SAT Reading: Passage Walk-Through

Bonus Material: Our Top SAT Reading Hacks

NOTE: this walk-through was written for the kinds of reading passages on the old, paper SAT. The digital SAT, which has been administered since 2024, features radically different reading passages. While this post can still be helpful practice, we recommend checking out our newer resources. For a guide to the new digital SAT, click here. For our new guide to SAT Reading passages, click here.

Several of the tips we discuss in our 16 SAT Reading Tips for Getting a Perfect Score have to do with the passage.

To do well on SAT Reading, students should get in the habit of actively reading passages. 

This means annotating for main ideas, opinions, and keywords from the questions. Students should also be sure to back up every answer with evidence from the passage.

It’s called the Evidence-Based Reading Section for a reason!

We want to show students what it looks like to approach SAT Reading passages in this way. That’s why we’ve created this SAT Reading passage walk-through.

In this post, you’ll see what successful annotation looks like. You’ll see how every SAT Reading question can and should be based off of what’s in the passage, and you’ll get access to our top SAT Reading Hacks, which you can download now.

Here’s what we cover:

Approaching an SAT Reading Passage

The SAT Reading section rewards the strategic test-taker. No outside content knowledge is necessary to succeed in this section!

For that reason, students should do the following:

  • Take passages out of order, starting with the easier ones for them
  • Take questions out of order, starting with the easier ones for them
  • Actively read the passages, annotating for main ideas
  • Back up every answer with hard evidence from the passage

We discuss these tips at length in 16 SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score.

Active Reading & Annotation

SAT Reading passages are complex, dense, and boring. Maintain focus by annotating when you engage with any passage.

What does it mean to annotate?

Pay attention to main ideas as you work a passage. Jot down the main idea for every paragraph in the margins, circle words you recognize from the questions, and underline anything that feels relevant.

Students should focus less on details. They should prioritize big picture ideas and arguments as they annotate, as SAT Reading questions are most interested in these.

These notes can be extremely valuable later on as students answer questions, providing a specific road map for passage ideas.

We also want to emphasize that you don’t have to read every single word of an SAT Reading passage to understand it! Students should prioritize reading for main ideas and moving more quickly through details or elaborations.

We’ve actively read and annotated a social science SAT Reading passage from the College Board’s Official SAT Practice Test #2 below so you can see what this looks like.

You’ll see that our notes prioritize the following:

  • Main ideas of each paragraph
  • Main idea of the passage as a whole
  • Keywords from the questions
  • Topic sentences
  • Conclusions
  • Structure
  • Graph: main idea and trend(s)

(Hint: these are all the things that most SAT Reading questions concern!)

Tackling the Questions

When approaching SAT Reading questions, test-takers should keep the following tips in mind:

  • Know the question types
  • Think in terms of main ideas
  • Don’t get lost in the answer choices
  • Find evidence for your right answer
  • Start with easier questions, end with harder ones
  • Get familiar with typical wrong answer choices

We discuss these tips at length in 16 SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score.

Here are the types of questions you can expect to find on SAT Reading:

  • Words in Context
  • Command of Evidence
  • Function / Purpose
  • Main Ideas
  • Detail or Line Reference
  • Inference
  • Character analysis
  • Charts & graphs

Students should get in the habit of finding answers to each of these questions in the passage itself

They should also think in terms of main ideas when they answer these questions. In many cases, it’s possible to employ process of elimination based on which answers are in line with the passage’s central claim, and which aren’t.

Understand that the questions on SAT Reading are not your friends! Students are apt to encounter very tempting trap answers. That’s why we recommend answering questions on your own before wading through those answers, and getting familiar with what makes an answer wrong on SAT Reading.

We work through all questions associated with the annotated passage above to show you what these strategies look like in action!

Save the harder passages and questions for the end–or for guessing. Beginning with your strengths on SAT Reading is the surest way to guide you closer to a high score.

We also recommend taking a look at these top SAT Reading Hacks. We’re using many of these right now, in this post!

Question #11

We’d label this question as a high-difficulty one, given that it requires students to have a working understanding of the passage as a whole. We encourage students to save these higher difficulty questions for the end!

With big picture questions like these, it’s vital to think about the passage’s main idea as a whole, which we’ve labeled as “exploring three interpretations of “ethics” in an economic context and offering a promising fourth view.”

This is very much in line with answer choice (D), which is, in fact, the correct answer. Notice how all the other answer choices only describe one thing (a “study” or one “ethical dilemma”) and/or take extreme positions (the “free market prohibits ethical economics”).

Questions #12 and #13

This is a Command of Evidence pair, a medium-difficulty question type.

It’s best to approach question #12 in tandem with question #13. We’ll read question #12 and then select the line reference from question #13 that best answers this question.

Our goal is to identify the lines that reference an objection to “criticizing the ethics of free markets.” 

The only line reference of the four choices offered that discusses an argument in relation to the ethics of free markets is A, lines 3-4, which is our correct answer.

The paraphrase of these lines is answer choice (D) in question #12, which is the correct answer.

Question #14

This is a Words in Context question, which requires very little reading of the passage! For these questions, we encourage students to read the surrounding context of the line in reference and predict their own synonym for the word referenced.

Here’s the full sentence:

A good prediction for “embraced” might be “favored” or “taken on.” Keep in mind that we are discussing a type of responsibility, too. The best match for such a prediction is answer choice (B), “readily adopted.”

Question #15

This is a function question (medium difficulty) that requires precise understanding of this paragraph’s main idea. 

In our annotations, we’ve identified the main idea of the fifth paragraph as the third view towards ethics in economics, as presented by the author. This third view has to do with “actions.”

The exact match for this is answer choice C!

Question #16

Here is another Words in Context question! Once again, these are low-difficulty questions students should attempt first.

The relevant context of the word in question is:

A good prediction for a similar meaning to “clashes” based on context might be “conflicts.” And guess what? That is an exact match for answer (A).

Question #17

This is a medium-difficulty line reference question. Here, pinpoint the reference that discusses common ground in the perspectives the author has analyzed.

We use the term “common ground” in our annotations for lines 57-66. Is there an answer choice that falls within this window?

Yes! Answer choice C. When we read these lines, we see that they do in fact discuss common ground in the form of an example (fair trade coffee). C is the correct answer.

(Hint: this is why annotating is so important!)

Find this helpful? We encourage you to download these top SAT Reading Hacks. We use many of these hacks in this walk-through.

Question #18

This is a straightforward Main Ideas question. Let’s look and see what our annotations say for the final paragraph.

We have two notes: “the rise of behavioral economics” and “author finds promise” in this subject.

The only answer choice that has to do with this idea of behavioral science and the author’s idea that this is promising is C, which is our correct answer.

Question #19

Questions 19-21 have to do with the graph. These questions can be intimidating, but it’s important to approach them from the perspective of main ideas (just like all the other questions).

The graph itself, according to our annotations, compares profits of fair trade versus regular coffee.

Question 19 is only about the data in the graph. Carefully check each answer choice against the trends visible in the graph, and you’ll see that only A is correct–fair trade coffee had consistently higher profits than regular coffee. 

We also wrote this trend down in our annotations.

Question #20

This question is exactly like question 19 in that it solely requires data analysis and careful reading of the question. We’re looking for the greatest difference in profits between the two coffee types, and when this occurred.

The biggest gap between the two lines we see on this graph occurs between 2002 and 2004, when regular trade coffee profits were just above 20 and fair trade profits were at approximately 130.

This matches answer (B).

Question #21

This graph question requires a synthesis of main ideas — the main idea of the graph and the main idea of the passage.

Remember that fair trade coffee is discussed in the paragraph about finding “common ground” in the three perspectives on ethical economics examined. In general, the author also feels that ethical economics has promise.

This best matches answer C, which is also the broadest of the options. 

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Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.