What’s on the SAT Reading Test?

So you’re thinking about taking the SAT, but want to know more about what’s on the SAT Reading Test? Look no further! In this article, we’ll break down this seemingly daunting section and get you up to speed on what you should expect on test day.

The Basics

If the SAT Reading Test were a dinosaur in Jurassic Park, it would probably be the T-Rex. It’s big. It’s intimidating. Its distant footsteps send ripples through your glass of water and create a sense of impending doom. But don’t run away! (It wouldn’t help anyway, right?) As with the T-Rex, by better understanding what we’re up against, we can more easily survive—nay, conquer—this formidable section of the SAT.

Don’t be afraid.

Consisting of 52 multiple-choice questions to be completed in a total of 65 minutes, the SAT Reading Test is the longest of any section on either the SAT or ACT. Chronologically, it’s always the first section you’ll encounter on the SAT, so it will test your focus and endurance as well as set the tone for the rest of the test. No pressure.

Let’s now descend into the belly of the beast to see exactly what you’ll be up against on the SAT Reading Test.

The Passages

It’s test day—more specifically, a Saturday morning at what feels like the crack of dawn.

Rise and shine.

At the proctor’s command, you open your test booklet and come face to face with your first obstacle: the Reading Test. What lies before you, aside from what may seem to be just a giant wall of text?

Each SAT Reading Test consists of six passages, two of which appear together as a set. The four single passages each average between 500-750 words in length, while the two paired passages are shorter and range from 250-600 words each. SAT Reading passages are generally excerpted from longer texts: books, articles, speeches, and essays are all common sources. At the beginning of each passage is a short blurb, which provides basic contextual and bibliographic information. Reading this blurb can help you to key in on main ideas more quickly, especially in the case of challenging passages.

In terms of difficulty, the level of complexity of the passages may vary. Some passages are direct and easy to follow—you can imagine, for example, a scientist’s clear description of the steps of an experiment. Other passages, however, may contain difficult vocabulary or sentence structure, such as a letter written by a suffragette in the 1800s, filled with flowery and figurative language.

Thankfully, the makers of the SAT ensure that there will be a mixture of complexity levels on each test, so you don’t have to worry about encountering a Reading Test full of high-complexity passages. As a rule, each passage on the SAT is something you could expect to encounter in a high school or college class. Your job is to apply your upper-level reading comprehension skills to each passage and its corresponding questions, even if the subject matter is unfamiliar to you.

The topics of these passages span three different categories: U.S. and world literature, history/social studies, and science. The set of paired passages will always be either from history/social studies or science. Let’s briefly touch on each of the three main passage types.

The Literature Passage:

The first passage on the test will always come from the U.S. and World Literature category, drawn from either a modern or classic work. This passage type can be a mixed bag, as narrative styles can vary widely depending on both the author and the time period in which the passage was written.

The History/Social Studies Passages:

Every SAT Reading Test includes two history/social studies passages.

One of these will be drawn from the Great Global Conversation, a collection of important historical texts from U.S. or world history. These historical passages may date as far back as the 1700s (e.g. U.S. founding documents) and may therefore exhibit some significant stylistic differences to more modern texts.

In addition to this historical passage, the social studies passage may be drawn from fields such as political science, psychology, economics, or sociology. One of these passages will appear with some sort of informational graphic, which could be a graph, table, figure, or some combination of these. Furthermore, all questions from the history/social studies passages will contribute to your subscore in the ‘Analysis in History/Social Studies’.

The Science Passages:

The topics you may encounter in the two science passages span from Earth science and biology to chemistry and physics. It is not necessary to have any in-depth prior knowledge of these fields—everything you need to know can be found in the passage. As in the case of history/social studies, one of the science passages will be accompanied by an informational graphic. All questions from science passages will contribute to your ‘Analysis in Science’ subscore.

The Paired Passages:

Before moving on to examine another aspect of the SAT Reading Test, let’s talk a little more about the paired passages. We know these will be from either history/social studies or science, and the two passages will both be written on the same topic. Sometimes these passages will focus on two contradicting perspectives on a certain issue (e.g. two politicians arguing for and against a certain policy). Other times, the relationship can be a little less direct—for example, the purpose of one passage may be to describe the history behind a certain scientific theory, while the other passage may detail an experimental procedure incorporating this theory. Although the relationship between these passages can vary, we can always expect some overlap and a few corresponding questions.

Speaking of questions, let’s now leave the topic of passages behind and discuss the different types of questions that appear on the SAT Reading Test.

The Questions

As in the other sections of the SAT, questions in the Reading Test are all multiple choice with four possible answers. With a total of 52 questions on the SAT Reading Test (approximately 10-11 questions per passage), the approximate time you’ll have to solve each question averages out to a minute and 15 seconds. While that may sound like a lot, this average doesn’t include the time needed to actually read the passage. Pacing, therefore, is a crucial skill for SAT Reading and becoming a better test taker.

OK, you get it. So many questions, so little time. But what kind of questions are even on the Reading Test, and how do they differ from the ones you might find on a literature test in school?

What is your quest? What is your name? What is your favorite color?

While it’s true that there is a wide variety of questions on the SAT Reading Test, all of these questions can actually be classified into just three categories: information and ideas, rhetoric, and synthesis. Let’s expand a little on each of these.
Information and Ideas:

These questions are the bread and butter of the SAT Reading Test, and the key to answering them lies in understanding what the author is saying, either directly or indirectly. When solving these questions, you should be able to underline proof in the passage to support the correct answer—unlike a literature test in school, the SAT is no place for your innovative personal interpretations of what the passage might be saying. Information and ideas questions can also contribute to two SAT subscores: ‘Words in Context’ (identifying the meaning of a word or phrase as it is used in the passage) and ‘Command of Evidence’ (choosing the best textual evidence for the answer to a previous question).


While information and ideas questions are concerned with what the author is saying, rhetoric questions take it one step further and ask you to examine why the author makes certain stylistic decisions or how the author is achieving his/her goal through the use of language. To successfully answer these questions, you must still use information from the passage, but you must also put on your analysis cap and consider the intent behind the words on the page.


The smallest subset of the question types, synthesis questions only appear with paired passages or informational graphics. For these questions, you are asked to draw connections and identify relationships between two different sources (i.e. passage to graphic or one passage to another).

The Takeaway

So there you have it—the SAT Reading Test in all its glory.

I can see clearly now!

As you probably noticed, there’s a lot that goes into this section, in terms of both passages and questions. But once you take a closer look, you’ll start to notice patterns that emerge—question types repeat themselves, and you’ll use the same approach when answering them. You’ll also start to notice patterns in the mistakes you consistently make—maybe you struggle with science passages or find yourself stumped by rhetoric questions. By understanding, classifying, and targeting your areas of weakness, you can begin to shape your SAT Reading approach into the personal test-taking strategy that works best for you! (Cue triumphant Jurassic Park theme.)

Think you need a bit of help getting to your goal? Schedule a call with one Testive’s Student Success Advisors to figure out a prep plan that works for you. Good luck, and happy prepping!

By |2020-02-28T18:48:22+00:00February 28th, 2020|SAT, Uncategorized|

About the Author:

Audrey is a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, who earned her BA at Baylor University and MA in linguistics at Boğaziçi University (Istanbul, Turkey). She is passionate about traveling the world and being immersed in new languages and cultures. Audrey has been teaching SAT prep since 2015 and has accumulated over 2500 hours of experience instructing top-scoring students internationally, in such locations as South Korea, Turkey, and India.