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Lucas Fink

SAT Critical Reading vs. High School English Class

When people are asked to link the three SAT scores to high school classes, most will do something kind of funny.

SAT Math = Math

SAT Writing = English

SAT Critical Reading = English

That seems really lopsided. Why does the test have two sections on English? If you’ve been getting Cs in that class, aren’t you going to bomb the SAT?

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Well, let’s make something clear: it’s wrong. SAT writing and SAT critical reading are entirely different in what they test. And between the two, writing is much more closely related to what you study in English class.


High school English

Think about what books you’ve read in English. Read any summaries of scientific studies? Art history? No way—you’ve been reading literature. While you go through that fiction, you search for the plot devices buried in the words and the overarching themes and emotions that drive the stories. English class is all about how you interact with the story and how the author provokes that.

Basically, it’s about literature as an art form. The SAT is horse of a different color, though.


How SAT critical reading is different

First off, the SAT only includes one fiction passage per test. So that makes our discrepancy pretty clear; the majority of SAT reading is closer to an assignment from a social studies or humanities class of some sort. That could mean U.S. history, but it could also mean psychology or something less high school-like. The reality is that most SAT reading is much more like something you’d read in college, rather than in high school. The average U.S. high school focuses on textbooks and literature, but most SAT passages are from neither.


The SAT doesn’t care about your opinion

Even though you do a lot of interpretation and discussion in English class, the SAT leaves no room for that. The questions about the passages don’t involve you—they’re solely about the information that the author presents, the organization of that information, and its purpose.

Not a single one of the SAT’s critical reading questions is up for debate. We’re not dealing the art of abstracts; we’re looking at rhetoric. How is the information structured? Why is it structured that way? What’s the author’s goal?

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There’s a time and a place for everything

Don’t get your SAT reading confused with English class. You can’t treat these passages like you’d treat Lord of the Flies. SAT prep is a time to start practicing your college reading skills: analyzing authors’ thought processes, extracting fundamental concepts, and noting how and why opinions differ.


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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