SSAT Reading: Your Introductory Guide

Reading for standardized tests is very different than plain old reading most students are used to doing in school.

This is especially true when it comes to the SSAT, a standardized test used in secondary school admissions.

The SSAT reading section asks students to read a variety of short fiction and non-fiction excerpts and answer comprehension questions in a limited time frame.

Students have 40 minutes to work through 40 multiple choice questions and 7 passages.

It’s a higher pressure type of reading, but one that can be improved with practice!

Here is what we cover in this post:


SSAT Reading: The Basics 

According to the SSAT.org, the Upper-Level SSAT Reading section is designed to “measure your ability to understand what you read.”

Here’s a recap of what we know about the SSAT Reading section so far, as discussed in previous posts:

  • Format: 40 minutes, 40 multiple choice questions
  • Content: 7 passages of about 250-350 words each
  • Genres: Literary fiction, humanities (including poetry), science, philosophy, and/or social studies

Reading is the second section you will tackle on the SSAT, after the first Math section.

There is no format difference between the Reading sections on the Upper and Middle-Level SSAT, other than that the Upper-Level passages will be slightly more advanced. 

The SSAT does not provide the sources of the passages.

Here’s a sample reading passage:

SSAT Reading
Source: SSAT Upper-Level Sample Questions

Questions on the SSAT Reading comprehension section can be considered “specific” or “general.” Some students find it helpful to label questions along these lines, sometimes by writing an “S” or “G” next to them.

Specific questions ask about a certain line or two of the passage, such as the meaning of a word or a specific detail.

General questions ask about the passage as a whole, such as the author’s purpose or point of view or the main idea of the passage.  


SSAT Reading Question Types

Let’s look at the SSAT’s list of Reading question types within these Specific and General categories, as specified on SSAT.org.

Question Type 1: Recognize the main idea

These questions test a student’s ability to identify the main ideas of individual paragraphs or passages as a whole.

Sample question: Which of the following most accurately states the main idea of the passage?

To answer these questions successfully, think of the passage as a whole. Rule out any answer choices that focus on specific details rather than broad, overarching ideas. 

We strongly recommend that students annotate passages for main ideas when first engaging with the text. This anticipates main idea questions down the road and improves reading comprehension.

Question Type 2: Locate details

Detail questions test students’ literal comprehension of specific details in the text. 

Sample question: According to the passage, why did Annie stop writing postcards? 

It’s wise to go back and search in the passage to answer these detail questions. 

Look for keywords in the question (in the above example, the keyword is likely “postcards”), and try and find these in the passage. Treat it like a scavenger hunt, and always back up your answers with evidence from the text.

Question Type 3: Make inferences 

An inference is a logical conclusion based on evidence and reasoning.

Sample question: It can be inferred from the passage that…

With inferences, the idea is not directly stated in the text, but there is some clue in the text that leads to a logical conclusion of some kind. 

Make sure you do not make too much of a logical leap in your interpretation! SSAT inferences rarely take too many steps away from the passage.

For example, a text may state that “Bailey enjoys traveling.” We can infer from this statement that Bailey finds pleasure in this activity, but we cannot infer that she enjoys traveling in Europe.

Question Type 4: Derive the meaning of a word or phrase from its context

Words-in-context questions can give students lots of quick, easy points on test day. These questions test the meaning of a word in a specific context.

Sample question: In the context of the passage, the word “store” most nearly means…

Keep in mind that these are words in context questions – even if you don’t know the word, you should be able to answer this question by looking for clues about how it is used in the text.

Even if you are 100% sure you know the meaning of the word, you must check the passage to verify that it is not being used in a non-traditional way! 

Question Type 5: Determine the author’s purpose

In general, authors often have specific purposes for writing a passage, using a word, or referencing a certain detail. These questions test a student’s ability to recognize this intent in a variety of ways.

Sample question 1: What is the author’s purpose for writing this passage?

Answer choices for these questions often include phrases “to describe,” “to identify,” or “to explain,” etc.

With Author’s Purpose questions, it is helpful to think about the passage genre and source. If the passage is a scientific research study, it is probably seeking “to explain.” If it’s a newspaper editorial, “to persuade” could be a good choice.

Sometimes these questions are about the author’s purpose in terms of specific rhetorical choices, as in this example.

Sample question 2: The author most likely repeats the phrase “I have longed to move away” in the first stanza in order to…

To answer a question like this, it’s vital to look at the context. Identify what the main idea is of the surrounding context–chances are, the right answer will have something to do with this!

Eliminate any answers that distort details, make grand claims, or reference ideas found elsewhere in the passage.

Question Type 6: Determine the author’s attitude and tone

These questions are very similar to Author’s Purpose questions. In fact, an author’s “purpose” and “tone” are often linked in a passage. 

Sample question 1: The author of this passage would most likely agree that…

Sample question 2: The tone of the second paragraph could best be described as…

When answering these questions, look for the author’s specific choice of adjectives and verbs to help determine tone.

For example, if the author uses words like “thrill” and “unexpected,” this might lead you to identify a tone of “suspense” or “urgency.”

Keep author’s purpose in mind when answering these questions, too. If the author’s purpose is to “explain” something, for example, the tone is likely to be “informative,” “interested,” or “professional.”

Question Type 7: Understand and evaluate opinions/arguments

These questions test a student’s literal comprehension of an author’s opinions.

Sample question: The author uses all of the following claims to prove his point that the pros of vaccines outweigh the cons EXCEPT…?

For this type of question, strike off all the answer choices that you find in the passage until you have one remaining option.  

Question Type 8: Make predictions based on information in the passage

Prediction questions are very similar to inference questions, yet these tend to extend beyond details in the text.

Sample question: This passage most likely comes from…

Answer choices to these questions will include sources such as “an atlas,” “an essay,” or “a speech.”

Other variations of this question type may ask for the appropriate title of a passage or what the author might discuss next.


A Word About Literary Devices

There is one question type that does not appear in the SSAT’s list of Reading topics: Literary Devices.

Literary Devices

This question type appears often in SSAT practice materials on SSAT.org (especially Upper Level). 

Sample question: What literary device is used in the underlined portion?

A literary device is a technique a writer uses to produce a certain effect. The main devices to understand for the SSAT are:

  Simile: comparing two things using like or as (“I’m hungry as an ox”) 

  Metaphor: comparing two things without using like or as (“She is a walking encyclopedia”)

  Personification: attributing characteristics of a person to a non-human thing (“The wind howled at night”)

Other devices, like irony (a contrast between what is said and what is actually happening) or onomatopoeia (a word that sounds like the noise it describes – ex. “Bang! Zoom!”), may also be helpful.


SSAT Reading: General Tips

Familiarizing yourself with the SSAT Reading section’s question types is one thing.

Yet on SSAT Reading, students face additional challenges. With 40 questions to be completed in 40 minutes, most students are up against the clock on this section.

Some passages may also be harder than others. Older texts, for example, or poetry passages may be more difficult to comprehend.

Here are some general SSAT Reading tips for managing time and challenging content.

  • Try and visualize a map of the passage as you read through it. Where is the thesis sentence stating the main idea? Underline it so you can refer back as you’re answering questions. What is the structure of the passage as a whole?  We also strongly recommend annotating the passage as you read for main ideas and keywords.
  • Beware of half-right answers. If a question is 1% wrong, it’s 100% wrong. Make sure to fully read all the answer choices to verify that the end of the sentence does not contradict the beginning!
  • Avoid extreme answer choices. Choices that include words like “always” or “never” are almost always wrong because they are difficult to prove.
  • Preview the questions before reading the text. This way, you can be more efficient when reading the passage.
  • Consider taking passages out of order. Start with the easiest passages and finish with the hardest!
  • Practice, practice, practice. Taking timed SSAT Reading sections regularly can improve your efficiency overall and help establish benchmarks.

Remember: the Reading section has the fewest number of questions of any section on the SSAT. That means, more than any other section, every question counts!


SSAT Reading Practice Materials

Quality SSAT reading practice materials are, unfortunately, limited. Yet consistent practice can be essential to improving SSAT scores on any section.

Luckily, as SSAT experts ourselves, we’re well-versed in the best SSAT practice materials out there.

First and foremost, we recommend creating an account through SSAT.org to access the online practice portal. This does cost money, but the practice portal gives students access to practice tests, quizzes, and more to better prepare for the exam.

In addition to the SSAT.org, here are some other materials that may be helpful with SSAT reading practice:

  • Tutorverse: Upper-Level SSAT: 1500+ Practice Questions (book, $)
  • Tutorverse: Middle-Level SSAT: 1000+ Practice Questions (book, $)
  • Test Prep Works: Success on the Upper-Level SSAT (book, $)
  • Test Prep Works: Success on the Middle-Level SSAT (book, $)

SSAT Reading: Next Steps

With time and effort, students can ensure a competitive score on SSAT Reading.

In addition to our strategy tips for the Reading comprehension questions, keep in mind that making reading a general habit will only help you on this part of the test (not to mention the Verbal and Writing sections!).  

It’s also vital to practice regularly. Taking consistent, timed SSAT Reading sections and boosting your fluency in question types is the surest way to move quickly to a high score.

Working with a professional SSAT instructor can also be vital, especially when it comes to learning strategies. Book your free SSAT prep consultation with us now!


Jess Welsh

Jess is a Princeton graduate who majored in English and minored in Visual Arts (Film). She has worked as an SAT/ACT/AP/SSAT/ISEE/HSPT tutor as well as a college counselor and loves getting to know students through her work. When not tutoring, she enjoys reading, writing, running, adding to her classic rock music collection, and exploring the West!