Click the links immediately below to view the other strategy sections.
FORMAT OF THE SAT* READING SECTION
The Reading Test is designed to measure your ability to reason using the written word. The section is 65 minutes long, and contains 52 questions based on 5 passages. The passages have about 600 words.
The reading section is essentially a vocabulary test. Thus, it is crucial that you improve your vocabulary. Yet, even if you have a strong vocabulary, you will still encounter unfamiliar words on the SAT. Much of the reading portion of this section is dedicated to studying techniques that will help you discern the meaning of words you barely recognize.
Nevertheless, don’t rely on just these techniques — you must study word lists. Obviously, you cannot attempt to memorize the dictionary, and you don’t need to. The SAT tests a surprisingly limited number of words. Granted, memorizing a list of words is rather dry, but it is probably the most effective way of improving your performance on the reading section. (For a list of the 4000 essential SAT words see our book SAT Prep Course.)
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Some books recommend speed-reading the passages. This is a mistake. Speed reading is designed for ordinary, nontechnical material. Because this material is filled with “fluff,” you can skim over the nonessential parts and still get the gist — and often more — of the passage. However, SAT passages are dense. Some are actual quoted articles. Most often, however, they are based on articles that have been condensed to about one-third their original length. During this process no essential information is lost, just the “fluff” is cut. This is why speed reading will not work here — the passages contain too much information. You should, however, read somewhat faster than you normally do, but not to the point that your comprehension suffers. You will have to experiment to find your optimum pace.
Many books recommend reading the questions before the passage. But there are two big problems with this method. First, some of the questions are a paragraph long, and reading a question twice can use up precious time. Second, there are up to eleven questions per passage, and psychologists have shown that we can hold in our minds a maximum of about three thoughts at any one time (some of us have trouble simply remembering phone numbers). After reading all eleven questions, the student will turn to the passage with his mind clouded by half-remembered thoughts. This will at best waste his time and distract him. More likely it will turn the passage into a disjointed mass of information.
However, one technique that you may find helpful is to preview the passage by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Generally, the topic of a paragraph is contained in the first sentence. Reading the first sentence of each paragraph will give an overview of the passage. The topic sentences act in essence as a summary of the passage. Furthermore, since each passage is only three or four paragraphs long, previewing the topic sentences will not use up an inordinate amount of time.
THE SIX QUESTIONS
The key to performing well on the passages is not the particular reading technique you use (so long as it’s neither speed reading nor pre-reading the questions). Rather the key is to become completely familiar with the question types — there are only six — so that you can anticipate the questions that might be asked as you read the passage and answer those that are asked more quickly and efficiently. As you become familiar with the six question types, you will gain an intuitive sense for the places from which questions are likely to be drawn. This will give you the same advantage as that claimed by the “pre-reading-the-questions” technique, without the confusion and waste of time. Note, the order in which the questions are asked roughly corresponds to the order in which the main issues are presented in the passage. Early questions should correspond to information given early in the passage, and so on.
The following passage and accompanying questions illustrate the six question types.
There are two major systems of criminal procedure in the modern world — the adversarial and the inquisitorial. The former is associated with common law tradition and the latter with civil law tradition. Both systems were historically preceded by the system of private vengeance in which the victim of a crime fashioned his own remedy and administered it privately, either personally or through an agent. The vengeance system was a system of self-help, the essence of which was captured in the slogan “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The modern adversarial system is only one historical step removed from the private vengeance system and still retains some of its characteristic features. Thus, for example, even though the right to institute criminal action has now been extended to all members of society and even though the police department has taken over the pretrial investigative functions on behalf of the prosecution, the adversarial system still leaves the defendant to conduct his own pretrial investigation. The trial is still viewed as a duel between two adversaries, refereed by a judge who, at the beginning of the trial has no knowledge of the investigative background of the case. In the final analysis the adversarial system of criminal procedure symbolizes and regularizes the punitive combat.
By contrast, the inquisitorial system begins historically where the adversarial system stopped its development. It is two historical steps removed from the system of private vengeance. Therefore, from the standpoint of legal anthropology, it is historically superior to the adversarial system. Under the inquisitorial system the public investigator has the duty to investigate not just on behalf of the prosecutor but also on behalf of the defendant. Additionally, the public prosecutor has the duty to present to the court not only evidence that may lead to the conviction of the defendant but also evidence that may lead to his exoneration. This system mandates that both parties permit full pretrial discovery of the evidence in their possession. Finally, in an effort to make the trial less like a duel between two adversaries, the inquisitorial system mandates that the judge take an active part in the conduct of the trial, with a role that is both directive and protective.
Fact-finding is at the heart of the inquisitorial system. This system operates on the philosophical premise that in a criminal case the crucial factor is not the legal rule but the facts of the case and that the goal of the entire procedure is to experimentally recreate for the court the commission of the alleged crime.
MAIN IDEA QUESTIONS
The main idea is usually stated in the last — occasionally the first — sentence of the first paragraph. If it’s not there, it will probably be the last sentence of the entire passage.
Because main idea questions are relatively easy, the SAT writers try to obscure the correct answer by surrounding it with close answer-choices (“detractors”) that either overstate or understate the author’s main point. Answer-choices that stress specifics tend to understate the main idea; choices that go beyond the scope of the passage tend to overstate the main idea.
The answer to a main idea question will summarize the author’s argument, yet be neither too specific nor too broad.
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
The primary purpose of the passage is to
(A) explain why the inquisitorial system is the best system of criminal justice
(B) explain how the adversarial and the inquisitorial systems of criminal justice both evolved from the system of private vengeance
(C) show how the adversarial and inquisitorial systems of criminal justice can both complement and hinder each other’s development
(D) analyze two systems of criminal justice and deduce which one is better
The answer to a main idea question will summarize the passage without going beyond it. (A) violates these criteria by overstating the scope of the passage. The comparison in the passage is between two specific systems, not between all systems. (A) would be a good answer if “best” were replaced with “better.” Beware of extreme words. (B) violates the criteria by understating the scope of the passage. Although the evolution of both the adversarial and the inquisitorial systems is discussed in the passage, it is done to show why one is superior to the other. As to (C), it can be quickly dismissed since it is not mentioned in the passage. Finally, the passage does two things: it presents two systems of criminal justice and shows why one is better than the other. (D) aptly summarizes this, so it is the best answer.
Description questions, as with main idea questions, refer to a point made by the author. However, description questions refer to a minor point or to incidental information, not to the author’s main point.
The answer to a description question must refer directly to a statement in the passage, not to something implied by it. However, the correct answer will paraphrase a statement in the passage, not give an exact quote. In fact, exact quotes (“Same language” traps) are often used to bait wrong answers.
Caution: When answering a description question, you must find the point in the passage from which the question is drawn. Don’t rely on memory — too many obfuscating tactics are used with these questions.
Not only must the correct answer refer directly to a statement in the passage, it must refer to the relevant statement. The correct answer will be surrounded by wrong choices which refer directly to the passage but don’t address the question. These choices can be tempting because they tend to be quite close to the actual answer.
Once you spot the sentence to which the question refers, you still must read a few sentences before and after it, to put the question in context. If a question refers to line 20, the information needed to answer it can occur anywhere from line 15 to 25. Even if you have spotted the answer in line 20, you should still read a couple more lines to make certain you have the proper perspective.
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
According to the passage, the inquisitorial system differs from the adversarial system in that
(A) it does not make the defendant solely responsible for gathering evidence for his case
(B) it does not require the police department to work on behalf of the prosecution
(C) it does not allow the victim the satisfaction of private vengeance
(D) it requires the prosecution to drop a weak case
This is a description question, so the information needed to answer it must be stated in the passage — though not in the same language as in the answer. The needed information is contained in the fourth sentence of Paragraph 3, which states that the public prosecutor has to investigate on behalf of both society and the defendant. Thus, the defendant is not solely responsible for investigating his case. Furthermore, the paragraph’s opening implies that this feature is not found in the adversarial system. This illustrates why you must determine the context of the situation before you can safely answer the question. The answer is (A).
Writing Technique Questions
All coherent writing has a superstructure or blueprint. When writing, we don’t just randomly jot down our thoughts; we organize our ideas and present them in a logical manner. For instance, we may present evidence that builds up to a conclusion but intentionally leave the conclusion unstated, or we may present a position and then contrast it with an opposing position, or we may draw an extended analogy.
There is an endless number of writing techniques that authors use to present their ideas, so we cannot classify every method. However, some techniques are very common to the type of explanatory or opinionated writing found in SAT passages.
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A. Compare and contrast two positions.
This technique has a number of variations, but the most common and direct is to develop two ideas or systems (comparing) and then point out why one is better than the other (contrasting).
Writing-technique questions are similar to main idea questions; except that they ask about how the author presents his ideas, not about the ideas themselves. Generally, you will be given only two writing methods to choose from, but each method will have two or more variations.
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
Which one of the following best describes the organization of the passage?
(A) Two systems of criminal justice are compared and contrasted, and one is deemed to be better than the other.
(B) One system of criminal justice is presented as better than another. Then evidence is offered to support that claim.
(C) Two systems of criminal justice are analyzed, and one specific example is examined in detail.
(D) A set of examples is furnished. Then a conclusion is drawn from them.
Clearly the author is comparing and contrasting two criminal justice systems. Indeed, the opening to paragraph two makes this explicit. The author uses a mixed form of comparison and contrast. He opens the passage by developing (comparing) both systems and then shifts to developing just the adversarial system. He opens the second paragraph by contrasting the two criminal justice systems and then further develops just the inquisitorial system. Finally, he closes by again contrasting the two systems and implying that the inquisitorial system is superior.
Only two answer-choices, (A) and (B), have any real merit. They say essentially the same thing — though in different order. Notice in the passage that the author does not indicate which system is better until the end of paragraph one, and he does not make that certain until paragraph two. This contradicts the order given by (B). Hence the answer is (A). (Note: In (A) the order is not specified and therefore is harder to attack, whereas in (B) the order is definite and therefore is easier to attack. Remember that a measured response is harder to attack and therefore is more likely to be the answer.)
B. Show cause and effect.
In this technique, the author typically shows how a particular cause leads to a certain result or set of results. It is not uncommon for this method to introduce a sequence of causes and effects. A causes B, which causes C, which causes D, and so on. Hence B is both the effect of A and the cause of C.
Example: (Short passage)
Thirdly, I worry about the private automobile. It is a dirty, noisy, wasteful, and lonely means of travel. It pollutes the air, ruins the safety and sociability of the street, and exercises upon the individual a discipline which takes away far more freedom than it gives him. It causes an enormous amount of land to be unnecessarily abstracted from nature and from plant life and to become devoid of any natural function. It explodes cities, grievously impairs the whole institution of neighborliness, fragmentizes and destroys communities. It has already spelled the end of our cities as real cultural and social communities, and has made impossible the construction of any others in their place. Together with the airplane, it has crowded out other, more civilized and more convenient means of transport, leaving older people, infirm people, poor people and children in a worse situation than they were a hundred years ago. It continues to lend a terrible element of fragility to our civilization, placing us in a situation where our life would break down completely if anything ever interfered with the oil supply.
George F. Kennan
Which of the following best describes the organization of the passage?
(A) A problem is presented and then a possible solution is discussed.
(B) The benefits and demerits of the automobile are compared and contrasted.
(C) A topic is presented and a number of its effects are discussed.
(D) A set of examples is furnished to support a conclusion.
This passage is laden with effects. Kennan introduces the cause, the automobile, in the opening sentence and from there on presents a series of effects — the automobile pollutes, enslaves, and so on. Hence the answer is (C). Note: (D) is the second-best choice; it is disqualified by two flaws. First, in this context, “examples” is not as precise as “effects.” Second, the order is wrong: the conclusion, “I worry about the private automobile” is presented first and then the examples: it pollutes, it enslaves, etc.
C. State a position and then give supporting evidence.
This technique is common with opinionated passages. Equally common is the reverse order. That is, the supporting evidence is presented and then the position or conclusion is stated. And sometimes the evidence will be structured to build up to a conclusion which is then left unstated. If this is done skillfully the reader will be more likely to arrive at the same conclusion as the author.
Extension questions are the most common. They require you to go beyond what is stated in the passage, asking you to draw an inference from the passage, to make a conclusion based on the passage, or to identify one of the author’s tacit assumptions.
Since extension questions require you to go beyond the passage, the correct answer must say more than what is said in the passage. Beware of same language traps with these questions: the correct answer will often both paraphrase and extend a statement in the passage, but it will not directly quote it.
“Same Language” traps: For extension questions, any answer-choice that explicitly refers to or repeats a statement in the passage will probably be wrong.
The correct answer to an extension question will not require a quantum leap in thought, but it will add significantly to the ideas presented in the passage.
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
The author views the prosecution’s role in the inquisitorial system as being
(A) an advocate for both society and the defendant
(B) solely responsible for starting a trial
(C) a protector of the legal rule
(D) an aggressive but fair investigator
This is an extension question. So the answer will not be explicitly stated in the passage, but it will be strongly supported by it.
The author states that the prosecutor is duty bound to present any evidence that may prove the defendant innocent and that he must disclose all pretrial evidence (i.e., have no tricks up his sleeve). This is the essence of fair play. The answer is (D).
Application questions differ from extension questions only in degree. Extension questions ask you to apply what you have learned from the passage to derive new information about the same subject, whereas application questions go one step further, asking you to apply what you have learned from the passage to a different or hypothetical situation.
To answer an application question, take the author’s perspective. Ask yourself: what am I arguing for? what might make my argument stronger? what might make it weaker?
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
Based on the information in the passage, it can be inferred that which one of the following would most logically begin a paragraph immediately following the passage?
(A) Because of the inquisitorial system’s thoroughness in conducting its pretrial investigation, it can be concluded that a defendant who is innocent would prefer to be tried under the inquisitorial system, whereas a defendant who is guilty would prefer to be tried under the adversarial system.
(B) As the preceding analysis shows, the legal system is in a constant state of flux. For now the inquisitorial system is ascendant, but it will probably be soon replaced by another system.
(C) The accusatorial system begins where the inquisitorial system ends. So it is three steps removed from the system of private vengeance, and therefore historically superior to it.
(D) Because in the inquisitorial system the judge must take an active role in the conduct of the trial, his competency and expertise have become critical.
The author has rather thoroughly presented his position, so the next paragraph would be a natural place for him to summarize it. The passage compares and contrasts two systems of criminal justice, implying that the inquisitorial system is superior. We expect the concluding paragraph to sum up this position. Now all legal theory aside, the system of justice under which an innocent person would choose to be judged would, as a practical matter, pretty much sum up the situation. Hence the answer is (A).
Tone questions ask you to identify the writer’s attitude or perspective. Is the writer’s feeling toward the subject positive, negative, or neutral? Does the writer give his own opinion, or does he objectively present the opinions of others?
Before you read the answer-choices, decide whether the writer’s tone is positive, negative, or neutral. It is best to do this without referring to the passage.
However, if you did not get a feel for the writer’s attitude on the first reading, check the adjectives that he chooses. Adjectives and, to a lesser extent, adverbs express our feelings toward subjects. For instance, if we agree with a person who holds strong feelings about a subject, we may describe his opinions as impassioned. On the other hand, if we disagree with him, we may describe his opinions as excitable, which has the same meaning as “impassioned” but carries a negative connotation.
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
The author’s attitude toward the adversarial system can best be described as
(A) encouraged that it is far removed from the system of private vengeance
(B) concerned that it does not allow all members of society to instigate legal action
(C) hopeful that it will be replaced by the inquisitorial system
(D) doubtful that it is the best vehicle for justice
The author does not reveal his feelings toward the adversarial system until the end of paragraph one. Clearly the clause “the adversarial system of criminal procedure symbolizes and regularizes the punitive combat” indicates that he has a negative attitude toward the system. This is confirmed in the second paragraph when he states that the inquisitorial system is historically superior to the adversarial system. So he feels that the adversarial system is deficient.
The “two-out-of-four” rule is at work here: only choices (C) and (D) have any real merit. Both are good answers. But which one is better? Intuitively, choice (D) is more likely to be the answer because it is more measured. To decide between two choices attack each: the one that survives is the answer. Now a tone question should be answered from what is directly stated in the passage — not from what it implies. Although the author has reservations toward the adversarial system, at no point does he say that he hopes the inquisitorial system will replace it, he may prefer a third system over both. This eliminates (C); the answer therefore is (D).
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