SAT Charts & Graphs Questions: What You Need to Know

The SAT absolutely loves to test students’ ability to interpret data.

You’re probably used to reading tables in math class. Yet you might be less prepared to see these charts and graphs incorporated into Evidence-Based Reading and Writing & Language passages on the SAT.

While such graphics might appear overwhelming at first, they shouldn’t be any cause for alarm.

In fact, these tend to be some of the most straightforward questions on the test!

The SAT does not expect you to bring any expert knowledge with you. Any time that you encounter a graph or chart, you can rest assured that the answer is right in front of you if you can interpret the data correctly.

Here’s what we cover in this post:


SAT Charts and Graphs Questions: General Approach

Charts and graphs questions appear on four sections of the SAT:

Most students aren’t surprised to see these questions appear on the SAT’s two math sections. But what are charts and graphs doing on two verbal sections?

The truth is that the SAT is deeply interested in students’ abilities to analyze both quantitative and verbal information, and often at the same time. This is why the Math sections have a lot of word problems, and it’s why figures appear on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing & Language.

This is a skill that most students will need in college, regardless of what major they pursue.

Of course, that doesn’t mean these questions won’t seem intimidating to a lot of students the first time around! Yet following this general approach for SAT Charts and Graphs questions can help you take advantage of these additional points.

1) Take Them Out of Order

Charts and Graphs questions can appear at any time on the SAT, but that doesn’t mean you have to take them in order. Build these questions into your personal order of difficulty.

What does that mean?

Well, if you excel at Math but find the Evidence-Based Reading section to be challenging, these may be great questions to prioritize on the two Verbal sections, especially the Charts and Graphs questions that don’t require knowledge of the passage.

If you dread data analysis, save these questions for the end of a section.

2) Identify the Task

Charts and Graphs questions can feel tedious.

For this reason, always identify what the task is. Underline and annotate the question to make this even clearer. Pay attention to the differences between the answers, too, to further support your understanding of what you need to find.

When it comes to charts and graphs questions on Writing & Language or Evidence-Based reading, assess whether you can answer the question just by looking at the graph or if you’ll also need to research the text.

3) Pay Attention to Titles, Axes, and Labels

This may sound obvious, but it’s actually an important step with most any charts and graphs question. When analyzing the data, prioritize the title of the graph (similar to its main idea), what any x- and y- axes designate, and/or any keys or other labels.

Sometimes you can eliminate answer choices based on this type of primary analysis alone.

4) Identify Trends and Patterns

It’s also important to take the time to assess the patterns and trends of a general graphic before diving into the associated question.

Feel free to annotate or make any markings as you do this. Doing so can help you move through those trap answer choices a lot more easily!


SAT Charts and Graphs: Writing and Language  

On the SAT Writing and Language section, 1-2 passages will be accompanied by an informational graph or chart.

The passage will have an underlined statement, and students will have to determine whether or not that statement is supported by the chart.

Students can expect two general types of graph questions in this section:

  1. Detail-based questions, which ask about a specific aspect of the graph
  2. Big-picture questions, which ask students to identify a major trend

The most important thing to remember with either type of question is that the answer will be right in front of you!

These questions don’t require any sort of outside knowledge, so just fact-check the answer choices against the information in the graph. Below are some tips to help minimize the possibility of error.

Reading the Graph

Before you jump to the answer choices, try to identify some key information upfront.

For example:

  • What’s the general trend/shape of the graph?
  • As one variable increases, does the other likewise increase? Decrease? Is it a bell curve?
  • Are there any “outliers”? Any big spikes or jumps?
  • Is there a key? What are the labels on the axes? What are the units?
  • Most importantly, what is the title of the graph?

Identifying the title of a figure is essential in determining the scope of the chart. We cannot extrapolate information beyond the stated scope (i.e., the title!).

Let’s look at an example to clarify:

Charts and Graphs_Writing and Language
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

The title of this chart tells us that it represents recorded temperatures in Greenland from 1961-1990. That means any answer that we choose must be specific to Greenland during those years.

We cannot use this chart to predict anything about current temperatures, nor can we extend the bell-curve trend to temperatures in Europe generally.

This is important because most wrong answers will play on this concept. The incorrect answers will likely be too broad, or potentially too narrow.

Other common traps to look out for:

  • Answers with extreme language (words like every, all, must, never, etc.)
  • Choices that might be true, but aren’t explicitly supported by the graph
  • Information that is supported by the graph, but doesn’t answer the question

Unfamiliar Graphics

As mentioned, the graphics on the Writing and Language section don’t require any outside knowledge and will be pretty straightforward.

However, the College Board tries to make things trickier by occasionally throwing in an infographic that isn’t in the traditional bar graph form.

Here’s what that might look like:

Charts and Graphs_Writing and Language
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 7

Because the format of these graphics may vary, there’s no real way to study for them, but don’t let that overwhelm you! Trust yourself to correctly read labels and titles, and remember the same strategies that you applied elsewhere.

For example, the above question might appear daunting at first. You’ve probably never seen a graph like this, but you can break it down logically.

The smallest circle is entirely contained within the middle circle, which is entirely contained within the biggest circle.

That is probably meant to suggest that within the framework of Professional Development, Professional Networks are the largest umbrella of Professional Development, followed by Coaching and Consultation, and then Foundation and Skill-Building Workshops, as stated by answer choice C.


SAT Charts and Graphs: Evidence-Based Reading

Much like the Writing and Language section, 1-2 of the 5 Evidence-Reading Passages will also contain graphs and/or charts.

Thankfully, many of the same strategies from the Writing and Language section can be applied, and the graphics in the Reading section tend to be even more straightforward.

In fact, most of the graphic questions on the SAT Reading section can be answered on the basis of the graphic alone without looking at the text at all!

Even questions that seem to be about both the text and the graphic really only require an understanding of the graph to be answered.

Let’s look at an example:

SAT Charts and Graphs_Reading Section
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 5

This is a very common question type. Mention of the passage might send test-takers back to the text, frantically skimming for details, but in questions such as these, all of the statements are supported by the passage.

Your only job is to determine which statement is also supported by the graph.

Just like in the Writing and Language section, orient yourself for one of these questions by asking the following questions ahead of time:

  • What’s the general trend/shape of the graph?
  • As one variable increases, does the other likewise increase? Decrease? Is it a bell curve?
  • Are there any “outliers”? Any big spikes or jumps?
  • Is there a key? What are the labels on the axes? What are the units?
  • What’s the title of the graph?
  • Are there multiple lines? Where do they meet? Are there any points where values don’t change?

Common Errors

Incorrect answer choices in the Reading section might contain similar errors to those in the Writing and Language section.

Specifically, be on the lookout for answers that

  • Offer conclusions that are too broad or too narrow to be considered reasonable based on the specific study presented in the graph
  • Are out of the question’s scope
  • Contain extreme language (words like every, all, must, never, etc.)
  • Might be true, but aren’t explicitly supported by the graph
  • Correctly interpret the information in the graph, but do not answer the question at hand
  • Contain units that don’t exactly match the units on the graph

SAT Charts & Graphs: Math

The SAT Math sections, of course, are where students can expect to see the most graphs and charts on the SAT.

Fortunately, these questions usually don’t require too much calculation beyond simple arithmetic, so they should actually be some of the easiest on the test, as long as students understand what they’re looking at.

Here are the types of charts and graphs you can expect to find on SAT Math:

  • Scatterplots (discussed below)
  • Generic bar graphs and histograms
  • Cartesian graphs
  • Line graphs
  • Simple tables

In a lot of ways, the same basic strategies that we discussed for reading graphs and charts in the Verbal sections still apply to these questions, regardless of the type of figure.

When analyzing a graph on SAT Math (No-Calculator or Calculator), it is particularly important to:

  • Identify the units on the axes
  • Note the title of the graph
  • Identify the general trend/shape of the graph
  • Note any outliers
  • Observe how data is clustered
  • Identify slope, if the graph contains a linear equation
  • Clearly identify what the question is asking!

It’s worth noting that students shouldn’t expect to see an even distribution of graphs and charts throughout the SAT Math sections.

The Calculator Section (Section 4) tends to be much heavier on Data Analysis & Problem Solving questions, and so you can expect to see most graphics in the latter portion of the test.

Scatterplots

One particular type of chart worth mentioning is the scatterplot. Scatterplots are an important tool in statistics! The point of statistics is to be able to predict values based on a limited amount of data, and scatterplots help us to do just that.

The scatterplot appears the most frequently of all charts and graphs on SAT Math.

In a scatterplot, each individual point on the graph represents a real point of data.

A line of best fit is then drawn through those points to represent the approximate trend of those values. We can use this line to predict values outside of a tested range of data.

For the SAT, you should understand the following about scatterplots:

  • The further a point is from the line of best fit, the more likely it is to be an outlier
  • You can extend the line of best fit to predict future values
  • We cannot determine definitive values off of the line of best fit, but we can make estimates
  • The slope of the line of best fit represents the predicted increase (or decrease) in y for each x
  • The y-intercept is the value of y when the x-value is 0

Let’s look at an example of a question involving a scatterplot:

SAT Charts and Graphs_Math
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

In the above graphic, each individual point represents a recorded heart rate at a given swim time, and the line of best fit provides the predicted heart rate for the set of times.

The question asks us to determine the difference between the predicted heart rate at 34 minutes and the actual heart rate.

We can see that at 34 minutes, Michael’s actual recorded heart rate was 148 BPM, and the line of best fit predicts a heart rate of 150 BPM. The difference, therefore, is 2, or answer choice B.


Next Steps 

Remember: SAT Charts and Graphs questions appear on four sections of the test. The key to navigating these successfully is to be strategic in how you approach your data and question analysis.

Make sure to do a little work up front to minimize the possibility of falling for a trap answer. Identify the overall trend of a figure, for example, and what all of the units and labels represent.

The most important thing is not to let yourself become overwhelmed by all of the information in front of you. In fact, that information should be a blessing!

The answer is right under your nose–you don’t need to bring any sort of advanced knowledge with you, nor do you need to perform any sort of convoluted calculations. As long as you feel confident in your skills of interpretation, the rest should be a piece of cake.

Looking for world-class assistance in your SAT prep? We’ve got scores of professional tutors just waiting to help you succeed on SAT Charts and Graphs questions and more. Learn more about our SAT prep offerings here!


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Annie is a graduate of Harvard University (B.A. in English). Originally from Connecticut, Annie now lives in Los Angeles and continues to mentor children across the country via online tutoring and college counseling. Over the last eight years, Annie has worked with hundreds of students to prepare them for all-things college, including SAT prep, ACT prep, application essays, subject tutoring, and general counseling. She is a Master tutor at Princeton Tutoring.