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SAT Sample Questions: Every Single Question Type Explained

Posted by Vero Lecocq | Sep 27, 2015 1:30:00 PM

SAT General Info

 

In delving into the world of test prep, you've probably uncovered a whole slew of unfamiliar terms describing the various question types featured on the SAT. This jargon—improving sentences, identifying sentence errors, extended reasoning, literal comprehension—tends to feel extremely off-putting.

Why all the lingo? Why all these divisions and subdivisions by topic and type? Well, this guide will explain the logic behind the different terms and walk you through every single question type, with real SAT sample questions.

As you know, there are three types of sections on the SAT: reading, writing, and math. Each section has its own breakdown of major question types, all detailed below. Read on to discover exactly what types of questions you'll encounter on the SAT and get lots of sample SAT questions.

 

What's the big idea?

Because you don't want to spend any precious time on interpreting directions come test day, you should make sure to familiarize yourself with the standard instructions on the SAT. Each question type has its own set of instructions, so it's important to know how to approach each one efficiently.

It's also useful to understand what skills each task is designed to test: not only what content is covered but also how you're expected to apply your knowledge.

 

Reading

The reading section is divided into two main categories: sentence completions and reading passages. Let's go through the different types of questions you'll see for each with sample SAT reading questions.

 

Sentence completions

You should know right off the bat that this task will be gone when the SAT redesign takes effect in 2016. For now, though, it's an important component of the test. Out of 67 reading questions, 19 are sentence completions.

You'll be faced with a series of incomplete and unrelated sentences, each one missing a word or two. Your mission (should you choose to accept it or not)  is to choose the word or words that will best round out each sentence

The sentence completion category of questions can be further subdivided one of two ways: one-blank vs. two-blank sentence completions, or vocab-based vs. logic-based sentence completions. Note that these are two separate systems of organization; a question will have either one blank or two, and it will test either vocab or logic.

 

Remember these? Yes, that's right...the SAT is a cruel, cruel game of Mad Libs.

 

One-blank sentence completions

These are classic, prototypical sentence completions. One word (or, occasionally, one very short phrase) has been removed from the sentence. 

 

Two-blank sentence completions

These questions contain the added layer of a second missing word (or phrase).

 

Vocab-based questions 

These questions are designed specifically to test your understanding of words—often obscure ones. The sentences are fairly straightforward, and the test hands you definitions or descriptions of the missing terms. Often, a simple independent clause is linked by a comma or colon to a phrase that reiterates the very same information.

 

 "Elementary, my dear Watson." (Sherlock Holmes)

 

Logic-based questions 

The sentences featured in these questions have many more twists and turns. The vocabulary may be basic or more complex, but either way you're not likely to find any definitions handed to you. The point is to see if you can infer the meaning of the sentence without the help of the most crucial content words.

It's common to see words that imply a contrast or contradiction, such as but, while, although, or despite, in this type of sentence.

 

Great! So...how do I deal with these?

For any given question, if you're already familiar with all of the words, examine the logic of the sentence carefully. Be on the lookout for crucial structure words, especially those that signal a contrast or contradiction. Eliminate any answer that contains a word that doesn't fit. Continue to narrow down until you have your answer.

But what if you don't know all of the words? There are ways to work with that! In fact, check out this great article on how to attack sentence completion questions strategically without swallowing a thesaurus.

 

Passages

Out of 67 reading questions, 48 are passage-based. There are single passages that stand alone and double passages presented as pairs. Passages vary considerably in length, from about 100 to about 850 words. Questions fall into three main categories: extended reasoning, literal comprehension, and vocabulary in context.

 

Extended reasoning

These questions are aimed at assessing your global understanding of passages. There are five basic types of extended reasoning question:

 

You have all the pieces to the puzzle; it's just a matter of fitting them together.

 

Literal comprehension

These questions test your understanding of information that's given directly in the passage. You'll be asked to refer to a specific point in the passage and select the answer that best explains that portion of the text.

Basically, you won't have to go beyond what's written, though you will have to recognize the same information restated in different ways. You can also check out our complete guide to mastering literal comprehension questions.

 

Vocabulary in context

These questions test your vocabulary, including your understanding of secondary or nonstandard definitions of words. For instance, "bright" could refer to a luminescent object in one scenario and to a clever child in another. The good news is that you have context to help you figure out how the word is being used in any particular passage.

For more information, check out our complete guide to mastering vocabulary in context questions.

 

Great! So...how do I deal with these?

I wish there were a one-size-fits-all formula for the SAT reading passages. I really do. Unfortunately, though, that's not the case.

Some people prefer to give the passage a thorough read, then attack the questions. Others like to give the questions a quick skim before they pick apart the passage. As you consider what strategies might serve you best, definitely check out our detailed guide to reading passages on the SAT.

That's SAT reading for you, in a nutshell. Don't stop there, though; there's much more to learn. Be sure to check out our complete guide to the entire reading section.

 

Writing

Before we delve too far into writing, I need to offer a disclaimer. The writing section of the SAT is getting a complete makeover starting in 2016. The information below refers to its current iteration. If you're preparing for the new test, head on over to our complete guide to the redesigned SAT.

For now, however, there are four types of writing tasks: the essay and three varieties of multiple choice questions. Those are called identifying sentence errors, improving sentences, and improving paragraphs. We'll give you a bunch of sample SAT writing questions.

 

Yes, anonymous pen-wielder; yes, you are.

 

Essay

As you are probably aware, there is precisely one essay question on the SAT. It accounts for 30% of your writing score. Generally speaking, SAT essay prompts are quite broad and philosophical. You need to take a stance on some issue and defend it.

Essay prompts can be divided into a few different categories:

  • Morality questions ask you to comment on an issue of right and wrong and evaluate possible human behaviors.
  • Opinions and values questions ask you to weigh in on which of two options is inherently better than its counterpart.
  • Success and achievement questions ask you to discuss different routes to and implications of human accomplishment.
  • Society and culture questions ask about the status of today's human world.
  • Knowledge, learning, and creativity questions ask you to assess some aspect of wisdom or growth.
  • Counterintuitive statement questions ask you to discuss the viability of a seemingly paradoxical suggestion.
  • Cause and effect questions ask you to gauge whether one reality results from another or not.

If you're interested in a more detailed discussion of these categories, check out our article dedicated to examples of each type or our comprehensive list of what you might encounter on the test.

There will always be a brief quotation or commentary included to help contextualize the debate, followed by an explicit question.

 

Great! So...how do I deal with these?

One thing to know is that, while the quotation may be helpful in getting your creative juices flowing, it's not a necessary component of your essay.

The key to a high-scoring essay is a thesis that takes a strong stance on the issue at hand. You'll also want a handful of concrete examples from your own life, from history, from literature, from current events, from pop culture...from anywhere, really, as long as they ground your argument in good, solid evidence.

There's a lot more to know about crafting the essay, so be sure to check out our articles dedicated to the topic. Start with our step-by-step breakdown of the writing process. Then consider reading advice on how to get a 12 on the SAT essay or tips on improving your essay score.

 

Rosie the Riveter's lesser known twin, Gertie the Grammarian.

 

Multiple choice

Multiple choice questions account for the other 70% of your writing score. The first two multiple choice tasks, identifying sentence error and improving sentences, test the same basic topics. These are discussed in depth in our article on the content of the SAT writing section.

 

Identifying sentence errors

There are 18 of these questions on the test. You're going to see a series of sentences. In each sentence, four words or short phrases will be underlined. At the end of each sentence you'll see the phrase, "No error". Anything that's underlined is a potential error and corresponds to an answer choice. There will never be more than one mistake in a sentence, and there will never be a mistake that isn't underlined.

Your job is to find the mistake (if there is one). If there's no mistake, choose "No error": this applies to about one question out of every six.

 

Great! So...how do I deal with these?

These questions tend to be the quickest grammar problems, so it's a good idea to knock them out first.

Read the full sentence. Does anything leap out as grammatically wrong? Is it underlined? If nothing strong strikes you as an obvious error, look at each underlined word or phrase and think about what it's likely to be testing. Remember: problems with verbs are most common, followed by problems with pronouns.

For a more thorough exploration of these techniques, check out our full article on identifying sentence errors strategies.

 

Improving sentences

There are 25 of these questions on the test. Once again, you're going to see a series of sentences. In each sentence, one word or phrase will be underlined (or maybe even the entire sentence). The underlined portion of the sentence contains a potential error.

Your job is to choose, from among the answer choices, the most suitable alternative to the underlined phrase. Choice A is always an exact replication of the original phrasing; it's like the "No error" option for this task and applies to about one question out of every six.

 

Great! So...how do I deal with these?

Be aware that these questions take a little more time than identifying sentence errors. But note that the last section of the test contains only improving sentences questions and nothing else, so you can't always opt to save them for later.

Read the full sentence. Does anything leap out as grammatically wrong? If so, how would you correct it? Look for an answer choice similar to what you anticipated.

If the sentence seems all right on a first read, though, examine the underlined portion of the sentence and try to figure out what it's likely to be testing. Still not finding anything? If time permits, try placing each answer choice in the context of the sentence and reading it over again.

For a more thorough exploration of these techniques, check out our full article on improving sentences strategies.

 

Improving paragraphs

There are 6 of these questions on the test. This task is rather similar to improving sentences; however, some questions ask for a broader analysis of the passage. In other words, you need to think about the big picture as well as the nitty-gritty details.

There are seven sub-categories of improving paragraphs questions. Note that not all seven will be on any given test.

  • Improving sentences questions are, as you might suspect, just like normal improving sentences questions.
  • Transition questions ask about creating the smoothest, most logical flow from one point to the next; often, it's a question of a single word or two.
  • Organization questions ask you to move around the sentences within a passage.
  • Conciseness questions rely on the idea that shorter is sweeter on the SAT, as long as no crucial information is left out.
  • Meaning and purpose questions ask about why the author wrote a particular portion of the passage in a specific way or about the major idea behind the passage as a whole.
  • Eliminating and adding sentences questions ask about the value of inserting or deleting information.
  • Specificity questions ask you to recognize that sometimes the author's initial word choice can be improved upon by making the diction of the passage more precise.

 

Great! So...how do I deal with these?

First, skim the passage. This is not an in-depth read: just a quick gander to get the general gist. Mark anything that seems really off: grammar errors, transitions that don't make sense, etc.

Next, dive into the questions! Don't be afraid to look back at the passage frequently to reestablish a sense of context. Also, remember to check out our article on the absolute best strategies for approaching this task.

And that's SAT writing. It's really just the tip of the test prep iceberg, though, so be sure to look at our complete guide to the entire writing section.

 

Math

 

First and foremost, math questions come in two basic varieties: student-produced response questions, or grid-ins, and multiple choice questions. I'll show you sample SAT math questions for each.

 

Student-produced response questions

There are 10 of these questions. What makes them unique is that there are no answer choices provided to you; you must write down and bubble in your response. It's a relatively easy process, but I'm going to break it down for you, step by step—just in case you're curious.

You can grid in whole numbers, decimals, and fractions ranging in value from 0 to 9999. You can't grid in negative numbers or mixed numbers, but improper fractions are okay.

There are four boxes in a row at the top of the grid: write your answer in those boxes, one digit or symbol per box. Underneath each box is a column containing a series of bubbles, each representing a digit or other character as printed within the bubble. Fill in the bubble that corresponds to what you wrote in the box at the top of each column. You can write your answer starting in any column, space permitting—it doesn't matter whether you're aligned to the left or to the right. Leave any columns you're not using totally blank.

 

Multiple choice questions

Yep, these are just your standard, run-of-the-mill, multiple choice questions. There are 44 of them.

There are four main categories of math questions, all of which are eligible to be tested by multiple choice or by grid-in: 

  • Numbers and operations
  • Algebra and functions
  • Geometry and measurement
  • Data analysis, statistics, and probability

 

Numbers and operations

There are 11-13 of these questions. They cover topics like properties of integers, number lines, and elementary number theory, etc. Definitely check out our articles on integers, sequences, and fractions and ratios.

 

Algebra and functions

There are a whopping 19-21 of these questions. They cover topics like systems of equations, functions, and quadratic factoring, etc. Take a look at our articles on single variable equations, systems of equations, and functions.

 

Geometry and measurement

There are 14-16 of these questions. They cover topics like triangles, circles, and coordinate geometry, etc. Be sure you read our articles on triangles, polygons, circles, lines and angles, lines and slopes, and solid geometry.

 

Data analysis, statistics, and probability

There are 6-7 of these questions. They cover topics such as statistics, elementary probability, and geometric probability, etc. Don't forget to take a look at our articles on statistics and probability.

 

Great! So...how do I deal with these?

Make sure you understand the question. One of the toughest things about the SAT is its frequently deceptive wording.

Check your assumptions at the door. Remember that drawings are not to scale and avoid jumping to conclusions.

Always identify your own personal best method of solving. There's more than one way to solve a problem, and math can get creative; it's not a one-size-fits-all scenario.

Keep track of your work—write it down! Also, use your calculator judiciously. It's a great tool, but it can be dangerous to rely on it too much.

Try plugging in an answer or another sensible value if you're not comfortable proceeding algebraically. Take a moment to review our articles on how and when to plug in answer choices and how and when to plug in other values

Review and practice mathematical concepts on a regular basis. A good place to start is our complete guide to SAT math content.

 

What's next?

Now that you understand the kinds of problems you'll be facing, it's time to brush up on the content of the test and establish a regular practice regimen

Not convinced of how important this process can be? We have articles that specifically address why you need to prepare for the SAT and how many hours you should expect to commit, as well as the bigger picture of how long the process is going to take.

Are you ready to get started? Get answers to your questions about when you should start studying, creating a study plan as a sophomore or junior, and creating a study plan as a rising senior

Not sure how to set a goal score? Read our article on deciding where to set your sights for the SAT.

If you'd like help identifying which types of questions need the most work and how you can drill them, you may wish to consider a program with PrepScholar. 

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Vero Lecocq
About the Author

Vero is a firsthand expert at standardized testing and the college application process. Though neither parent had graduated high school, and test prep was out of the question, she scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, taking each test only once. She attended Dartmouth, graduating as salutatorian of 2013. She later worked as a professional tutor. She has a great passion for the arts, especially theater.



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