recognize the Types of Questions to Expect

Just as important as your ability to recognize the type of passage you’re reading is your ability to recognize the type of questions you’re being asked to answer.


On the SAT Reading Test, all of the questions will fall into one of the following categories:


  • Context Clues: These questions will ask you to figure out which meaning of a word or phrase is being used or to decide how an author’s word choice shapes the overall meaning, style, or tone of a piece. Generally, these are the most specific types of questions and will refer to an exact position in the text.
  • Small Scope: These questions are also highly specific in nature and will ask you to find evidence in a passage (or pair of passages) that best supports the answer to a previous question or serves as the basis for a reasonable conclusion. These questions focus on what the passage says, directly or indirectly, and the answer can always be found explicitly in the text, though its location will be less clear than it is in the case of context clue questions.
  • Large Scope: These questions generally ask you to consider a larger portion of the passage or the passage as a whole. You could be asked to identify how authors use evidence to support claims or how the author conveys meaning throughout the passage. Generally, to answer these questions you will need to consider the passage as a whole.
  • Dual Passage: These types of questions ask you to compare, contrast, or draw conclusions between multiple passages or passages paired with visual information. You will make connections, find a relationship between an informational graphic and the passage, or compare how one idea is presented in two different ways. You’ll need to consider not one, but two separate sources of information to answer these questions.


Knowing what kind of question you’re responding to will help you to know where to look for the answer. The more specific a question type, the more explicitly stated the answer will be in the passage. Context clue and small scope questions will require you to locate an exact place in the passage in order to respond. Large scope and dual passage questions will require broader understanding of the main points of the passages. Know where to look for the answer to maximize your time management. 

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3. Be Prepared to Effectively Skim a Passage

Speaking of maximizing time management, reading efficiently will also be a critical skill on the new SAT Reading Test. You will need to read five full-length essays and answer 52 related multiple-choice questions in only 65 minutes. In order to do this, you won’t be able to carefully read every word in every passage, consider each for relevance, and carefully underline important sections and circle key vocabulary. These may be essential active reading skills, but they are not the most practical when you’re crunched for time.


Instead, you’ll need to read efficiently by skimming the material first to give yourself a general idea of its format and content. There are many strategies for skimming text. Most involve reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Know your own speed and determine how much of the passages you can generally handle reading without suffering from a time crunch at the end of the test.


If you are an exceptionally fast reader and know that you can read the entire introductory and concluding paragraphs with time to spare for each passage and its associated questions, then do so. But if you know that you won’t have time for this, practice more efficient skimming strategies to ensure that you’ll have time to skim every passage and the questions associated with each. Remember, you can’t receive any points for a question that you didn’t answer.


4. Review How to Interpret Graphs, Tables, and Figures

It may seem counterintuitive to practice interpreting graphs, tables, and figures for a reading test, but the SAT Reading Test measures your ability to make sense of written information, and this includes informational graphics. Although the bulk of the test will certainly be based on written passages, there will always be at least one informational graphic included. Knowing how to read a basic graph, figure, or table ensures a few easy points when it comes time to answer the questions relating to one of these on the test.


These are generally not very complex, and remember, there is never any math tested on this part of the SAT, so the informational graphics used tend to be fairly simple and easy to interpret if you’re familiar with their basic format. Remember to read the title, the labels, and any other identified variables to get a clear idea of what you’re looking at.


5. Use the Two-Pass Strategy to Manage Time

Finally, one key strategy for managing time on the exam is called the two-pass strategy. When you use this strategy, you maximize your chances of getting as many questions correct as possible by ensuring that you get a chance to answer all the questions that you find easiest. Basically, you skip hard questions in favor of answering easy questions in the time available. With any remaining time, you go back and attempt the harder questions again.


To do this, you practice your skim reading skills and then answer the questions for each passage that seem obvious to you or that otherwise don’t take much time or thought on your part. If the question seems difficult or like it will take you longer than usual to answer, simply make your best guess, then circle it in your test booklet and move on to the next question.


You might also include a small dash next to the corresponding number on your answer sheet so that you are sure to return to it. Because there is no longer a scoring penalty for wrong answers, it’s always best to fill in a guess before moving on. Hopefully, you’ll have time to go back through these answers and review them at the end of the test, but if not, at least you’ve made a guess.


Only once you’ve gone through the section and answered all the questions that come easily to you should you go back and reconsider the questions that stuck out as difficult or in need of extra time to answer. By this point, you’ve already answered all the questions that seemed easy, hopefully capitalizing on all the “easy points” on the test. Now you can use the remaining time to grab a few more points from the harder questions.


For a more complete overview of this strategy, check it out at Khan Academy.


Where can I find free practice materials for the SAT Reading Test?

There are many free practice materials available for the SAT Reading Test, and undoubtedly a simple online search will yield seemingly endless results. It’s important, however, to make sure that the materials you’re using are both up-to-date and of high quality. Your best bet for sourcing free practice materials that meet both of these standards is by sticking with the tried and true:


  • The College Board also offers a Daily Practice SAT app that provides you with one daily practice question, an answer hint, and answer explanations to help you learn from your mistakes. It also has a time-saving scan and score service wherein you can use your phone’s camera to scan your official practice test answer sheet and submit it for automatic scoring.
  • Finally, to get a good idea of your starting point and the direction you need to go to maximize your studying, check out CollegeVine’s free diagnostic SAT that comes with a customized score report and action plan.


If you still have questions about the new SAT Reading Test or you are interested in our full-service, personalized SAT tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.


To learn more about the SAT, check out these CollegeVine posts:


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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist