Everything you need to know about the SAT Reading Section

What’s Covered in the Reading Section?

The SAT contains 4 sections, the first of which will always be reading. The SAT reading section is the longest part of the test, coming in at 65 minutes and 52 The SAT contains 4 sections, the first of which will always be reading. This section will test your critical thinking and reading skills. The SAT reading section is the longest part of the test, coming in at 65 minutes and 52 questions. There are 5 sets of passages, all in English, and they include one set of paired passages with 10-11 questions each. Passage topics covered generally include fiction, social science, history, and science, and while the exact order of the passages vary, you can always expect a fiction passage to come first. The given passages are written for a high school reading level. Students who don’t enjoy reading books in their free time or have trouble with reading comprehension in school may get nervous at the prospect of answering so many questions in such a short amount of time and will request online SAT Tutoring. Familiarizing yourself with the structure of the section and practicing reading strategies, however, can help you improve your score.


Fiction passages will always be the first SAT reading passage you see, and you’ll only see one of these passages per reading section. Usually, the fiction passage is an excerpt from a longer story. You may find the fiction passage to be relatively easier than other passages because passages tend to have been written somewhat recently and the language is relatively simple. With these passages, make sure to keep track of the characters in the story, and the main events in the plot.


History passages are usually 18th to 20th century primary source documents, which provide first-hand testimony to an event or commentary on an idea. This type of passage can be excerpts from a speech, a political essay, or a published editorial. These passages can be difficult to understand because of the writing may be hundreds of years old and include outdated vocab. Expect to see passages titled “Vindication on the Rights of Women” or “Essay on Slavery and Abolition”.  With these passages, it’s particularly important that you read the blurb prior to the passage so you know who is speaking and figure out what the viewpoint of the passage will be. The speaker will often be a prominent person from history, such as a civil rights activist or politician, meaning you may already know how they feel about the topic being discussed. History passages are commonly used in paired passages.


Science passages cover topics including chemistry, biology, or physics. Oftentimes students find these types of passages difficult because of the dense scientific jargon. However, what’s nice about science passages is they usually follow a pretty similar format across tests. When answering these passages, try to keep track of what question the scientists are asking, what they hypothesize, what method they follow to test their question, and what conclusion they make. Science passages are also a common choice for paired passages.

Social Science

Social science passages cover topics including politics, economics, and anything similar. While these types of passages may sound similar to the content covered in history passages, what’s different about social science passages is that they generally cover social studies topics or an experiment just like science passages do. For these passages, try to see if you can find a structure of a question, hypothesis, method, and conclusion, just like you would with a science passage.

Paired Passages

Paired passages are a set of two related passages. A set of paired passages will only show up once on the test. These passages are first followed by questions asking about each passage, and then questions asking you to compare the ideas discussed in the two passages. The exact topic of paired passages varies, but you can expect to see either a set of science or history passages. For paired passages, a good tip is to read the first passage and answer the corresponding questions, then the second passage and its corresponding questions. Finally, answer the questions that involve both passages. Doing the passages and questions in this order, as opposed to reading the two passages together and doing all the questions, prevents you from getting overwhelmed by text and makes it easier to remember what each passage is discussing.

What Types of Questions Can I Expect?

Once you start to take a lot of SAT practice tests and reading sections, you’ll realize that the College Board includes the same types of questions—in essence, only the specific passages will really differ. It’s important to be familiar with these types of questions so you can prepare effectively. For example, if you are consistently getting main idea questions wrong, you can target that area for practice and learn specific test-taking strategies to improve on those questions.

Main Idea

Main Idea questions are often one of the first questions that show up after a passage ends. These questions ask for the purpose of the passage or a specific paragraph, or they ask for how the focus of a passage shifts. Main idea questions require you to understand a general idea of what happened in the entire passage, as well as the point the author is trying to convey.

Sample Question

Vocabulary in Context

Vocabulary in context questions ask you to define a word from the passage. The keyword here is “context.” The SAT loves to pick words that have many definitions, so make sure to take into account how the word is used in the passage. This means you’ll have to go back to the text for context in order to find the correct answer.

Sample Question


Evidence-based Questions are perhaps the most well-known (and most disliked) question type on the SAT reading test. These questions come in a set of two: one detail question, and one question asking you to pick a set of line numbers that provide evidence to the previous question. The best way to handle these questions is to do them in reverse order (find a line number that answers the first detail question, then answer the detail question).

Same Question


Graph questions are the least frequent question on the test. Usually, one or two Graph questions are the least frequent question on the test. Usually, one or two passages in the section will include a graph. Passages that feature a graph typically include one to two questions that test your understanding of the graph. For students who don’t like reading, you’re in luck, because oftentimes these questions don’t require you to have a good understanding of what happened in the passage. For these types of questions, you want to make sure to read the title and axis on the chart and identify what main trend the graph is trying to convey. Make sure whichever answer choice you pick is consistent with the information in the graph.


Detail questions include just about every other question type covered in the section. These questions can cover anything else in the passage, and will usually ask you to recall specific events from the passage. More often than not, these questions will include a line number, so make sure to go back into the text to find/underline supporting evidence rather than relying on your own memory.

Sample Question

How Can I Improve My SAT Reading Score?

The best way to improve your score is to use these SAT reading tips and strategies as you prepare for the test:

#1: Practice Timed Passages At Home 

While you may have 65 minutes to complete the reading section, many students find themselves running out of time on this section similar to the ACT Reading Section. In order to prepare for test day, doing reading sections in SAT practice tests under the time limit at home can help you get accustomed to the amount of time you’ll have on test day. Even though there are 65 minutes for the entire section, with 5 sets of passages, that breaks down to about 13 minutes per passage set. Even if you are a fast reader, that’s not a lot of time! Challenge yourself to spend no more than 13 minutes reading a passage and then answering the associated questions. Do as much reading practice questions as you can to get the timing down and have enough time to answer all the questions!

#2: Don’t Make Any Inferences (Unless Asked)

One of the biggest mistakes students can make on the test is to bring in outside knowledge to the reading section or start using information that isn’t part of the passage as evidence. The inference questions may seem challenging, but the correct answer will always be entirely supported with evidence from the passage. Never use your own opinion or background knowledge as a reason to pick an answer choice. The SAT isn’t asking for your opinions, and your background knowledge may be incorrect. Occasionally a question will explicitly ask you to make an inference, or what the author is implying. In these cases, any answer choice you pick should still be supported by textual evidence.

#3: Do evidence-based reading questions in reverse order

Students often find these questions challenging because they think if they pick a wrong answer to the first question, it automatically causes them to get the second question wrong. It doesn’t need to be that way! The best way to tackle these questions is to do the second question first. That’s right, go out of order! Read the detailed question first, and then read through all the line numbers in the second question. After you’ve found a line number that answers the first detail question, go back to the first question and match whichever answer choice best corresponds with the line number you picked. Working out of order in this way ensures that you don’t misremember a detail from the passage.

#4: Do main idea questions last

If you had trouble understanding a passage, main idea questions are best saved for last. This means you should skip the main idea question until you answer all the detailed questions. Answering the detailed questions first will help you get a better grasp of what happened in the passage and make you more prepared to choose the right answer to the main idea question.

#5: Use the whole sentence for a vocabulary in context question

The test makers will always include a line number in vocabulary in context questions, so before taking a look at the answer choices, go back to the line number and re-read the sentence that includes the vocabulary word. Challenge yourself to come up with a synonym for the word as it’s used. Then, go back to the answer choices and see which choice best matches your synonym. Answering the question this way helps prevent you from getting confused about the true definition of the word and stuck between the answer choices. 

#6: Read the blurb before the passage

Before every passage in the reading section, there will be a small blurb with information for the reader. These blurbs may explain the main characters in a story, or give you context for who wrote a passage and when. For example, if I know a passage is an excerpt from a speech given by an American president, I can safely assume the passage will talk about America, and likely be pro-America, even if I can’t figure out anything else. This information is helpful in figuring out what a passage is about and its purpose.

#7: Look out for misleading answer choices

If you see an answer choice with words like “always,” “never,” or “must,” more often than not that answer choice will be wrong. While a character may act a certain way in a passage, to say that they always act like that would be misleading because we simply don’t have that information. We’re limited to the information presented in a passage, and we can’t make a comment on anything outside the passage.

#8: Pay attention to keywords

Keep an eye out for keywords in the passage that may help you figure out the main idea. Phrases along the lines of “I believe” and “I hypothesize” can tell you what the narrator is thinking. Other phrases like “evidence shows,” “research suggests,” or “we demonstrated” can tell you the conclusion of an experiment. You should also watch out for transition words. Transition words like “however” can point you to a narrator’s contrasting ideas, whereas words and phrases like “therefore” or “for example” can help you figure out the path of a narrator’s thoughts.

#9: Skim the passage

Many questions on the SAT can be answered without fully reading the passage, or understanding it. About half of the questions on the section have line numbers that you can refer to. This means if you’re running out of time at the end of a section, instead of reading the passage in its entirety, skim to get a general idea and save yourself some time.

#10: Don’t let yourself get stuck

The reading section is the longest section of the SAT. You inevitably will have to deal with a passage you don’t understand or answer a question you have difficulty with. With such little time to waste, and so much content to get through, if you find yourself spending too much time on a question or confused about part of your passage it’s in your best interest to skip it and keep moving. All questions have the same value, and skipping one question won’t hurt your score as much as having less time to answer questions you have a better chance of getting right.

#11: Find the best annotating strategy for you

Figuring out the best annotating strategy can be helpful in both managing your time and understanding the passage. Annotating while you read means marking up the passage and writing notes in the margins. This can be useful for improving overall reading comprehension, since you are more actively engaged in the passage. Annotating can also work as signposts for when you refer back to the passage when you answer a question. You can use different annotating strategies for different types of passages: for example, for fiction passages a great way to annotate is to underline/circle character names, the setting, and major plot points. Try out different strategies and see what works for you, as everyone’s reading skills differ.

Learn More About the SAT Reading Section With Help From SoFlo

SoFlo SAT Tutors have experienced test takers who are here to help you succeed. Our test prep services offer one-on-one tutoring, where your SoFlo tutor can help you identify and improve your individual weaknesses, not only on the reading section, but on the entire test. SoFlo tutors can help you reach your goals, whether it be to reach a scholarship cutoff or to get that perfect score.

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