5 Things You Should Know About SAT Reading

Bonus Material: Top 8 SAT Reading Hacks from the Experts

Evidence-Based Reading is the first section of the SAT. For many students, it can also be the most challenging.

After all, students have a little over an hour to work through five dense reading passages and answer 52 total questions. 

Students’ reading scores are combined with their SAT Writing & Language scores for their total SAT Verbal score, calculated on a scale of 400-800.

Given that many of our students seek support with SAT Reading, we’ve written an entire post devoted to the essential things you should know about this tough section. You’ll also get access to our top 8 SAT Reading Hacks, which you can download below.

Here’s what we cover:

The Format of the SAT’s Evidence-Based Reading Section

On SAT Reading, students have 65 minutes to complete 52 questions. The section contains five passages that span the following genres:

  • Literary narrative
  • Science
  • History / Social Science

Students will always encounter one literary narrative passage, which will always be first in the passage lineup. They will also encounter 2 Science passages and 2 History or Social Science passages (in generally random order).

One of the Science or History / Social Science passages will be a dual passage. This means that students will encounter two shorter passages within one, and must answer questions related to both passages.

It’s important to note that one of these five passages is likely to be an “older” text, meaning that it is a selection from a work published in a prior century. It’s not uncommon, for example, for students to encounter passages excerpted from the following:

  • Classic literature (18th and 19th centuries)
  • Essays or speeches (18th – 20th centuries)
  • Other primary documents

Here’s an example from an officially released SAT practice test (#2):

Students will also encounter a range of question types, which include the following:

  • Command of Evidence
  • Words in Context
  • Main Ideas
  • Purpose / Function
  • Inference
  • Charts & graphs
  • Detail or line reference

In the next section of this post, we discuss what you need to know on SAT Reading beyond these basics.

5 Things You Should Know About SAT Reading

1. It’s 100% strategy-based

The other non-optional sections of the SAT — Writing & Language and Math — do require outside content knowledge. SAT Reading, however, does not.

This means that a large part of doing well on this section comes down to a student’s capacity to apply specific strategies, like those in our SAT Reading Hacks, which you can download here.

If you find yourself bringing in outside knowledge to answer a question, stop! This could lead you astray.

2. You don’t have to attempt all 52 questions to earn a high score

In fact, we often discourage students from racing through SAT Reading to ensure they’ve answered every question! On the SAT, it’s important to prioritize accuracy over speed.

This might mean attempting fewer passages, for example, especially for students who struggle with the section’s time limit.

Students also don’t lose points for an incorrect answer–they simply do not get any points. This means that guessing is to your advantage.

Let’s say that Margot decided to answer all 52 questions, while Samantha decided to only attempt 40 questions and guess strategically on the remaining 12. Here’s what that might look like:

MargotSamantha
Attempted = 52 / Correct = 32 / Guesses = 0 –> Section Score of 29Attempted = 40 / Correct = 37 / Guesses = 12 –> Section Score of 31

Samantha attempted fewer questions here but still earned a higher score, as opposed to Margot, who attempted all questions and earned a lower score.

3. Outside reading helps

SAT Reading passages are excerpted from real published works. But students are not likely to have seen most of these excerpts before, especially those that are from older texts.

That’s why we encourage SAT students to maintain their reading of certain kinds of texts as they prep. These include:

  • American history documents (speeches, Federalist Papers, etc.)
  • Scientific journal articles
  • Editorials
  • Social science articles

You can find a full reading list with specific titles here.

4. It’s really all about main ideas

While there are many kinds of questions on SAT Reading, they often boil down to the same notion: main ideas. This is because most high school English classrooms focus on students’ comprehension of main ideas when reading texts.

If you can train yourself to read for these main ideas–and go a step further in thinking about purpose and structure–then you’re already on the right path for succeeding on SAT Reading questions.

In the following purpose question, for example, students can answer this successfully by thinking in terms of main ideas.

We discuss this more in our SAT Reading Hacks.

5. …and evidence!

It’s called Evidence-Based Reading for a reason! Every answer choice should technically be found in the passage itself.

That’s right–this is an open-book test!

The Reading section has a certain question type that forces students to select their evidence for questions. These Command of Evidence questions can be tricky, but they are the heart of what this test is all about.

If you can back up every answer with evidence from the passage, you’re approaching the test like a strategic test-taker, and poised to succeed on all question types.

Download Our Expert SAT Reading Hacks

As experts in SAT prep, we know what it takes to do well on SAT Reading. We’ve put together our top SAT Reading Hacks, which you can download for free!

SAT Reading Tips and Hacks

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • 8 of our very best SAT Reading Hacks
  • Examples from official SAT practice tests


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.