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the SAT Reading Exam

Reading and Comprehension

Lots of people think of the SAT Critical Reading section as some kind of terrifying monster – a hideously ugly, foul-smelling, ornery beast just waiting to crush your college and scholarship dreams in its iron jaws of doom.

Maybe SAT Reading is a kind of monster, but it isn't one that needs to leave you quaking in your boots. In fact, you've been training to kill this guy your entire life.

How's that?

Well, it's right there in the title: SAT Reading. Wait for'll come to you. Ah yes. Reading. Which is something you've been doing since you were little. From Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter back in the day, to Shakespeare and Steinbeck (or whomever) in high school, you've been prepping for this bad boy for literally more than a decade. Heck, if you can read this little paragraph, you're well on your way.

More good news: Never, ever on the SAT Reading test will you be required to use outside knowledge of Hamletor Beowulf or even Twilight to answer a question. No memorization whatsoever is necessary for this test, because all the information you need will always be provided for you right there in the question. And you don't even have to come up with any original analysis of the texts they give you; there is no essay section here, so the right answer will always be sitting there right in front of you. It's one of five possible choices; you just have to pick the right one.

All right, you know how to read. Win. You don't have to memorize anything. Epic win. Now all you need to teach yourself to do, if you want to get a phenomenal score, is to understand what the test wants you to do. Here's where we come in. We'll be breaking down the SAT Reading section into its component parts so that you'll know exactly how to attack each question when you get to it.

It's All Just a Game

Here at Shmoop's World HQ, we're big fans of old-school video games. Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers, anyone? You know, the kind where you always travel from left to right across the screen, battling a bunch of Mini Bosses along the way before you fight the Big Boss in the castle at the end to beat the game.

We like to think of the SAT Reading as the Big Boss. He looks scary and he might be a bit intimidating if you've never seen him before, but once you know how to attack him – and every Big Boss has a soft, vulnerable underbelly, right? – you'll be able to kick his butt in no time.

We're here to let you in on the secret of how to beat the Big Boss. No, it doesn't involve a cheat code. This is one terrible titan you won't be able to button- mash your way through.

The secret to beating the Big Boss is to know exactly how to attack each of the four Mini Bosses that act as his minions. They are the four sections of the test: Sentence Completions, Short Passages, Long Passages, and Passage Comparisons.

You'll always get to fight Sentence Completions first, then the next three Mini Bosses can come in any order. Whatever sequence they come in, you'll get your chance to kill them all. Once you do, you'll realize that the Big Boss is already dead. Yep, simply defeat the four Mini Bosses, and knocking out King Koopa and rescuing the Princess will be as easy as flipping the page and putting your pencil down.

The Four Mini Bosses of SAT Reading: Overview

1. Sentence Completions

The Sentence Completion section is always the first monster you'll have to battle when you enter the fray of SAT Reading. She comes first, and you'll usually have to knock out about 8-10 of her death rays before moving on to the passage-based reading sections. Sentence Completions are…drumroll, please…short sentences in which one or two of the words are left blank. It is up to you to pick the word or words that best fit in the blanks from a selection of five answer choices. This is the part of SAT Reading where your vocabulary mettle is tested to its fullest.

Method of Attack: Deceptively short sentences lure you in, but big words in the answer choices challenge the strength of your vocabulary.

Weapons You'll Need: An arsenal of vocabulary words and brief definitions, an ability to see relationships between words, and a sharp eye for synonyms. You will definitely need to make some flash cards to prepare for this boss, but luckily we have a handy list of Shmoop SAT Vocab Words here for you to study.

The best thing about Sentence Completions is that you get to knock it out early. By getting this beast out of the way first, you'll be able to breathe easily and move on to the passages with a bounce in your step.

3. Passage-Based Reading: Short Passages

In many ways, this section is easier to handle than Sentence Completions, and if you encounter it second (which happens a lot), it serves as a nice breather and warm-up for the Long Passages and Passage Comparisons that are waiting around the corner. Take full advantage, and enjoy the break.

The Short Passages usually come in groups of two. One is the loneliest number, after all. The best defense you can have against these guys is knowing that you probably won't even have to read them to get the right answer. Get out of town.

With the Short Passages, it's all about speed and strategy. Each passage is only a paragraph (or about 15 lines) long and has just two questions attached to it. Think about what this means. If you notice that the question only asks for the meaning of a specific sentence or word, then you can forget the rest of the paragraph and dive right into bubbling in the answer. If, however, a question asks you for the main argument of the passage as a whole, rest assured that it will only take you about a minute to zip through to pick the right answer choice.

Method of Attack: Super-random topics, large words sprinkled in, but paragraphs are a snap to read quickly.

Weapons You'll Need: Vocabulary skills, an ability to scan, knowing when to read and when not to read the passage.

Before you know it, it will be a breeze to deliver that one-two punch necessary to destroy the twin bosses of Short Passages and move right along to the next foe.

2. Passage-Based Reading: Long Passages

This Mini Boss will try to put you in a temporary daze or hypnotize you so it can get you when you're not paying attention. Luckily, we have some strategies to help you avoid those sleeper-beams and maintain your high comprehension skills from beginning to end. The selections cover a wide range of topics and disciplines: You could be reading about jazz flute one minute and the behavior of kangaroo rats the next, but as long as you're able to stay focused, read actively, and take careful notes, these Long Passages can be terminated with a couple swift strokes of the pencil.

Method of Attack: Put you to sleep with long and seemingly boring topics, ask you about specific areas of the passage that you need to dig for, ask thematic-based questions.

Weapons You'll Need: Your pencil. No, seriously, the best way to stay awake through these drowse-inducing passages is to take active, thorough notes, write in the margins, underline key words, and circle important symbols and names. All that good stuff. Underlining and note-taking also helps you retain and keep track of what you just read so it will be easier to go back and find the answers when you need 'em.

4. Passage-Based Reading: Passage Comparisons

Arguably the most challenging of these four Mini Bosses, the Passage Comparisons require you to understand not one, but two passages, and how they relate to each other. They can be tough, but are definitely not out of your league, brave hero.

The good news? Each passage is not nearly as long as the Long Passages. Sometimes they are only a paragraph each. This fact means you do not have to deal with tackling a huge chunk of reading all at once. Also, if you keep in mind that you are primarily being tested on how these two passages relate to one another rather than needing to understand every single sentence of each one, beating this boss becomes much easier. Imagine the Passage Comparisons as two monsters having an argument over the best way to defeat you. You can sneak in while they're deciding whether "flamethrower" or "eaten by bears" would be the most effective method, figure out each of their weak points, and knock 'em out in no time.

Method of Attack: Two different viewpoints or arguments about the same topic, so you'll have two different authors' opinions to contend with. You will often be asked to decide how the author of Passage 1 would most likely respond to a statement made by the author of Passage 2. These guys do not get along.

Weapons You'll Need: An ability to recognize where each passage differs from the other and what this implies about each author's viewpoint. It's like watching people on a talk show discussing the latest gossip about Lady Gaga, except these passages will be about things like Charles Darwin, comic books, or ancient Greek mythology.

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*SAT is a registered trademark of the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and do not endorse, this product.