The SAT Reading is a 65 minute test that always includes 52 questions. Those 52 questions cover 5 different reading passages, one of which is usually a double passage, which calls for the comparison of two shorter, related passages.
According to the College Board, “The Reading Test always includes:
Let’s examine them in detail.
Before we go any further, I’d like to point out that, as an experienced tutor, it would be irresponsible for me to say that, because you have 65 minutes and 5 passages, you should simply budget 13 minutes per passage. You might want to set 13 minutes as a working time reference when you start practicing, but you’ll inevitably find that some passages are always trickier for you than others. Make sure you find your pace before you take the SAT Reading Test.
The College Board doesn’t guarantee that the Reading Test will follow any specific order by topic or content (such as the ACT, which is always a test of four passages with ten corresponding questions each), but the SAT passages have proven to be consistent and predictable, nonetheless–at least so far.
The first of the passages in the SAT reading is usually a narrative, like an excerpt of a novel or a memoir. There’s only one of these, and quite often the narrative passages that appear on the SAT Reading are reflections on childhood or family interactions between generations, as those stories often focus on personal evolution and circumstantial change. People and situations that are changing make for great question opportunities.
These narrative reading passages often ask students to identify what different characters want over the course of a story, what their personal motivations may be, and how their desire or feelings about a situation might change over time.
It’s notably not uncommon for the narrative to focus on cultures other than mainstream American culture or for the story to take place generations ago in the United States. When stories take place outside a student’s everyday perspective, the student is responsible for using reading skills to detect why things are unfolding the way they are in a story, rather than relying on intuition from daily experience.
Nevertheless, while the narrative is the first of the five passages on the SAT, it doesn’t usually set the tone for the remainder of the test–especially when it’s the passage written in an older American or British English style. There’s more on that below, but suffice it to say that the SAT Reading Test is no longer a pure overview of literature and fiction.
Several of the passages in the SAT Reading Test–usually around three–will be articles describing scientific theories or research on human behavior or Earth science. You will regularly see passages about animal behavior, evolution, the advancement of medical research, or even plant characteristics. These passages are new to the SAT and yet they account for a significant portion of the reading passage questions.
The most important thing to know about these science passages is that they will often (but not always) require students to correlate what they’ve read with charts and graphs embedded in the passages. This is likely an attempt by the College Board to not only capture some of the Science Reasoning on the ACT but also give students the opportunity to prove that they are able to read each of the varieties of texts they’ll see in college–no matter what kind of degree they ultimately choose.
The charts and graphs that accompany the science passages on the SAT are not intended to be convoluted or complicate the test so much as they aim to see if students can translate what they’ve read into linear, organized data. While the ACT is actively testing science reasoning to see if students understand why science is performed the way it is, and why scientists make the choices they do, the SAT simply touches on science reasoning in the context of an idea.
These passages are much more like “National Geographic” or “Popular Mechanics” than they are examples of extremely formal scientific reporting or data analysis tasks. Nevertheless, if the Science Reasoning was a major reason you’re steering clear of the ACT, make sure you’re comfortable with the SAT’s version.
To date, only one of the passages in any given SAT Reading Test that I know of has been a “double passage,” a set of questions for which students need to read two short, related passages. Naturally, comparing two passages allows the College Board to frame questions in more complicated ways and to ask students to describe the relationships between the passages rather than just asking about the narrator’s, characters’, or author’s intentions within one story.
The double passages aren’t necessarily arguing against each other, though, like two people arguing for or against joining the Union when the U.S. was formed–but sometimes they are exactly that.
On other occasions, though, one passage might be a presentation of facts and the other may explain why those facts matter. One passage may explain an invention and the other may warn of the possible dangers or highlight the benefits of that invention.
Again, you may find that the double passage takes you more time–or it might be especially speedy for you. Know before you test by practicing.
At any rate, not only are the comparative questions on the double reading passage more involved, but the entire double passage process is also harder because these passages sometimes also end up being the examples of eighteenth century through the early twentieth century debates or political philosophy.
Let’s talk about those specifically.
Late modern English and early American vernacular (c. 1800 to the present) is regularly represented on the SAT Reading Passage. Usually there is only one set of questions that requires students to read passages of this variety; they may be early examples of literature derived from the British literary tradition (such as things that sound like Charles Dickens wrote them), American Romanticism (like works by Nathaniel Hawthorne), or those which represent examples of early American or international political philosophy and debate.
The key here is that this passage will not sound contemporary.
Many of the passages refer to the texts typical advanced students of American and World History or Literature would have read as primary sources in their high school courses, and it’s arguable that the SAT has begun regularly including passages like these because it wants to reward students who are not only avid readers but who excel in advanced literature courses comparable to those at the college level.
Usually these passages cover ten or so questions, which means on an otherwise perfect section, not performing well on these difficult passages could cost you 50 to 70 points. For more on that, check out my post How the SAT is Scored.
The obvious way to excel on the SAT Reading Test is to do the one thing that fewer and fewer students are excited to do: you need to read. Regularly.
For more advice, head over to my post How to Improve SAT Reading.