SAT Critical Reading
Introduction to SAT Critical Reading
The Critical Reading section of the SAT is designed to assess two things:
your ability to read and understand college-level material and the level of
your vocabulary. Colleges want to know if you will be able to understand and
draw the right conclusions from what you read, which requires a good vocabulary
and the ability to process written material quickly.
Your SAT Critical Reading score is based on your performance on 3 timed sections:
- two 25-minute sections
- one 20-minute section
Spread across these three Critical Writing sections there will be:
- 19 sentence completion questions (5 to 8 per section) that test your
vocabulary and your ability to understand sentences
- 48 questions that test your understanding of written passages
Critical Reading Question Types
Sentence Completion Questions
In the sentence completion questions, you are presented with a sentence with
one or two words missing, and it is your task to select which of the answer
choices best fill these blanks. These questions, like SAT math questions,
are arranged in rough order of difficulty with the easiest ones first.
Reading Comprehension Questions
Reading comprehension questions test your ability to read and understand short
(100 words) and long (850 words) passages drawn from fiction, the humanities,
social studies, and science. The questions ask about the meaning of the passage,
its tone, and what inferences can be drawn from it. You will also be presented
with two passages and asked to compare them.
Note that unlike other SAT questions, the reading comprehension questions
are not arranged in order of difficulty and instead follow the general organization
of the passage. Questions about the material found at the beginning of the
passage are first, and are followed by questions about material found later
in the passage. Similarly, when comparing two passages, you will first see
questions only on Passage 1, followed by questions only on Passage 2, followed
by questions that involve both.
Critical Reading Sample Questions
Sample Sentence Completion Questions: Below are the types
of sentence completion questions you would see on the Critical Reading section.
1. He was a ________ man, well known for his _______ acts, such as large donations
to museums and art galleries.
B) generous ... antisocial
C) effusive ... reticent
D) inquisitive .. tasteless
E) munificent... philanthropic
2. Beth was a taciturn child and shied away from talking to other children.
3. Although others found Francine dull, Gerald found her conversation ______
Sample Reading Comprehension Questions
The sample reading comprehension questions below are based on the following
short passage. (On the SAT, there are short passages such as this one, but
there are also much longer passages that are typical 5 to 8 paragraphs long.)
As a circus it was a pitiable affair. Everything about it stank of
defeat and misery. There was no planned performance; now and then, when
a sufficient crowed had assembled, a pair of gloomy acrobats did some
tumbling and walked a slack wire. The Human Frog sad down on his head,
but with the air of one who took no pleasure in it. The Wild Man roared
and chewed perfunctorily on a piece of raw meat to which a little fur
still clung; the lecturer hinted darkly that we ought to keep our dogs
indoors that night, but nobody seemed afraid.
1. In line 7, “perfunctorily” means
A) without interest
D) with malicious intent
2. By commenting to the audience that they should keep their dogs indoors,
the lecturer is suggesting that:
A) the circus performers might come steal their dogs
B) the Human Frog will break into their backyards
C) acrobats might attack their dogs with wire
D) the Wild Man will come eat their dog
E) Their dogs will bark loudly while the circus is in town
3. The tone of the author in describing the circus indicates he think it is:
Study Strategies for the Critical Reading Section
1. Build your vocabulary and increase your comprehension in the long-term
by reading challenging material
There is no doubt that the best strategy to ensure success on the Critical
Reading section of the SAT is to read widely and regularly. A regular habit
of reading will increase your reading speed, your ability to understand complex
phrases and sentence structures, and also increase your vocabulary.
A very reasonable plan is to aim to do 20 to 30 minutes of non-school-related
reading a day, this modest effort can result in your breezing through over
25 books a year. You can start with light fiction, but it’s also important
to branch out and try more challenging works of literature, history, and science.
Most SAT prep books will list books which have had excerpts used as questions
on the SAT. This is an excellent resource that can get you started reading
exactly the kind of material you need to be able to handle to score well.
2. Build your vocabulary using flashcards
Although the primary purpose of the sentence completion questions is to test
vocabulary, getting a reading comprehension question right can also often
hinge on knowing the definition of a particular word, so building your vocabulary
should be an absolute priority if you want to improve your Critical Reading
As mentioned earlier, the best strategy to build vocabulary is to absorb new
words as you read them, but you can also build your vocabulary more quickly
with flashcards. Get a stack of index cards and on one side write the new
word. On the other side write a definition, list any synonyms, and make up
a sentence that uses the word. Keep these tips in mind:
1) Carry your flashcards with you wherever you go. Test yourself while you’re
waiting for the bus, walking between classes, or waiting for friends. If
you have a spare minute, pull them out and start reviewing them.
2) Make sure to take note of which words you keep forgetting the meaning
of and put them in a separate pile so you can test yourself on these more
3) Group together words of similar and opposing meanings. Placing the cards
“loquacious” and “voluble” next to each other will
help you remember their similar meaning, and if your next flashcard is “taciturn”
it will highlight its opposing meaning.
3. Be Aware of Common Reading Comprehension Question Types
The same types of questions occur over and over again as reading comprehension
questions. You should familiarize with the many different ways these questions
are asked and keep them in mind while you are reading the passage.
These include questions like:
- What is the purpose/main idea/topic/theme of the passage?
- What is the tone/mood/attitude/feeling of the passage?
- What does the word “X” mean in the context of the passage?
- What can be inferred/implied from the passage?
- What is the relationship between the two passages?
- What best describes the structure/organization of the passage or the
function of a phrase?
4. Be Aware of Common Wrong Answers
Questions that ask you about information found in the passages, (especially
those asking you to report back specific details or the main idea) often use
the same types of wrong answers to help disguise the right one. You can become
familiar with these common types of wrong answers and put yourself on guard
Common wrong answers include those that are:
- too general
- too specific
- the opposite of what was said in the passage
- an exaggeration or extreme form of what was said in the passage
5. Practice Reading Quickly
If you get distracted while reading and keep looking back to reread phrases
and sections, put a piece of paper on the page and slowly lower it over a
passage as you read it, covering up each new line once you are finished reading
it. This exercise will prevent you from referring back to the last sentence
and force you to focus your concentration on what your eyes are looking at.
This will help you understand what you are reading the first time around and
help you break a bad reading habit that can slow you down considerably.
Another great way to improve your reading speed is to try to accustom your
eyes and brain to picking up information rapidly. Draw a line down the middle
of a column of text. Scan down the page, keeping your eyes focused on the
line, but trying to pick up the meaning of words to either side of it using
your peripheral vision.