Note: This post has been updated to reflect changes in SAT beginning March 2016 (aka the New SAT).
All Passages on the New SAT are Long
With the old SAT, there were tiny passages, some of which were easy to understand. At the other end of the spectrum was the nightmare-inducing long passage: 100 lines of dense material chock full of SAT vocabulary.
Those days are gone and now the SAT has passages range from about 60 lines to about a 100 lines. They are all pretty dense, but not nearly as much as some of the passages from the previous test were. Difficulty-wise, however, you get quite a range. Straightforward passages taken from a magazine article (“the economics of the perfect gift”) to 19th century British fiction or an 18th century parliamentary speech, cast in language that, to our modern ear at least, sounds archaic and stilted.
From the material the College Board has offered so far, it doesn’t seem like there is any pattern. A section may start off with a long difficult passage, or it might start off with a shorter (though no shorter than about 60 lines) straightforward passage. What you shouldn’t expect though is a section full of Jane Austin, John Locke, and scientific studies. Typically, two out of the four passages will be this difficult. The other two not so much.
A possible strategy for long passages on the New SAT
A good strategy, if you are short on time, is to skip to a passage that doesn’t seem as tough. Since every passage contains either 10 or 11 questions, by skipping to an easier passage, you will still be able to answer about the same number of questions. (It’s not as though you are skipping to a passage that only has a few questions, giving you less of chance to answer more question correctly).
To complicate things slightly, each reading section will always have a dual passage: two medium passages (40-50 lines) on the same topic, typically with divergent views. Yes, such passage will be long; but it won’t necessarily be difficult. So you might end up skipping to this passage first.
Whether or not you want to leave the long, difficult passage to the very end depends on your score. If you are a high-scorer—or at least looking to a get high score on the reading—I wouldn’t worry too much about this strategy. But for those who might not even finish the entire section, it makes sense to leave the long-difficult passage to the very end. The reasoning is that if you are going to struggle to understand the passage, likely missing several questions, why burn your mental resources, when you can save them for a passage in which you have a much better chance of understanding. Conversely, leaving the easier passages to the end—when you are pressed for time—will likely lead you to miss questions that you would have otherwise gotten right had you not been rushing.
Strategies for attacking the long-difficult passage on the SAT
But let’s say you have the time and you are facing a long-difficult passage. My advice is to not get bogged down in the details but as much as possible understand the author’s main point. Indeed, on passages that employ older English and thus can become a veritable bog of indecipherable details, you might want to look at the questions first. This will give you an idea of what to look for. You’ll probably only want to do this for the general questions, not the ones that ask about specific lines (you can always go back and do those later).
Experiment, experiment, experiment
To find out which approach works best for you, try varying up your approaches during practice tests. That way you’ll get a sense of what feels natural for you. Perhaps, you might get flustered flipping around through passages looking for the one that you think is easiest. In that case, this approach not be for you. On the other, if reading the questions first on difficult passages makes you end up being even more confused by the passage, then perhaps that isn’t the way for you. Again, try out those approaches to find what’s most natural (the Magoosh free SAT study guide can help you with this). That way, maybe even the long-difficult passage won’t seem quite so long, or difficult.