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, which you’ll likely need to take if you’re applying to private elementary, middle, or high schools.

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.

Fortunately, we’ve helped hundreds of students like you succeed on the SSAT. In this post, we’ll use our 20+ years of experience to break down what you need to know about SSAT Reading. 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 (you can read more about the SSAT format here).

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

Here’s what the SSAT Reading section covers:

  • 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

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. 

Of course, the best way to really learn and implement strategies is with a professional tutor. You can read our ranking of the 13 Best SSAT Tutoring Services here.

And, you can learn more about working with a PrepMaven Ivy-League SSAT expert by contacting our team!

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

For examples of what SSAT Reading Passages will look like, download our free collection of practice resources!

8 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! 

For more examples of these question types, check out our free collection of sample SSAT Reading questions below!

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.

Ready to see some of these question types in action? You’ll find sample passages and questions in our SSAT Reading Practice Questions worksheet, which you can download below.

Next Steps

Preparing for the SSAT can’t happen overnight: we recommend at least 3 months of high-quality SSAT prep before going in to take the test.

The best way to ensure all your SSAT prep is effective? Work with an expertly trained tutor. Our experts put together the ranking of the 13 Best SSAT Tutoring Services. Check out the list and make sure you’re only working with the best!

PrepMaven’s SSAT tutors come from the most selective colleges and are trained with a proprietary curriculum developed by our co-founder. Plus, they’re available at rates far lower than those offered by the test prep giants.

Contact PrepMaven today and get paired with an SSAT expert!

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.