Manhattan Review SAT Prep – SAT Reading Test Basics

The SAT Reading Test is intended to assist colleges in their evaluation of applicants' ability to learn from written texts, which is obviously an essential skill for postsecondary study in all academic disciplines. Test-takers are presented with reading passages that cover the subject areas of U.S. and world literature, history and social studies, and science. These passages also vary by type, literary technique, and level of difficulty. Students answer multiple choice questions about the passages' meaning (both direct and implied), quality of writing, rhetorical effect, and supporting data.

Features of the SAT Reading Test

The SAT last underwent a significant content change in 2016, and because of that, information on the Reading Test from the 2016 SAT is presented below.

The College Board lists the "key features" of the SAT Reading Test as genre, purpose, subject, and complexity, with two other "important" features: paired passages and informational graphics. The term "genre" refers to texts that are both literary and informational, while "purpose" can be either narrative or argumentative. Examples of specific topics drawn from the three "subject" areas noted above include classic and recent fiction, economics and political science, and chemistry and physics. The "complexity" of reading passages is determined by such factors as amount of information, clarity of purpose, use of metaphor, and sentence structure. "Paired passages" require students to answer questions based on two different sources, and "informational graphics" are used to test students' ability to draw information from charts and tables.

According to the College Board, questions on the SAT Reading test fall into three general categories:

  1. How the author uses evidence

  2. Understanding words in context

  3. Analysis in history/social studies and in science

The first category, how the author uses evidence, asks readers to demonstrate their understanding of how an author is using evidence to support a claim. Students might be asked to identify the part of the passage that supports the point the author is making, find evidence in a passage that supports the answer to a previous question, or identify a relationship between an informational graphic and the passage it is paired with.

The second category, understanding words in context, asks readers to identify the meaning of a word given its particular context within a sentence. Readers may also be asked to decide how an author’s choice of words shapes parts of the passage such as meaning, style, and tone.

Finally, the third category, analysis in history/social studies and in science, asks readers to read passages from the fields of history, social sciences, and/or science before answering questions. Answers are based only on the information contained in the passage and not the student’s prior knowledge of the subject. A reader might be given a passage about an experiment and then be asked to:

  • Examine hypotheses

  • Interpret given data

  • Consider real-world implications

Much has been made about the type of vocabulary words that appear on the SAT, but since the 2016 revision, the SAT has focused on words that frequently appear in college-level reading and professional life. The SAT does not ask students to define words without presenting them in context, and all the words that appear will be in the context of a reading passage, making it easier for students to use contextual clues to identify the best answer.

Format of the SAT Reading Test

The SAT Reading Test has a total of 52 questions, for which students are given 65 minutes. The 52 questions are taken from four individual reading passages and one pair of passages, each of which are between 500 and 750 words and can range from 9th grade to basic undergraduate in level of difficulty. The reading passages are drawn from the following types of documents:

  • 1 literary passage from a work of fiction

  • 1 or 2 passages from a U.S. founding document or a text they inspired that has become part of the Great Global Conversation. According to the College Board, the Great Global Conversation refers to works from around the world that have a specific focus on topics including but not limited to freedom, justice, and human dignity. The College Board notes that, for testing purposes, a speech from a public figure such as Nelson Mandela would be considered part of the Great Global Conversation.

  • 1 passage from a work of economics, psychology, sociology, or some other social science

  • 2 passages from scientific works that consider foundational concepts, including but not limited to Earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics.

The Reading Test is one of two major components of the overall Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score. Some Reading Test questions also factor into two of the SAT's seven sub scores (Command of Evidence and Words in Context) and either of the two cross-test scores (Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science). Not all Reading Test questions count toward sub scores, but many of them are an element of one or even two sub scores, which range from 1-15 in each area. 42 of the 52 Reading Test questions count toward the overall cross-test scores of 10 to 40 (21 questions for each).

Types of Reading Passages on the SAT Reading Test

2023 SAT Reading Test passages are taken from many different types of sources. Students can expect diversity of textual excerpts in terms of time period, subject matter, author intent, literary style, and literary form. Some sources are historical (such as an excerpt from Elizabeth Cady Stanton's speech to the 1869 Woman Suffrage Convention), while others are contemporary (such as a 2013 article on ethics in economics). Passages in social science disciplines (e.g., urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt's The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City) can be found alongside passages in the hard sciences (such as J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick's early article on DNA). Test-takers should be prepared to handle excerpts from classic fiction (including Charlotte Brontë's The Professor) as well as writings that are primarily arguing a specific viewpoint (for example, Talleyrand's Report on Public Instruction).

Types of Questions on the SAT Reading Test

Questions on the SAT Reading Test are based on a variety of reading comprehension skills. Many test questions ask about the meaning of specific words in the context of the passage. These questions are usually phrased as follows: "In line x, the word y most nearly means . . . " Test-takers must then provide the best choice of synonym from a list of four options. Some questions ask students to find the best supporting evidence for a given proposition from a list of passage excerpts, or to determine the author's reasons for providing certain types of evidence (e.g., "The authors refer to work by others in line 23 in order to . . ." or "The authors most likely use the examples in lines 6-12 of the passage to highlight the . . ."). In some cases, students must find contradictory evidence for claims made in reading passages. Some questions make reference to graphs or tables, and students must evaluate the information provided in these graphics in the context of the accuracy and purpose of the author's assertions. Broad questions about the overall purpose of a reading passage are also included, such as "The central claim of the passage is that . . ." or "The main purpose of the passage is to . . ." Questions on paired reading passages often ask about relationships between the excerpts. For example, passage 2 may refute evidence provided in passage 1, the passages may reinforce each other using different rhetorical techniques, or the authors may agree on some points but disagree on others.

Summary of the SAT Reading Test

The SAT Reading Test consists of 52 questions, and a student is given 65 minutes to complete all questions in this section. The reading passages come from works of fiction, documents of historical significance, as well as works from the fields of science and social sciences. Test takers may be asked to demonstrate their understanding of how the passage author uses evidence to make a claim, define the meaning of a word based on the passage context, and analyze and/or interpret given information in a specific way based on provided details. The current version of the SAT is less about memorizing archaic vocabulary words and more about understanding words in contexts that are typically encountered in college classes or early professional life.

Fill out Info Request