There are 3 types of SAT reading passages that you, as the test taker, need to be familiar with. The 3 types of passages mainly differ in length, but also somewhat in content. Therefore, the strategies for tackling them need to be different.
Below, we'll go over the different types of reading passages on the SAT and what you can expect from the questions that follow them.
Types of Passages:
Short passages are generally 100-200 words, 5 or 6 questions per passage. You might have multiple short passages in a section but, because they have less space to express ideas, they are usually informational pieces, rather than fiction.
Here's an example of a short passage:
These short reading passages tend to follow the sentence completions. Short passages are generally more straightforward and convey simpler ideas. Therefore, you should be able to go through them faster, and with greater accuracy than the long or paired passages.
Long passages are 400-800 words, with anywhere between 7-10 questions per passage. The types of questions likely to be covered in a long passage are mentioned in another section below.
Because of its length, you may find yourself forgetting what you read by the time you get to the questions. Therefore, make things easier for yourself! Mark important sections or words as you're reading the passage so that you can easily find it again later as you are going through the questions, just like in the example above.
Paired passages are 250-600 words each. They generally share the same topic or theme but approach it from a different perspective. Paired passages are either both long or both short but, don't worry, they are no more difficult than the standard long or short passages.
Here's an example of a passage pairing that's particularly short:
With paired passages, remember to read any introductory material describing or giving information about two passages. This will usually be found in italics at the beginning and contain valuable information that can start helping you compare and contrast the two viewpoints.
It might also be good to keep in mind the kind of sources that the 3 types of reading passages are drawn from. We'll cover these in more detail in another article, but for now, here's a very brief overview, below.
Reading passages usually concern these subjects:
- Natural Sciences
- Humanities [Arts Commentary, History]
- Social Sciences [Science and culture]
- Literary Fiction [Literature]
- Personal Narrative
We cover all these types in more detail in another article, Master SAT Reading: 5 Types of Passages.
Question Types Across Passage Types:
There are a total of 48 critical reading questions that are passage based, distributed across the 3 types of passages above. All passages share certain types of questions in common, while each passage type also has unique question types.
First, we'll cover the types of questions that are common to all passage types.
Questions In Common Across All Passages
Vocabulary in context questions
Vocab in Context questions generally number between 12-16 questions in total. Typically, they ask about a word in the passage. These questions are straight forward and quick. They're also easy to practice for - don't waste this opportunity to accumulate points! Always refer back to the passage first (get an idea of what word means in your terms then look at answer choice and pick one that matches).
Specific questions will often contain a line or paragraph reference, a piece of information that isn't identified by line number. You will need to look for one identifiable piece of information within the passage, not the passage as a whole. If you find the answer, then approach it like you would the vocab questions - think of the answer in your own words, and only then look back at the question. Specific questions can be literal comprehension, extended reasoning, or main idea questions.
Literal comprehension questions want you to find a specific piece of information.
Extended reasoning questions ask you to enter, make connections or draw conclusions about specific information in the passage. They never stray far from the text! You can draw conclusions but keep in mind that they're still specific questions! All answers should be drawn from the passage. Sometimes you may have to identify cause and effect, make inferences, or understand the logic of analogies or arguments.
Main Idea Questions
Main idea questions generally ask about passage as a whole (about author's tone, about attitude/development of a character). To answer these, you must have reasonable grasp of the entire passage. These can take a long time, so save them for last if you have trouble with time management.
Question Types that are Unique to Each Passage Type
Next, we'll discuss question types that appear more often in each passage type, or are unique to the passage type.
Short Passage Questions
Short passage questions tend to focus around reading comprehension questions. They're likely to be specific questions, or information based, with some general questions about the main idea or tone.
Long Passage Questions
Long passages are the bread and butter of the reading passage and usually involve main idea questions in some form. You should definitely expect plot summary questions, questions about the author’s views, and questions about individual characters (if the subject is fiction).
Paired Passage Questions
For paired passages, the first group of questions will refer to the first passage and the second group of questions will refer to the second passage. The last group of questions will almost always refer to how the passages relate to each other - this question type is unique to paired passages.
Paired Passages Generally Have the Following Format for their Questions:
- A few questions on passage 1
- A few questions on passage 2
- Some questions that ask you to compare and contrast the two passages
- Some questions that ask you to consider what one author thinks about the other author's point of view
Confused About How to Sort This Out?
Don't worry! We've got you covered! Below are some questions that should help you assess how you are doing on the critical reading - what you're good at, what you're having trouble with, where you can improve, etc. Answer them on a separate piece of paper and go over them with another practice test in hand. If you have a tutor, bring your answers to them, so they can have a clear idea of where you need help most! We've also got some links to articles that focus on strategies to ace the SAT Critical Reading section. Check out the section What's Next? at the bottom of this article.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
What Passage Types Are You Bad At?
- For each type of passage, categorize the number of questions you get right, wrong, and omit
- Figure out your % performance for each type of passages
- If one of these is worse than others (say 10% lower than others), focus on that type of passage
- Categorize the types of questions across the test, then figure out your % for each type of question
- Focus on your weaker questions/passages when studying for your test
How Do You Figure Out Which Question Types You're Bad At?
Just like you analyzed your results based on the type of passage they belonged to, now you need to look at the different question types, the ones we went over earlier, under Types of Questions You Might Encounter
- Categorize the questions by type, in whatever practice test you're taking, based on the guidelines above.
- For each type of question, categorize the number you get right, wrong or omit entirely
- Figure out your percent performance for any particular question type [regardless of whether it comes from different passages - though if you notice that any one passage resulted in lower numbers, then definitely take note of that!)
- If any one of those question types is worse, then its possible that your test taking strategy or understanding of some fundamental concept needs to be reworked.
- If you can, note how long you spent with each question and compare it to whether you got it correct. If there's a correlation between shorter times and wrong answers, it may be that you're not pacing yourself well and, therefore, not leaving yourself enough time for the tougher questions.
BONUS: What Weaknesses Should You Be Aware Of? A.K.A. What Should You Bring Up With Your SAT Tutor?
If you're looking to improve your score, chances are you are in a prep program or with a tutor or powering through on your own. If you're on your own, then that's fine - just answer the questions below and consider how you can improve. We can go over some specific strategies with you in another, more detailed article. If you are enrolled in a program or have a private tutor, then it might be a good idea to bring up these questions and your answers to them. It will help them form a more effective strategy to help you succeed in the SAT Critical Reading.
- Do you read the whole passage before tackling the questions? Does it seem like you’re always running out of time with the questions after a longer passage?
- Do you get overwhelmed by too much detail or information in dense passages?
- Do you get caught up in one of the paired passages, neglecting the other one? Do you hold the opinion of one author above the other, causing you to be biased in your answers?
- Do you run out of time reading the passages, not leaving enough time to complete the questions?
- Do you focus on the lines you need to read for the answer or do you get distracted by the surrounding information?
- Do you avoid picking answers just because you found them confusing?
- Do you interpret the questions too much, rather than relying on what is there in the passage?
The SAT Critical Reading may be challenging, but there's no reason why, with some practice, you shouldn't be able to master it and succeed.
For more information on SAT Critical Reading, check out:
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Anna graduated from MIT where she honed her research interests in Earth Science and Social/Political Science. She has years of tutoring experience, loves watching students learn and grow, and strongly believes that education is the cornerstone of our society. She is passionate about science, books, and non-profit work.