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 two types of paired passages on the SAT as well as giving strategies for each kind of paired passage.
SAT Reading: A Quick Recap
We have a detailed breakdown in another article, but just in case you've forgotten: SAT Critical Reading (as it currently is configured - this will change in Spring 2016) consists of 67 questions to be answered in 70 minutes, presented in 3 of the SAT's 10 sections (2 25 minute sections, 1 20 minute section). There's also the possibility that one of the 25 minute "experimental" sections may be a Reading section. 19 of the 67 questions will be sentence completion questions, while 48 will be passage-based questions. Each section is always a mixture of sentence completion and passage-based questions.
The passages used on the SAT are always on varying subject areas and come in three varieties: long passages, short passages, and paired passages or "comparing passages," which I will be discussing in this article. If you want more information about long and short passages, read this article.
Passage-based questions come in these six 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)?
Paired Passages On The SAT
Typically, there are two sets of paired passages on the SAT, one set of each type (2 short paired passages, 2 long paired passages). The questions that follow these passages will ask you to compare the passages in some way. On occasion, both sets of paired passages will appear on the same section; more often than not, however, the paired passages are spread out across the Reading sections (this was true for 9/10 post-2005 SATs I looked at).
You can figure out if an SAT Reading section has paired passages on it from the directions at the beginning of the entire section:
“The passages below are followed by questions based on their content; questions following a pair of related passages may also be based on the relationship between the paired passages. Answer the questions on the basis of what is stated or implied in the passages and in any introductory material that may be provided.” [bolding mine, underlining theirs]
I've rephrased the directions below to remove some of the SAT's complicated wording:
The questions after the passages are based on their content. There will be questions that follow paired passages that WILL be based on the relationship between them (and there will be some relationship between them). Answer the questions based on evidence from the passage. Don’t forget to read the introductory material as well as the passages, since important information might be lurking there.
You never know what you might find in introductory material. Or purple boxes.
Type 1: Short Paired Passages
Short paired passages are usually 12-15 lines. There won't usually be much introductory material beyond something like “Questions 9-12 are based on the following passages.” Almost always, probably because there are only 4-5 questions on these short passages, all the questions associated with the passages are about both passages. The only questions I’ve seen on individual short paired passages asked either a) what the primary purpose of a passage was or b) what the purpose/function of a certain sentence was (although this only showed up in 2/480 post-2005 passage-based questions I surveyed).
Important note: SATs prior to March 2005 didn’t have questions on short passages, so if you want to practice short passage questions with official SAT tests, you need to stick with tests from the last ten years.
Type 2: Long Paired Passages
Longer paired passages on SAT Reading are 40-50 lines each. In contrast to the short paired passages, longer paired passages will 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 13-24 are based on the following passages.
Passage 1 is from a 2003 book that examines the famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. Passage 2 is from a 2000 biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. written by an African American scholar.
As you can see, this introductory material tells you about the type of passage (Passage 1 is an analysis of a famous speech, Passage 2 is from a biography), when the source of each passage was originally published (as well as when the "historic March on Washington" occurred), and that both passages will have something to do with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Unlike the questions on short paired passages, at least some the 9-13 questions associated with a set of paired passages will be about individual passages (as well as about both passages). Also, for the most part, longer paired passages will appear on 25 minute reading sections, not the 20 minute reading section (this was true for 11 out of the 13 SATs I perused).
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, I've gathered my top three strategies for mastering paired passages; use them as 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 (more on why you’d want to do that later), it’s still worth it to take time to answer questions on individual passages. Why?
The advantage of answering questions on each passage before moving on to multipassage questions is twofold. For one thing, each passage that appears as part of a set of paired passages, even the "long" paired passages, are 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 longer paired passages):
Now, here’s a question in the same section that asks about both passages:
If you’ve answered the first question, which involves going back to line 13 (“True, a cloned person’s nurture and circumstances in life will be different; genotype is not exactly destiny”), you already know that answer choice (A) is true for at least one of the passages. It isn’t necessarily enough to give you the answer to the question about both passages, but it might help you point you in the right direction (look in passage 2 to see if answer choice (A) is supported by it as well).
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.
Author Technique Questions
These questions ask you to figure out the author’s tone, style, or other technique. For paired passages, of course, it’s not just enough to know it for one passage – you must be able to compare across passages. For instance:
"Compared to the tone of Passage 2, the tone of Passage 1 is more…"
In non-paired passages, these are questions that ask what a phrase, sentence, or paragraph is accomplishing within the context of the whole passage; for questions on paired passages, these questions often show up on individual passages but appear relatively infrequently with regards to both passages. Here's the one way I've seen function questions asked about multiple passages (out of all the Reading sections on all the free post-2005 practice tests):
“The authors of both passages mention cats in order to..."
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):
"Unlike Passage 1, Passage 2 focuses primarily on the common household cat's…"
"The two passages differ in their discussions of cats primarily in that Passage 1…"
"Both passages support which of the following conclusions about cats?"
"What would be the most likely reaction by the author of Passage one to the argument cited in lines 7-17 of Passage 2?"
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 common household cat" was the main point of the passages, it would be a main point question. If "the common household cat" 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
Often, questions that ask about both passages will ask you to draw upon multiple skills. The most common examples of this are questions which are a big picture/inference combo, requiring you to figure out author perspective and then take one step beyond that.
"How would Shere Khan most likely respond to the statement by author of Passage 1 about toxoplasmosis?"
"The claim made in Passage 1 that toxoplasmosis causes zombieism in rats and humans alike would most likely be interpreted by the author of Passage 2 as…"
"Based on lines 13-23, the author of Passage 2 would most likely appear to the author of Passage 1 as…"
It's also possible to have a combo of author technique and detail in one question:
"The authors of both passages agree that cats…"
Whether this is a detail question or main point question depends on if cats are the main point of the passages or just a detail.
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 (more of which are coming soon) 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:
Let’s say you’ve just finished answering questions about Passage 1 when you get to this question about both passages, so Passage 1 is pretty clear in your mind. You can start by eliminating the answers that are not true for Passage 1. In this case, you can immediately eliminate (E), because Passage 1 does not denounce any particular figure (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 (D), because it is unambiguously true for Passage 1. Why? Passage 1 ends with the following sentence:
“The annual Martin Luther King holiday is properly a day of national thanksgiving, a time for the nation to recognize the immense debt it owes to King and the thousands of heroes of the civil rights movement for saving the soul of America.”
As you can see from these sentences, Passage 1 certainly celebrates (praises) the "Martin Luther King holiday," so at least part of D is correct. To confirm it is the right answer, of course, you'd need to skim passage 2 and make sure that it does indeed "recount the history" of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
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, however, eliminating answers that suggest the passages have similarities, (B) and (D), would cause you to get rid of the right answer (D).
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.
Find out more about the overall structure and content of SAT Critical Reading in our guide to SAT Reading.
What are the other types of passages you’ll encounter on the SAT? Read about the 3 types of SAT passages here.
Is there a “best way” to read the passage for SAT Reading questions? Find out here!
Get detailed with your SAT prep by studying each skill SAT Critical Reading questions test, starting with sentence-completion questions and vocab-in-context questions. We’ll have more skills articles like these up soon.
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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.