SAT® Reading: Top 5 Concepts to Prepare For

SAT® Reading: Top 5 Concepts to Prepare For

If you’re taking the SAT, you may be wondering what concepts you should be prepared to tackle on test day. Knowing what to expect can help get you into the right frame of mind and decrease your anxiety.

What follows is an overview of the reading section. It contains 52 questions across five passages:

  • One literature
  • One history
  • One social science
  • Two science

Either the history or one of the science passages is paired, meaning there are two passages related to the same topic in some way—usually contrasting viewpoints, similar viewpoints, or the second passage expanding on the first. On a typical test, two to four questions will ask about both passages.

The social science passage usually has a graph; one of the two science passages often has a graph as well. You can expect two to three questions about the graph.

Each passage contains an introductory blurb—read it to get important information concerning the time period or the context of the passage (e.g., information about a particular law discussed in the passage).

Here are the top five concepts you should be prepared to encounter in the SAT reading section:

  1. Reading comprehension/inference: These questions are similar but not exactly the same.  Comprehension questions require you to restate what the passage says about a topic, but the passage contains the information directly.  You just have to recognize the information when it has been restated.

Inference questions can be a bit more difficult. They require you to draw a conclusion about the correct answer based on the information given in the passage. In other words, answers to inference questions are not directly stated—they test your ability to “put 2 and 2 together.”

  1. Main idea/central idea: These questions ask you to determine the overall main point of a passage, paragraph, or sometimes multiple paragraphs. The key to answering this type of question is to remember that the main idea is the topic that is discussed most often.


  1. Relationships: These questions require you to understand the relationship between ideas discussed in the passage. The two most common types of relationship questions are cause and effect and compare and contrast.
  • For cause and effect, the question stem will identify either the cause or the effect.

Cause example: It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that when [something happens]…

Effect example: The author implies that [some items] were particularly suitable for the study described in the passage because they…

Your job is to match the correct effect/cause to the cause/effect in the question stem.

  • In compare and contrast questions, the question stem will tell you the topic and whether you should compare or contrast.

Example: A significant difference between the two arguments against [something] discussed in the third paragraph (lines 36–53) is that the first argument…

You must determine the difference between the two arguments, which means you will contrast them. You would compare the arguments by determining how they were alike.

  1. Graphs:  Expect to encounter graph questions in social science and science passages.  Some graph questions are fairly straightforward, requiring you to read the graph and correctly identify the information asked for in the question. It is critical to read the title, labels, legends, and any notes to make sure you understand what information the graph provides.

Two types of graph questions tend to be trickier than others because they ask you to apply ideas in the passage and/or the graph to find the correct answer. They’re referred to as graphic/text questions.

  • Support (or refute) a statement: These questions ask you to determine which statement is supported or refuted by the graph. Sometimes the statements are from the passage, but not always.

Support statement example: The figure supports which of the following statements about [something]?

When answering this type of question, compare each possible answer choice to the graph to determine if the figure supports it.

  • Not: These questions require you to determine which statement is shown by the graph but NOT in the passage. Students who miss these questions typically misread the NOT, instead choosing the answer that is found in both the graph AND the passage.

NOT example: According to the passage and the table, which statement is reflected in the graph but NOT in the passage?

To answer correctly,

  1. Read each answer choice and eliminate those you find in the passage.
  2. If you do NOT find the statement in the passage, check to be sure that it is reflected in the graph before selecting it.

The most effective way to prepare for the SAT reading section is to complete plenty of practice questions of each passage type, ensuring that whatever you use to study has a detailed rationale for answers, so you understand why each answer choice is right or wrong. Practice will eliminate surprises on test day and help you achieve a high score.