6 SSAT Reading Strategies From the Experts

Bonus Material: SSAT Reading Practice Questions

SSAT Reading is the third section of the Secondary School Admissions Test. 

In this section, students have only 40 minutes to work through 8 reading passages and 40 questions.

For this reason, it’s very common for students to feel up against the clock on this section. SSAT Reading passages can also be fairly dense, especially if they are selections from older texts.

Success on the SSAT Reading section often depends on a student’s ability to apply specific strategies, given that it requires almost no outside knowledge.

We’ve outlined the strategies most likely to boost your score on SSAT Reading in this post. Plus, readers get access to our sample SSAT Reading practice questions, which you can grab below.

Here’s what we cover:


The 3 Things You Need to Succeed on SSAT Reading

Let’s do a quick recap of what this section entails.

SSAT Reading is the third timed section of the SSAT. It appears right after Quantitative 1 and right before a brief break:

SectionNumber of QuestionsDuration
Writing Sample (unscored)125 minutes
Break5 minutes
Quantitative 12530 minutes
Reading4040 minutes
Break10 minutes
Verbal6030 minutes
Quantitative2530 minutes
Experimental (unscored)1615 minutes

There are 8 SSAT reading passages. Each is about 250-350 words in length, and there are generally 4-6 questions per passage. About half of the passages are narrative and half are argument-based. 

SSAT Reading questions test your reading comprehension on both a general and specific level. You can find out more about question types in our Introduction to SSAT Reading post.

Given this format of the SSAT Reading section, success boils down to the following three things: 

  1. Strategy, strategy, strategy
  2. Versatile active reading skills 
  3. Familiarity with the question types

We cover all three of these things throughout the strategies outlined in the next section. 

6 SSAT Reading Strategies from the Experts

1. Know the test

The SSAT Reading section is fundamentally unlike any test students encounter in middle school. For this reason, a key strategy lies in simply knowing the test’s format inside and out.

Remember: this is a standardized test. For this reason, it is predictable. Students should thus make sure they are very familiar with 2 things:

  1. The passage types
  2. The question types

SSAT Reading passage types include: 

  • Literary fiction 
  • Humanities (biography, art, poetry) 
  • Science (anthropology, astronomy, medicine) 
  • Social studies (history, sociology, economics)

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

As you practice, pay attention to what is more difficult for you, and what is easier–this will be helpful with respect to another strategy we outline later.

Question types include:

  • Main ideas
  • Details
  • Inference
  • Words in context
  • Author’s purpose
  • Author’s tone and attitude
  • Evaluation of author’s attitude and opinions
  • Evidence-based predictions

Much like individual passages, certain question types might be more challenging for students than others. At the end of the day, however, every question is worth the same amount of points on SSAT Reading, regardless of its difficulty level.

2. Play to your strengths

This is a great strategy to embrace on any SSAT section, but it’s particularly important on SSAT Reading. The SSAT test-makers don’t necessarily have students’ personal strengths in mind when they create the Reading section.

What does this mean?

It might mean that a difficult passage for you (say, poetry) comes at the very beginning of the section as opposed to the end. It could mean that the easiest passage for you comes at the very end of the section.

The same goes for questions!

For this reason, we encourage students to tackle what is easiest for them first. This might mean taking passages out of order. It could further mean taking questions for those specific passages out of order, prioritizing the easiest ones over the more challenging ones.

Students also don’t have to complete all 40 questions to earn a competitive score on this section. Prioritize accuracy over quantity here.

3. Boost your fluency in wrong answers

It is often easier to pinpoint a wrong answer choice than it is to find a correct one! This is a key part of the process of elimination, which is a vital strategy on any standardized test.

That’s why we recommend that students learn what constitutes a standard wrong answer choice on a typical SSAT Reading question. While these wrong answers can vary, in general, students should be very wary of the following:

  • Extreme answer choices (i.e., answers that include words like “never” or “always”)
  • Half-right answers (i.e., ones that might be partially but not entirely true)
  • Distorted details (i.e., answers that have keywords from the passage but are misleading)
  • Outside the text answers (i.e., those that take it too far beyond the passage)

4. Have an active reading plan

Most students won’t benefit from reading every SSAT Reading passage from start to finish. These passages are often dense, detailed, and simply boring!

That’s why it’s important to have what we like to call an active reading plan. This means productively engaging with every passage so that you come away with the most valuable information.

What does that mean?

Because many SSAT Reading questions focus on main ideas, it means reading for the following in each passage:

  • Main ideas!
  • Statements of opinion or argument
  • Transition words
  • Keywords from the questions
  • Concluding statements

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. This means doing more than just underlining — try to paraphrase main ideas in your own words in the margin of each paragraph. This will help with passage engagement and recall.

5. Preview questions and predict answers

SSAT Reading questions aren’t designed to be your friend. They’ll be full of tempting trap answers. For this reason, a great strategy is to handle the questions in a 2-step approach:

  1. Preview the questions before you actively read the passage (so you know what to look for)
  2. Cover up the answer choices and predict your own answer for each question (so you don’t get trapped)

If you actively read a passage and annotate for main ideas, you’re well on your way to accurately predicting answers to these questions. Once you’ve made your prediction, simply cross off any answers that don’t match.

6. Read, read, read

We encourage students to follow a regular independent reading schedule while preparing for the SSAT Reading section. This will ensure fluency in a wide range of literature.

Here are some of our recommendations for what you could be reading while you prep:

  • Editorials and opinion pieces
  • Journal articles
  • “Older” texts, such as literary classics and primary documents
  • Poetry
  • Creative nonfiction

Download Our SSAT Reading Practice Questions

Ready to apply these strategies? Download our free SSAT Reading practice questions.

With this worksheet, you’ll get:

  • 5 test-like SSAT Reading passages
  • 20 total questions
  • Answers and explanations


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.