SAT Critical Reading – The Reading Passages

boy reading

The reading passages can be the most challenging part of the SAT Test for many students. The subjects can be, well, a little dry. The longer passages can be difficult to get through and may use challenging language. The questions are often tricky.


But don’t be scared! With a few basic techniques, and a keen eye, the reading passages can be defeated. Read on to discover how you should tackle a reading passage.

The Critical Reading Passages and Questions

Some of the Critical Reading Passages will be short, others will be long. You will have at least one reading passage which is actually two different reading selections, by two different authors, both written about a related topic. These two passages could have contrasting points of view or fairly similar points of view. It will be your job to spot the similarities and differences between them. This can be the most challenging section of the SAT.

Tone is the author’s attitude. Mood is the feeling the reader gets from the piece.

The reading passages will be mostly non-fiction, often snippets of biographies, character studies, and segments of science or social studies texts. You will also have at least one fiction piece.

Critical Reading questions vary from vocabulary “in context” questions to overall “theme” questions. The test will also ask you about tone and mood, or ask you to make assumptions. You will need to use the information in the text to answer all these questions. As with other SAT sections, if the question is going to take an exorbitant amount of time, skip it. You can always try to answer it at the end of the section, if you have time.

The Plan of Attack – SAT Critical Reading

If you are seeking success on the SAT reading passages, follow these steps:

1. Read the questions first.

Especially on the long reading passages, read the questions first. It will focus you on WHAT YOU NEED TO BE LOOKING FOR when you read the passage. It may seem time consuming, but this step helps improve the performance of just about everyone who tries it. You’ll find that it helps tremendously.

2. Scan the passage.

Scan means “read quickly, while skimming over details.” Don’t zone out. Read the passage with interest. Really try to understand the MESSAGEthe author is trying to convey. But do not get bogged down in details. Let your eyes slide over the details for now.

3. Stop and answer questions.

Watch out for the words “Except” and “Least” and “Not” in the Critical Reading Questions. Put a star by them so you don’t forget.

Since you already read the questions, you know what answers you need to find. If you do come across an answer to one of the questions, stop and fill in the answer. Then, go back to your reading. Don’t worry about answering every question in order. The SAT doesn’t work like that.

4. Name that theme.

This is especially helpful in non-fiction reading pieces, but can also be used in fiction. Just think about what the author is trying to say and then jot it down. For example, if you are reading an article that is discussing arguments in favor of immigration reform, state in a few words just what the article is trying to convey. For example, “amnesty will aid immigrants AND America.” These few words will help you to keep a clear head when it comes time to answer the questions.

If you are reading the passage which contains two selections, make sure you spot the theme for each of the passages.

5. Now, tackle the questions.

You should already have a few answered. You just need to finish the remaining questions. If the question gives you a line number, go to that line. You may need to search backward a few sentences or forward a few sentences to find your answer. But the answer is there.


Let’s try a fiction passage:

           I got married young, not eighteenth-century young, but definitely
Twenty-First Century Young. I was twenty-two. My friends couldn’t quite
understand, not that they didn’t like my husband-to-be. He was quiet,
friendly, and loved me deeply. What they couldn’t understand was, why I
5      wanted to do it now.
“We have so many more years to be young and wild. Why do you want to
throw it all away now?” Deidre asked with a pronounced frown on her
“I’m not exactly checking into the nursing home. I’ll still go out
10     with you guys. I can still be fun.” I felt torn. I loved my friends and

the connection between us had sustained me through the darkest days of
college, but Ben was my rock. He just looked at me and I knew I was
loved. I wanted to be by his side forever.
Connie shook her head. “It won’t ever be the same, but that’s okay.
15     We support you. Ben is a good guy. If he makes you happy, then you
should marry him.”

“Just don’t marry him now! Wait a few years,” Deidre interjected.
“You know, women change a lot in their twenties. They say that women
should not marry until they’re at least twenty-five, men, twenty-eight.
20     You’re just not settled until then. Pam, you‘re not even out of college
yet!” The heat of the sun had caused her makeup to melt slightly, making
the always immaculate Deidre look slightly haggard.
“I’ll be graduating in eight weeks,” I said defensively. “You’re not
anywhere close to being finished, so don’t get on me about it.”
25         “We’re not talking about me!” Deidre exclaimed.

“Okay, okay, settle down.” Connie refilled our glasses with iced
tea. Chunks of ice clinked against the sweating glasses in the heat of
the midday sun. “Pam, just promise you won’t become one of those women
who fuss over their husbands every night and neglect their friends,
30     okay?”
“Like I’d do that,” I protested huffily.
“Promise!” Connie said, her dark eyes piercing me. “You still owe us
phone calls and nights out with the girls and lunches on the weekends,
all that stuff.”
35         “I promise,” I said, rolling my eyes, then softened. “Of course I

“Alright,” Connie said, pleased with herself, “and you,” she rolled
onto Deidre, “this is what Pam wants. She has found a man she wants to
marry. We should be happy for her. This is what we all want someday,
40     right?”
Deidre just shrugged.
That was twelve years ago. It was three babies ago. It was a
too-big mortgage ago, a massive blow-up with my parents ago, a job
layoff that nearly landed us in the poor house ago, a completely
45     different life ago.

1. In line 35, “then, softened,” most nearly means that

  1. Pam’s eyes teared up
  2. Pam showed a reduction in anger
  3. Pam’s eyes became red
  4. Pam lit up with happiness
  5. Pam’s eyes settled on a soft object

Let’s take each choice, one by one.

  1. No. There’ no evidence that anyone was crying.
  2. YES! Pam was just rolling her eyes, so if she is “softening,” then her anger is dissipating.
  3. No. There’s no mention of red eyes here.
  4. No. Nobody is feeling very happy in this reading passage.
  5. No. This is the “trick” answer choice. The SAT will often throw in a similar word to try to throw you off.

2. According to the text, Deidre serves primarily to

  1. provide support for Pam and her choice to marry Ben
  2. give life to an otherwise boring character
  3. act as a positive force in Pam’s future
  4. make Connie see the error of her ways
  5. disagree with Pam about her decision to marry
  1. No. Deidre does not support Pam and her choice to marry Ben.
  2. No. This answer doesn’t make any sense.
  3. No. There’s no evidence that Deidre will be a positive force in Pam’s future.
  4. No. Connie is not the subject of the controversy.
  5. YES! Deidre does disagree with Pam about her decision to marry. See if you can find the evidence.

3. Which best describes the relationship between Pam and Connie?

  1. Connie is supportive of Pam’s decision to marry Ben.
  2. Pam and Connie have been friends all their lives.
  3. Pam appreciates Connie’s point of view, but doesn’t agree with Connie’s decision to marry Ben.
  4. Connie supports Pam, but Pam does not support Connie.
  5. Pam and Connie do not get along.
  1. YES! Connie is supportive of Pam’s decision. See if you can find the evidence.
  2. No. There is no evidence that they have been friends all their lives. We only know they were friends “twelve years ago.”
  3. No. Connie is not the one who’s going to marry Ben.
  4. No. There is no evidence that Pam does not support Connie.
  5. No. Pam and Connie are friends.

Now, try a non-fiction selection by yourself.

           Probably the most significant case in the resume of Thurgood
Marshall involved segregated public schools. The famous 1896 case of
Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized the policy of “separate but equal,”
became a hotly debated topic in the mid-twentieth century. Plessy v.
5      Ferguson
stated that public schools could remain both segregated by
race, but also equal in their ability to educate students. This made
segregated schools legal throughout the south and many places across

However, by the 1950’s, it was clear that while public schools were
10     separate, they certainly were not equal. In many American cities,
white schools enjoyed better funding, staffing, supplies, and more
desirable locations than black schools. The majority of white students
were being provided with a better opportunity to learn than black
students. The NAACP was able to bring this argument to the forefront
15     of America, with a young, brilliant Thurgood Marshall as their Chief
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court finally heard arguments
about the issue in the now famous Brown v. the Board of Education of
. Thurgood Marshall argued that “separate but equal” was not
20     possible, saying “equal means getting the same thing, at the same time
and in the same place.” With eloquence and irrepressible zeal, Marshall
argued for the rights of millions of black schoolchildren to receive the
same education as their white peers.

The Court unanimously reversed its previous decision of
25     Plessy v. Ferguson, declaring that segregation was unconstitutional

and the “separate but equal” clause was contradictory. This decision
became a major milestone in Thurgood Marshall’s legal battle for
equality and helped to breathe life into the still unfolding Civil
Rights Movement.

1. The argument against segregated schools could be supported by all of the following EXCEPT

  1. Black schools received less funding than white schools.
  2. White schools were often situated in more pleasant locations than black schools.
  3. White schools were often provided with more staff than black schools.
  4. White and black schools could educate students separately, and still provide equal educations.
  5. Public schools cannot be both separate and equal.

2. Which of the following, if true, would prove the author’s statement that Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka decision “helped to breathe life into the still unfolding Civil Rights Movement?”

  1. In 1918, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.
  2. The summer of 1967 was known as “The Summer of Love.”
  3. In 1960, four black men sat at the “white only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
  4. In 1958, Little Rock, Arkansas opted to close its public schools, rather than integrate.
  5. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909.

3. The passage is primarily concerned with

  1. presenting the life of Thurgood Marshall.
  2. explaining a landmark court case and Thurgood Marshall’s role in it.
  3. demonstrating the contrast between the U.S. Supreme Court of 1896 and that of 1954.
  4. providing a list of important Supreme Court decisions.
  5. arguing why the Supreme Court was wrong in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision.


1.-d. Only option d. provides an argument “for” separate education, all others are against. Another way of looking at this is that four of the answers support the same position and one answer choice is completely different. The different answer will be correct.

2.-c. Only option c. provides a milestone in the advancement of Civil Rights which happened AFTER 1954, the year of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. Option d. is a reaction by segregationists. Option e. happened before 1954 and cannot receive any influence from the landmark court case. The other two answers are off-topic.

3.-b. Answer b. is the “best answer,” because it correctly identifies the identity of this passage. It isn’t all about Thurgood Marshall, (answer a.), it isn’t a comparison between sitting courts, (c.), it does not supply a list, (d.), and it is not primarily an argument to convince, (e).


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