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Test PrepSATReadingReading Passages

SAT Reading Skill Review: Reading Passages

The Reading section is often cited by students as their least favorite (read: most difficult) part of the SAT. Why? The passages are long, dry and require extra focus. This can be difficult when you are already fatigued.

Most test-takers make one or both of the following mistakes when tackling the reading passages:

  1. They read a passage passively without taking notice of key points and organizational structure.
  2. They answer the questions based on what they recall from the passage.

Avoid these missteps and you’ll be well on your way to a achieving a better Reading score.

Active Reading

Maintain your concentration by adhering to this important rule: Engage with the text. In other words, interact with the passages in front of you and become an active reader. Here are some tips on how to do this:

Write on the passage. Underline information that you think may be important. Take special note of transitional or signal words such as however, therefore, since, nevertheless and above all. Make brief notes in the margins about the author’s purpose, point or attitude. Writing on the passage serves three important purposes. It helps you make more sense of what you’re reading; it helps you to remember what you’ve read; and (here’s the clincher) it helps you to stay tuned in while you’re reading!

Carry on an internal dialog. Seriously. Keep a conversation going in your head with the author of the passage while you are reading. Ask him (or her) questions like “What point are you trying to make?” or “Why did you describe the situation that way?” Make accusations like “Wow, you obviously don’t like this character very much” or “Well, I can tell you think global warming is nothing but a scam.” Get inside his head by saying “You’re trying to be sarcastic, aren’t you?” or “Oh, I see where you’re going with this example.”

These conversations may feel awkward at first, but good readers have them all the time. They help you to think like the author (which means you’ll have an easier time answering the questions), and they help you to (once again) stay tuned in to the reading.

Although interacting with the passages is important, keep in mind that you have a time limit, so don’t get too carried away. Go through the passage one time, marking it and talking to it as you go. Don’t dwell on any one aspect of the passage. Then, go to the questions.

Attack the Questions (But Don’t Forget the Passage)

Once you’ve actively read the passage, go through each question and answer the ones you know first. Then, return to the questions about which you are unsure. When you refer back to the passage, bear in mind the following tips: 

Generally, the questions follow the order of the passage. In other words, you should be able to find the answer to the first question near the beginning of the passage. The last questions, however, typically pertain to the passage as a whole.

Familiarize yourself with the common question types. It’s to your advantage that the test is predictable. You’ll see the same types of questions on both long and short passages.

  • Main Idea/Point: You’ll have to answer questions about the author’s point and how the author uses his words to make that argument. Practice figuring out a passage’s main idea, the author’s attitude or tone toward the subject matter, and what the passage implies (says indirectly or between the lines).
  • Compare/Contrast: For double passages, you’ll often need to be able to compare and contrast aspects of the two passages. 
  • Vocab in Context: For these, you will be asked to figure out the meaning of a word in context. ALWAYS go back to the passage and read not just the sentence but also those immediately before and after it, looking for context clues—words in the sentence that give away the meaning of the target word—before answering the question.
  • Literary Terminology:  Occasionally, some questions will refer to literary terms. Reviewing these can be helpful (see the study sheet).


Try reading the passage below and answering the questions that follow it. Although it is shorter than an actual SAT passage, the following excerpt will provide good practice: 

Reading Example

  1. The author of this passage refers to the increase in Asian gypsy moths as a “Russian invasion” in order to

    (A)  make a political statement.
    (B)  stress the severity of the problem.
    (C)  warn readers about underhanded activities of the Russian government.
    (D)  make light of a serious situation.
    (E)  demonstrate his distaste for all moths.

  2. Based on its use in the passage, the word voracious (line 5) most likely means

    (A)  speedy
    (B)  able to go days without eating
    (C)  picky
    (D)  consuming large amounts of food
    (E)  meat-eating

  3. Which group of words from the passage best reflects the writer’s tone?

    (A)  mounting, barring, sprayed
    (B)  egg masses, mating, egg-laying
    (C)  invaders, foliage-chomping, voracious
    (D)  Canadian, Russian, Asian, North American
    (E)  larger, common, feeder 


  1. The correct answer is B. By comparing the moth problem to a well-known historical situation, the author emphasizes the severity of the increase in the Asian gypsy moth population. Let’s take a look at the other choices. Choice A might trick some test-takers because the comparison is political in nature. However, the rest of the passage doesn’t deal with political matters at all. Choice C is incorrect for the same reason. Given the information the author provides in the passage, we can be certain that he isn’t making light of the situation (D), and he never even mentions other types of moths (E).
  2. The correct answer is D. The Asian gypsy moth is a threat because it eats so much. The word larger is a good context clue because it suggests that these moths eat more than do common North American moths.
  3. The correct answer is C. We’re looking for subjective words here--words that the author chooses to express his attitude. Because the writer uses words like invaders, foliage-chomping, and voracious, we can tell that he is clearly concerned about this problem. Choices B, D and E offer purely objective words. The words mounting and barring in choice A seem tempting, but sprayed doesn’t fit the bill.

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