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New SAT in 2016: Reading Section Changes + Strategies


As you may know, the College Board recently debuted its new version of the SAT. There are some pretty significant changes in the Critical Reading section, and you should make sure you're fully prepared for what’s ahead.

In this article I’ll tell you what the major differences are and how you can make sure you’re using the right studying strategies to get ready for the redesigned SAT.


Reading: The Major Changes in the 2016 New SAT

All Questions Are Passage-Based

You heard me - no more sentence completion questions! Because sentence completion questions relied on preexisting knowledge of obscure words, the SAT has decided to do away with them in favor of more on vocabulary in context questions.

One of the goals of the new test is to focus on assessing the basic critical skills students will need in order to succeed in college and their careers. Knowing super advanced vocabulary words, while occasionally valuable, is not a skill that most people require to succeed in life. Understanding the nuances in meaning of more common words, however, is very useful, along with strong reading comprehension skills. That's why all the questions are now based on challenging passages that deal with subject matter that is relevant to soon-to-be college students. 


The Subject Matter of Passages Is Pre-Determined

Much like the passages on the ACT, the passages on the new SAT come from specific subject areas rather than drawing from an unpredictable pool of different subjects.

The new Reading section consists of:

  • One passage dealing with US and World Literature
  • Two passages dealing with History and Social Studies
  • Two passages dealing with Science

This is a move towards more transparency on the test in terms of making the material more predictable so students will know exactly what to expect. The passages also draw from more recent and real life examples to make them highly relevant to students.


New "Find the Evidence" Questions 

There is a subcategory of questions on the new SAT Reading section that has never been included on the test before. You'll get a list of four quotes from the passage and have to choose the one that provides the best evidence for your answer to the previous question. These questions force you to double check your thought process and confirm that your answer had support in the text. In this way, they could actually help you to avoid careless mistakes. The goal of these questions is to reinforce higher-level reasoning skills that are critical for reading comprehension. 




There Is Data Interpretation

The new SAT reading section also contains some questions that ask you to interpret data that’s incorporated into the passages. There are charts and graphs on the test for the first time.

This means that you can expect to see SAT Critical Reading questions that are similar to Science questions on the ACT. Don’t worry though - you don’t have to study science facts in order to do well on the new reading section. You just need to be able to interpret data logically based on visual representations and information in the passages.


body_therewillbeblood.jpgThere Will Be...Data Interpretation.


Your Strategy: The Major Changes

Don’t Focus on Vocabulary

Studying vocabulary has never been as important as people make it out to be for the SAT, and now with these new changes it’s even more irrelevant. Knowing a lot of big words no longer gives you much of an advantage (if any) on the test. Yes, there are still vocabulary in context questions, but passage reading and interpretation skills will help you a lot more than vocabulary knowledge on those.

If vocabulary is a big weakness for you, and you think it could still affect your reading comprehension, you should take a look at this article on the best way to study SAT vocab. It includes a free download of 200 vocabulary flashcards containing the words that are most likely to appear on the SAT. Our article on how to answer sentence completion questions without knowing vocabulary might also be helpful. Even though there aren't any sentence completion questions on the new SAT, the skills outlined in the article in terms of using connotation and process of elimination will still be useful for you if your vocabulary knowledge is weaker. 


Hone Your Passage Reading Skills

This one is pretty obvious. Since the new test is all passage-based, you need to have really strong reading comprehension skills. Make sure you prepare a good strategy for attacking passages before the test.

Here are the two methods we recommend:


#1: Skim the Passage, Then Read the Questions

A good skimming strategy is to read the first and last paragraphs of the passage and the first and last sentences of each body paragraph. This gives you a good sense of the main ideas and arguments presented in the passage without having to read the entire thing through. When you move onto the questions, you can read more specifically for little picture questions that give line numbers.


#2: Read the Questions First, Read the Passage Later if Necessary

You can also take the opposite tactic and go straight for the questions. If you use this strategy, make sure you answer questions that give specific line numbers first. By the time you answer all the specific questions about the passage and have to move onto big picture questions, it’s likely you will have already read enough to understand the main ideas fairly well.

You might be able to get away with reading the passage closely right off the bat, but you can save yourself a lot of time and stress by either skimming or skipping it initially.

If a passage includes corresponding graphs or charts, that means you'll see some data interpretation questions. If you know these types of questions are easier for you, you should read the graph first and see if you can answer any of them without the information in the passage. If you struggle with data interpretation, however, you might want to wait until after you read the passage so you have more context for the information in the graph. 

As a subset of passage reading skills, you should also be extra careful on the new SAT with interpreting texts. There are more passages that are relevant to your life or to recent events, which means it will be more difficult for you to adopt an unbiased attitude. It’s absolutely crucial that you keep yourself focused on the concrete information presented in the passage and avoid interpreting it based on your personal feelings.


Practice Scientific Reasoning

As mentioned above, the new SAT Critical Reading section has questions that ask about interpreting data in charts and graphs. Some questions will also ask you to select the best evidence for your answer to a previous question. Overall, this means you need to have a strong grasp on logical and scientific reasoning skills.

To practice for this aspect of the new SAT, use ACT Science practice tests. Answering ACT Science questions requies similar skills to answering the new data interpretation questions on the SAT. Additionally, on old-version Critical Reading practice questions, make sure you fully understand where you got your answer.

If you practice being aware of where the evidence for your answer for each question comes from, the new evidence questions will be easy for you. Think of them as a way to verify that your answer to the previous question was correct. They force you to rethink your answer and confirm that it was based on strong evidence. This actually isn't much different from what you've always done on the SAT - remember that the fundamental rule is that you must learn to eliminate three out of the four answer choices, and there is only one absolutely correct choice based on concrete evidence in the passage.


body_strongevidence-1.jpgWow, Evidence! Have you been working out?


The Bottom Line 

The Major Changes to the Reading Section Are:

  • No more Sentence Completion questions
  • Predictable passage subjects
  • Find the Evidence questions
  • Data interpretation questions

You Should Adapt Your Study Strategy By:

  • Focusing less on vocabulary
  • Honing your passage reading skills
  • Strengthen your scientific reasoning skills

The new version of the SAT reading section is different, but it shouldn’t be more difficult than the old one if you know what to expect!


What's Next?

Ready to get started preparing for the new SAT? Check out our article on how to study for it.

Are you not sure whether you should take the new SAT or the ACT? In this article we give you a full breakdown of the differences between the two to help you decide.

Read this article for a list of SAT test dates for the 2015-2016 school year so you can plan out your studying better!



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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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