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Kristin Fracchia

New SAT Reading: How to Strategically Approach Passage Complexity

If you are at all familiar with the SAT Reading test, you probably know that the passages vary in difficulty. You might breeze through some of them and then be sweating bullets through others not having any idea what the heck the last paragraph was talking about. This is ok. This is what makes the SAT hard, and you should know that there are a lot of other students struggling along right beside you.  But, if you are prepared, there can be a huge difference between you and these other freaked-out students gnawing off their pencil erasers around you, and that is, the level of panic you experience when you encounter a difficult reading passage. Knowing what to expect can help you make strategic decisions about which passages to do first.

The new SAT makes this a little easier on you since you’ll face 5 different passages, all about the same length and all with the same number of questions. So if you struggle with Reading, you can start with the easier passages first and make sure you have the time do a solid job answering those questions.

Although you won’t know in advance which passages are going to be easier or harder, you do know that the SAT has a predetermined difficulty range for these passages. The easiest passage is going to be at about a 9th grade reading level and the hardest passage is going to be at an early college level.  The others are going to be somewhere in the middle.


What order should I do SAT Reading Passages in?

You can apply one of the following strategies to quickly determine which passages you should tackle first:

  1. Read the first paragraph (or first two paragraphs if the first paragraph is only a sentence or two). Particularly on non-fiction passages, the introductory paragraph should be one of the most readable paragraphs of the text, and the passages often get more dense in the middle or two-thirds of the way through. So if you read the first paragraph and think, “Whoa, this is going to be hard,” chances are it is a hard passage and you can come back to it after you’ve knocked off some easy ones.
  1. Skim through the passage quickly, reading just a few select sentences throughout. You’re probably better at eyeballing passage complexity than you think you are. Just think about if your English teacher handed you a printout of excerpts from The Three Little Pigs and Crime and Punishment with the titles removed. You could probably tell at a glance which is the harder passage, right? The differences might not be so extreme on the SAT, but chances are your gut instinct after a 10-second scan might tell you which passages to tackle first.

Definitely don’t waste a lot of time making decisions, and if you’ve already read half of a passage before deciding it’s difficult, this is not the time to bail. Skipping around the test reading parts of passages is not going to help you get answers on your bubble sheet, so make quick decisions and go all in.


A note on SAT Reading passage topics

Some students just HATE fiction. It is the WORST. Other students find themselves stifling snores when they read about science. If you have strong feelings about genre or passage topics, you may want to make some ordering decisions based on this rather than passage complexity. Remember that there will be one fiction passage, two history/social studies passages, and two science passages on every test (hint: the fiction generally comes first and the history/social studies and science passages alternate), so if you’ve had a bad breakup with one subject or another in the past, you might want to arrange your reading order based on personal preference rather than passage complexity.

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About Kristin Fracchia

Dr. Kristin Fracchia makes sure Magoosh's sites are full of awesome, free resources that can be found by students prepping for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agony and bliss of trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.

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