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How To Attack Paired Passages in SAT Reading


Answering questions on multiple passages is a little different from answering questions on just one passage. Some of the same advice is still applicable, but there are strategies specific to multipassage questions as well. I’ll go over the different topics you might see covered in paired passages on the SAT as well as giving strategies for paired passage questions.

feature image credit: Happy Furry Friday by Alan L, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.


SAT Reading: A Quick Recap

We have a detailed breakdown of SAT Reading in another article, but just in case you've forgotten: Reading is the first section of the SAT and consists of 52 questions on six passages to be answered in 65 minutes.

The passages used on the SAT are always on varying subject areas and come in three varieties: single passages, passages with charts or tables that you also have to analyze, and paired passages or "comparing passages," which I will be discussing in this article. If you want more information about how to grapple with any or all of these passage varieties, read this article.

Passage-based questions come in these seven basic flavors:

  • Big Picture: Find the main point of a passage or paragraph, or from what perspective is this information being given.
  • Little Picture/Detail: Find a specific detail in the text, with or without location information.
  • Inference: Based on the information provided in the passage, infer information.
  • Vocabulary in Context: Find how a word is used in the specified place (or choose a word that best encapsulates a description from the passage).
  • Function: Explain how a phrase, sentence, or paragraph functions in a larger context (paragraph or passage).
  • Author Technique: What is the tone or style of a passage (often asked to compare and contrast different authors’ techniques)?
  • Find the Evidence: Which of these lines from the passage best supports your answer?


Paired Passages On The SAT

Out of the six passages on SAT Reading, two of them will be "paired" passages. These passages are usually 40-50 lines each and are followed by 10-12 questions. The first four to seven of these questions will be about the passages individually, while the last three to six questions will ask about both passages.

Paired passages on SAT Reading often include introductory material with information about the genre, publication date, and sometimes even the general situation/topic of the text. Here's an example from a practice SAT:

Questions 32-42 are based on the following passages.
These passages are adapted from the Lincoln‐Douglas debates. Passage 1 is from a statement by Stephen Douglas. Passage 2 is from a statement by Abraham Lincoln. Douglas and Lincoln engaged in a series of debates while competing for a US Senate seat in 1858.

The introductory material above tells you about the type of passage (Passage 1 is from a statement by Douglas, Passage 2 is from a statement by Lincoln) and when the source of each passage was originally published/written (as well as when the Lincoln-Douglas Debates occurred). 

Like these Lincoln-Douglas passages, paired passages most frequently fall into the "U.S. Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation" genre of SAT Reading passages. These passages are usually written pre-1900s and concern "issues and concerns central to informed citizenship" like the meaning of democracy, slavery, women's rights, civil rights and civil disobedience, and so on.

The next most frequently covered subject area is science, with passages on topics such as extraterrestrial mining, organic farming, and the effect of the internet on the brain. Keep in mind, however, that while most paired passages in the past have been either science or Great Global Conversation passages, that doesn't mean that you might not come across a literary or social-science focused set of paired passages in the future. As far as the SAT is concerned, any topic could work as a set of paired passages.



body_whatlurkswithin.jpgwhat lurks within by Sandy Schultz, used under CC BY 2.0.

You never know what topics you'll find lurking in paired passages.


Plan of Attack: All Paired Passages

There is no one surefire strategy that will let you power through questions on paired passages, because part of it depends on how you approach the passage. Below, we've gathered our top three strategies for mastering paired passages; try out each to see which best works for you.


Strategy 1: Start By Answering Questions on Individual Passages

No matter how you approach the passage (thorough read first, questions first, or skimming and then questions), for paired passages, I highly, highly recommend answering the questions about each individual passage first before moving on to the multi-passage questions. Even if you're planning on guessing on questions that ask about multiple passages, it’s still worth it to take time to answer questions on individual passages.

Each passage that appears as part of a set of paired passages is shorter and less complicated than the standalone long passages (since you're expected to compare passage to passage, not just focus in on one passage). Because of this, it's often easier to answer the individual passage questions—there are fewer words to read overall, and it's easier to find details.

In addition, sometimes the questions the SAT asks about each individual passages will give you information that might be helpful when it comes to questions about both passages

For instance, take a look at this question about an individual passage (of a set of paired passages):

As used in line 32, "observed" most nearly means

A) followed.
B) scrutinized.
C) contemplated.
D) noticed.

Now, here’s a question in the same section that asks about both passages:

Based on the passages, Lincoln would most likely describe the behavior that Thoreau recommends in lines 64-66 ("if") as

A) an excusable reaction to an intolerable situation.
B) a rejection of the country's proper form of remedy.
C) an honorable response to an unjust law.
D) a misapplication of a core principle of the Constitution.

Lines 64-66 read "if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law." If you’ve answered the first question, which involves going back the sentence that contains line 32 ("But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed"), then you know that A) cannot be correct and that B) is likely correct. This doesn't necessarily give you the correct answer right away (you still have to eliminate answer choices C) and D) ), but it will save you time.

A final point to keep in mind about answering questions about individual passages is that for paired passages, the two passages will agree on some things and disagree on others. Answering questions on the individual passages can help you suss out what the passages may agree or disagree on before you get to questions on both passages that ask you to do exactly that.


Strategy 2: Find The Hardest Paired Passage Questions For You...And Drill Them

This strategy is not unique to paired passage questions on the SAT—figuring out your weakness in any area and then focusing your time on practicing what is difficult for you will help you improve.

For paired passages on SAT Reading, however, figuring out your higher level weaknesses is more difficult because it is not always clear which skill (or even combination of skills) is being tested by the question. To help out with your SAT Reading paired passage triage, I've compiled a list of the most common ways each question type might appear in the context of paired passages.

Note: The questions below are all questions that ask you about multiple passages. While occasionally vocab-in-context questions will be asked after a series of longer paired passages, these questions are always in reference to either Passage 1 or Passage 2, not both; therefore, they are omitted below.


Function Questions

In non-paired passages, function questions ask what a phrase, sentence, or paragraph is accomplishing within the context of the whole passage. When they appear on paired passages, function questions often show up on individual passages but appear relatively infrequently with regards to both passages. Here are two ways I've seen function questions asked about multiple passages:

“In lines 61-65, the author of Passage 2 refers to a statement made in Passage 1 in order to"

"In the context of each passage as a whole, the question in lines 25-27 of Passage 1 and lines 67-69 of Passage 2 primarily function to help each speaker"


Big Picture, Detail, and Inference Questions

While these questions test different skills, they will often be asked in the same way. Here are a few examples (modified from actual SAT practice tests):

"The main purpose of each passage is to"

"Both authors would most likely agree that the changes in cats' status that they describe would be"

"Based on the passages, both authors would agree with which of the following claims?"

"Webber would most likely have reacted to lines 65-68 ("The musical...terrible") of Passage 2 with"

body_reaction.jpgOMG! by Andrea Schaffer, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
Alas, SAT answer choices are not in cat facial expression form.


While the first of these questions is clearly a main point question, it’s a little more hazy with others. The second question could be any of the three types, depending on the context.

If "the change in cats' status" was the main point of the passages, it would be a main point question. If "the change in cats' statuses" was just mentioned in passing as part of a larger picture, it would be a detail question. If the answer choices for that question asked you to take what was in the text and go a step beyond, the question would be an inference question.

Here are some more clearly-worded examples of each type of question:


Big Picture Questions

"Which choice identifies a central tension between the two passages?"
"Based on the passages, one commonality in the stances Lincoln and Thoreau take towards house cats is that"
"Both passages discuss the issue of household cats in relationship to"


Inference Questions

"How would Eliot most likely respond to Webber's statement in lines 30-34, Passage 1 ("As the...yowl")?"
"Stevens would most likely have reacted to lines 65-68 ("") of Passage 2 with"


Detail Questions

"On which of the following points would the authors of both passages most likely agree?"
"Based on the passages, both authors would agree with which of the following claims?"


Find the Evidence questions

These questions show up in paired passages in much the same way as they do on single passages. Here are a couple of examples:

"Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?"
[previous question: "How would Eliot most likely respond to Webber's statement in lines 30-34, Passage 1 ("As the...yowl")?"]

"Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?" [previous question: "Which choice best describes how Saintriver would most likely have reacted to Lai Wai's remarks in the final paragraph of Passage 2?"]


Multi-skill questions

Often, questions that ask about both passages will ask you to draw upon multiple skills. The most common examples of this are big picture/inference combo questions, which require you to figure out author perspective and then take one step beyond that.


"The author of Passage 2 would most likely respond to the discussion of the future of household cats in lines 18-28, Passage 1, by claiming that such a future"

"Saintriver in Passage 1 would most likely characterize the position taken by Lai Wai in lines 65-69 "Let...climb") as"

"Which choice best describes the ways that the two authors conceive of the cat's proper position in the household?"


It's also possible to have a combo of detail and find-the-evidence questions:

"Which choice provides the best evidence that the author of Passage 2 would agree to some extent with the claim attributed to Hatshepsut in lines 41-43, Passage 1?"


So what should you do to figure out which question type is most difficult for you? First, when going through practice tests (actual SAT practice tests, mind), be sure to circle the questions that you're unsure you've answered correctly. Next, compare the questions you've circled to the example questions in this article to figure out where your weaknesses lie. And finally, study our articles on specific SAT Reading question types to improve your skills in the areas that you struggle with.


Strategy 3: Eliminate Answers

This is somewhat related to the strategy of answering questions on individual passages first (because individual passage questions can help you out with the answers to questions on both passages). Questions that ask about both passages have to meet the same standard as questions about a single passage: there must be one unambiguously correct answer. What does this mean for multipassage questions? If part of an answer is wrong, then you can eliminate it completely.

Here’s an example of a common multipassage inference question: [practice2q30correctB]

Which choice best describes the relationship between the two passages?

A) Passage 2 relates first-hand experiences that contrast with the clinical approach in Passage 1.
B) Passage 2 critiques the conclusions drawn from the research discussed in Passage 1.
C) Passage 2 takes a high-level view of a result that Passage 1 examines in depth.
D) Passage 2 predicts the negative reactions that the findings discussed in Passage 1 might produce.

Let’s say you’ve just finished answering questions about Passage 2 when you get to this question about both passages, so Passage 2 is pretty clear in your mind. You can start by eliminating the answers that are not true for Passage 2. In this case, you can immediately eliminate A), because Passage 2 does not relate first-hand experiences. (Since the passage is too long to include here, you either have to take my word for it or read the passage in the free practice test in which it appears here.)

You can also start to lean towards B), because it is unambiguously true for Passage 2. Why? Passage 1 ends with the following sentence:

"We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply."

On the other hand, the second paragraph of Passage 2 begins with this sentence:

"Experience does not revamp the basic information-processing capacities of the brain."

As you can see from these sentences, Passage 2 certainly critiques at least one of the conclusions from Passage 1. To confirm it is the right answer, of course, you'd need to skim Passages 1 and 2 again to make sure that there aren't any other conclusions in Passage 1 (or if there are, that Passage 2 critiques them as well) and eliminate the last two answers.

A common recommendation for eliminating answers is to cross out answers that are not contrasting (since oftentimes the SAT wants you to compare passages, and what’s the point in comparing passages that are the same?). In this example, eliminating answers that suggest the passages have similarities would cause you to eliminate C) and D), pointing you back to the correct answer, B).

However, this "eliminate answers that don't suggest the passages differ" elimination approach should not be considered a hard and fast rule. Depending on the question, the correct answer choice may confirm the two passages agree on something. Therefore, for paired passage questions, we recommend that instead of trying to go with the general strategy of "eliminate answers that don't suggest the passages differ," you still go through the answer choices and eliminate them one by one.

body_ifImust.jpgIf You Must by Michael Coghlan, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

You do not want this cat coming after you for accidentally eliminating the right answer.


Strategies To Attack Paired Passage Questions: A Summary

#1: Answer Single-Passage Questions First. Answering questions about individual passages will often give you clues to answer questions about both passages.

#2: Find Your Weaknesses And Drill Them. Figure out which type of question you tend to get wrong and then focus on improving that skill.

#3: Eliminate Answers. If part of an answer is wrong, then you can eliminate it entirely.


What’s Next?

Find out more about the overall structure and content of SAT Critical Reading in our guide to SAT Reading.

Is there a "best way" to read the passage for SAT Reading questions? Learn different ways to approach SAT Reading passages here.

Get detailed with your SAT prep by studying each skill SAT Critical Reading questions test, starting with big picture questions and words-in-context questions.



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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.

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