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Chris Lele

SAT Reading Comprehension

Welcome to a multiple part series. No, it’s not an award winning show on HBO. It’s SAT Reading Comprehension. No, don’t the turn the channel just yet! If you want to learn winning strategies that will help you score mega points test day, stay tuned.

I will be dissecting a passage (see below) and then answering questions related to the passage. It may not be the heart-stopping excitement of prime time, but you will learn the difference between a line reference and inference question, amongst myriad other important stuff.

So let’s start with one of the most critical aspects of critical reading: the passage.


SAT Reading Comprehension strategy

First off – always read the passage. Do not go to the questions first. Many hold fast to this notion the way that they do with other urban myths. Basically, a certain company – who will go unnamed – preached the skip the passage, do the questions approach. It was an awful strategy, one that floundered in practice, yet one that has persisted.

Instead, read the entire passage, paying attention to the main idea contained in each paragraph. Also pay attention to how the paragraphs link together. At the end of the passage you should be able to create your own mini-narrative. Or imagine that you are speaking to an intelligent sixth grader. How would you – intelligently of course – describe what’ve you’ve just read?

You also want to avoid going back at the passage and rescanning it. That is you should have a working narrative of the passage as soon as you’ve finished it. Basically, you should be able to cover the passage and then, turning to the imaginary sixth grader – describe the passage in a few sentences.

So read the passage and try coming up with your mini-narrative.

Below is a critical readingpassage, I’ve created some mini-narratives of varying quality. You may want to compare when you’ve finished.


What are we reading?

Below, is a short long passage. Nope that’s not an oxymoron. The SAT has short (approximately 12 line passages) and then long passages ranging from 45 to 100 lines. This one is on the short side.

This passage is a personal narrative (you will usually get one on each test) and a minority passage (you will definitely get one of these – though they may sometimes come from a fictional work).


The Passage

I recently dug up a photograph of myself from freshman year of college that made me smile. I have on the wrong shoes, the wrong socks, the wrong checkered shirt tucked the wrong way into the wrong slacks. I look like what I was: a boy sprung from a middlebrow burg who affected a secondhand preppiness. I look nervous. Compare that image to one from my senior-class dinner: now I am attired in a gray tweed jacket with a green plaid bow tie and a sensible button-down shirt, all purchased at the Yale Co-op. I look confident, and more than a bit contrived.


What happened in between those two photographs is that I experienced, then overcame, what the poet Meena Alexander has called “the shock of arrival.” When I was deposited at the wrought-iron gates of my residential college as a freshman, I felt more like an outsider than I’d thought possible. It wasn’t just that I was a small Chinese boy standing at a grand WASP temple; nor simply that I was a hayseed neophyte puzzled by the refinements of college style. It was both: color and class were all twisted together in a double helix of felt inadequacy.


For a while I coped with the shock by retreating to a group of my own kind—not follow Asians, but fellow marginal public school grads who resented the rah-rah Yalies to whom everything came effortlessly. Aligning myself this way was bearable—I was hiding, but at least I could place myself in a long tradition of underdog exiles at Yale. Aligning myself by race, on the other hand, would have seemed too inhibiting.


I know this doesn’t make much sense. I know also that college, in the multicultural era, is supposed to be where the deracinated minority youth discovers the “person of color” inside. To a point, I did. I studied Chinese, took an Asian American history course, a seminar on race politics. But ultimately, college was where the unconscious habits of my adolescent assimilation hardened into self-conscious strategy.


Mini Narrative #1

It’s about this guy and he goes to college but he like doesn’t like it. And he’s like Asian and stuff. And then he tries to fit in but yeah, like…yeah.


Mini Narrative #2

The narrator of the passage is looking back at how he changed from his freshman year to his senior year at Yale. He entered the school insecure and unsure of himself and ended up polished and suave looking. The passage focuses more on his freshman year and how awkward and insecure he felt. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t rich like all the other kids – he was also Asian, so he felt this double insecurity. He didn’t want to be known as the Asian kid so he hung with other marginalized students but in the end it seems as though he doesn’t really have anything to do with his Chinese side besides taking a Chinese class.


Mini Narrative #3

The narrator is like this guy who goes to Yale and he is Asian and doesn’t really fit in. But he is also like from the country or something. He tries to avoid his Asian side and he just hangs out with these underdogs. He is really confused and isn’t really in touch with his Asian side. But then at the beginning he is looking at a photo of when he is a senior and he is all like cool looking….so I think like he totally transformed into what he wasn’t when he first got there.


Your Mini Narrative




Comparing Mini Narratives

These narratives are inspired by different students I’ve had. One could never score over 500 on the Critical Reading section. One scored an 800, and one usually got over 600 but could rarely crack 700.

Any guesses?

Yeah, the 800 – possibly Yale bound student – is not mini-narrative #1. That excerpt would be the utterings of the sub-500 student. Now I don’t want to say this student was not smart. On the contrary, he scored very well in math. It was a question of engagement. Despite all my cheer leading, he never really got engaged in the passage. He would slog through each one, his eyes drooping more than those of a lethargic hound dog on a hot August afternoon.


So which mini-narrative is from the 800-student?

I could make a case for mini-narrative #3. After all, she brings up an insight not mentioned by #2. The narrator seems to have become the antithesis of what he was when he entered – a hayseed outcast who implicitly rejected – or at least didn’t embrace – his Chinese self. #2 then makes a reasonable intuitive leap – that he has adapted to Yale’s culture (read: become whitewashed) while never embracing his Chinese side.

The problem is the passage never states this outright, though this is exactly where this much longer narrative – entitled “” by Eric Lui (he ended up writing speeches for Clinton back in the 90’s) ends up. Oftentimes this student would make connections – whether warranted or unwarranted – that weren’t explicitly backed up in the passage. Otherwise, she totally “got” the passage. As we go through the questions pertaining to this passage, you should pick up on the fact the SAT reading comprehension wants you to be very literal. If you start making connections that aren’t explicitly stated in the passage, you do so at your own peril.


As for the very literal, spot-on (and articulate!) take, we have our 800-student. Notice that she doesn’t make assumptions or connections that were not backed up by the passage. Instead, she faithfully recapitulates exactly what is in the passage.


So compare your own mini-narrative –did you stick solely to the text, or did you make connections? Did you leave out any important parts? Did you focus too much on one part of the passage, while failing to get the big picture?

Anyhow, crafting an effective mini-narrative takes practice. (And important side note: do not write out the narrative! Make a 10-15 second summary mental summary as soon as you’ve finished the passage. Remember: no looking back at the passage).


The key is that you remember what the passage is about when you go to answer the questions. By having a strong mini-narrative, you will often know the answer to a question, and, just importantly, be able to rapidly sift through the passage to find information to help you answer the question.


About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 8 million views.

You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog!

You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

2 Responses to “SAT Reading Comprehension”

  1. Roman Tatum says:

    The narrator is an asian guy who goes to Yale for college. As a freshmen he was very insecure, and he does not fit in at all, his clothes are weird, he’s asian, and isn’t as rich as the other kids. He was really confused with his asian nationality so he took a couple classes to help him understand his asian background a little better. As time progresses he starts to fit in, the change from his freshmen year to his senior year is a big difference.

    • Chris Lele Chris says:

      Hi Roman :).

      That is a good summary. It is important to note that his ability to fit in was not simply a result of passing time but that the narrator willfully transforming himself into someone who fits in (…”college is where the unconscious habits of…”).

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