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FORMAT OF THE READING SECTION
The SAT includes 3 reading sections: Two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section.
Each section consists of two types of questions: Sentence Completions and Reading Comprehension.
They are designed to test your ability to reason using the written word.
The sentence Completion questions are listed in ascending order of difficulty,
but the reading comprehension questions are not. There is a total of 19 sentence completion questions,
and a total of 48 reading comprehension questions, which are drawn from both long passages (400850 words)
and short passages (about 150 words). The long and short passages have the same type of questions.
Questions 1-8: Sentence Completions
Questions 9-24: Reading Comprehension
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The verbal section is essentially a vocabulary test. With the exception
of reading comprehension, if you know the word, you will probably be able
to answer the question correctly. Thus, it is crucial that you improve
your vocabulary. Yet, even if you have a strong vocabulary, you will still
encounter unfamiliar words on the SAT. Much of the verbal portion of this
section is dedicated to studying techniques that will help you discern
the meaning of words you barely recognize.
Nevertheless, don't rely on just these techniques--you must study word
lists. Obviously, you cannot attempt to memorize the dictionary, and you
don't need to. The SAT tests a surprisingly limited number of words. Granted,
memorizing a list of words is rather dry, but it is probably the most effective
way of improving your performance on the verbal section. (For a list of
the 4000 essential SAT words see our book SAT PrepCourse.)
Attempt the reading comprehension only after you have completed the
sentence completions and the analogies. As mentioned before, each question
on the SAT is worth the same number of points, whether it is long and hard
or short and easy. Further, there are about as many sentence completion
and analogy questions as there are reading comprehension questions. But
the sentence completions and analogies take only a fraction of the time
that the reading comprehension does.
On the new SAT, 48 of the 67 reading questions are on reading comprehension.
Hence, this section is particularly important. Each SAT passage is
about 150 to 850 words long, and each is followed by two to thirteen questions.
The subject matter of a passage can be almost anything, but the most common
themes are politics, history, culture, and science.
Some books recommend speed-reading the passages. This is a mistake.
Speed reading is designed for ordinary, nontechnical material. Because
this material is filled with "fluff," you can skim over the nonessential
parts and still get the gist--and often more--of the passage. However,
SAT passages are dense. Some are actual quoted articles. Most often, however,
they are based on articles that have been condensed to about one-third
their original length. During this process no essential information is
lost, just the "fluff" is cut. This is why speed reading will not work
here--the passages contain too much information. You should, however, read
somewhat faster than you normally do, but not to the point that your comprehension
suffers. You will have to experiment to find your optimum pace.
Many books recommend reading the questions before the passage. But there
are two big problems with this method. First, some of the questions are
a paragraph long, and reading a question twice can use up precious time.
Second, there are up to seven questions per passage, and psychologists
have shown that we can hold in our minds a maximum of about three thoughts
at any one time (some of us have trouble simply remembering phone numbers).
After reading all seven questions, the student will turn to the passage
with his mind clouded by half-remembered thoughts. This will at best waste
his time and distract him. More likely it will turn the passage into a
disjointed mass of information.
However, one technique that you may find helpful is to preview the passage
by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Generally, the topic of
a paragraph is contained in the first sentence. Reading the first sentence
of each paragraph will give an overview of the passage. The topic sentences
act in essence as a summary of the passage. Furthermore, since each passage
is only three or four paragraphs long, previewing the topic sentences will
not use up an inordinate amount of time.
THE SIX QUESTIONS
The key to performing well on the passages is not the particular reading
technique you use (so long as it's neither speed reading nor pre-reading
the questions). Rather the key is to become completely familiar with the
question types--there are only six--so that you can anticipate the questions
that might be asked as you read the passage and answer those that are asked
more quickly and efficiently. As you become familiar with the six question
types, you will gain an intuitive sense for the places from which questions
are likely to be drawn. This will give you the same advantage as that claimed
by the "pre-reading-the-questions" technique, without the confusion and
waste of time. Note, the order in which the questions are asked roughly
corresponds to the order in which the main issues are presented in the
passage. Early questions should correspond to information given early in
the passage, and so on.
The following passage and accompanying questions illustrate the six
There are two major systems of criminal procedure in the modern world--the
adversarial and the inquisitorial. The former is associated with common
law tradition and the latter with civil law tradition. Both systems were
historically preceded by the system of private vengeance in which the victim
of a crime fashioned his own remedy and administered it privately, either
personally or through an agent. The vengeance system was a system of self-help,
the essence of which was captured in the slogan "an eye for an eye, a tooth
for a tooth." The modern adversarial system is only one historical step
removed from the private vengeance system and still retains some of its
characteristic features. Thus, for example, even though the right to institute
criminal action has now been extended to all members of society and even
though the police department has taken over the pretrial investigative
functions on behalf of the prosecution, the adversarial system still leaves
the defendant to conduct his own pretrial investigation. The trial is still
viewed as a duel between two adversaries, refereed by a judge who, at the
beginning of the trial has no knowledge of the investigative background
of the case. In the final analysis the adversarial system of criminal procedure
symbolizes and regularizes the punitive combat.
By contrast, the inquisitorial system begins historically where the
adversarial system stopped its development. It is two historical steps
removed from the system of private vengeance. Therefore, from the standpoint
of legal anthropology, it is historically superior to the adversarial system.
Under the inquisitorial system the public investigator has the duty to
investigate not just on behalf of the prosecutor but also on behalf of
the defendant. Additionally, the public prosecutor has the duty to present
to the court not only evidence that may lead to the conviction of the defendant
but also evidence that may lead to his exoneration. This system mandates
that both parties permit full pretrial discovery of the evidence in their
possession. Finally, in an effort to make the trial less like a duel between
two adversaries, the inquisitorial system mandates that the judge take
an active part in the conduct of the trial, with a role that is both directive
Fact-finding is at the heart of the inquisitorial system. This system
operates on the philosophical premise that in a criminal case the crucial
factor is not the legal rule but the facts of the case and that the goal
of the entire procedure is to experimentally recreate for the court the
commission of the alleged crime.
MAIN IDEA QUESTIONS
The main idea is usually stated in the last--occasionally the first--sentence
of the first paragraph. If it's not there, it will probably be the last
sentence of the entire passage.
Because main idea questions are relatively easy, the SAT writers try
to obscure the correct answer by surrounding it with close answer-choices
("detractors") that either overstate or understate the author's main point.
Answer-choices that stress specifics tend to understate the main idea;
choices that go beyond the scope of the passage tend to overstate the main
The answer to a main idea question will summarize the author's argument,
yet be neither too specific nor too broad.
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
The primary purpose of the passage is to
(A) explain why the inquisitorial system is the best system of criminal
(B) explain how the adversarial and the inquisitorial systems of criminal
justice both evolved from the system of private vengeance
(C) show how the adversarial and inquisitorial systems of criminal justice
can both complement and hinder each other's development
(D) show how the adversarial and inquisitorial systems of criminal justice
are being combined into a new and better system
(E) analyze two systems of criminal justice and deduce which one is
The answer to a main idea question will summarize the passage without
going beyond it. (A) violates these criteria by overstating the scope of
the passage. The comparison in the passage is between two specific systems,
not between all systems. (A) would be a good answer if "best" were replaced
with "better." Beware of extreme words. (B) violates the criteria
by understating the scope of the passage. Although the evolution of both
the adversarial and the inquisitorial systems is discussed in the passage,
it is done to show why one is superior to the other. As to (C) and (D),
both can be quickly dismissed since neither is mentioned in the passage.
Finally, the passage does two things: it presents two systems of criminal
justice and shows why one is better than the other. (E) aptly summarizes
this, so it is the best answer.
Description questions, as with main idea questions, refer to a point
made by the author. However, description questions refer to a minor point
or to incidental information, not to the author's main point.
The answer to a description question must refer directly to a statement
in the passage, not to something implied by it. However, the correct answer
will paraphrase a statement in the passage, not give an exact quote. In
fact, exact quotes ("Same language" traps) are often used to bait wrong
Caution: When answering a description question, you must find the point
in the passage from which the question is drawn. Don't rely on memory--too
many obfuscating tactics are used with these questions.
Not only must the correct answer refer directly to a statement in the
passage, it must refer to the relevant statement. The correct answer will
be surrounded by wrong choices which refer directly to the passage but
don't address the question. These choices can be tempting because they
tend to be quite close to the actual answer.
Once you spot the sentence to which the question refers, you still must
read a few sentences before and after it, to put the question in context.
If a question refers to line 20, the information needed to answer it can
occur anywhere from line 15 to 25. Even if you have spotted the answer
in line 20, you should still read a couple more lines to make certain you
have the proper perspective.
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
According to the passage, the inquisitorial system differs from the
adversarial system in that
(A) it does not make the defendant solely responsible for gathering
evidence for his case
(B) it does not require the police department to work on behalf of the
(C) it does not allow the victim the satisfaction of private vengeance
(D) it requires the prosecution to drop a weak case
(E) a defendant who is innocent would prefer to be tried under the inquisitorial
This is a description question, so the information needed to answer
it must be stated in the passage--though not in the same language as in
the answer. The needed information is contained in the fourth sentence
of Paragraph 3, which states that the public prosecutor has to investigate
on behalf of both society and the defendant. Thus, the defendant is not
solely responsible for investigating his case. Furthermore, the paragraph's
opening implies that this feature is not found in the adversarial system.
This illustrates why you must determine the context of the situation before
you can safely answer the question. The answer is (A).
Writing Technique Questions
All coherent writing has a superstructure or blueprint. When writing,
we don't just randomly jot down our thoughts; we organize our ideas and
present them in a logical manner. For instance, we may present evidence
that builds up to a conclusion but intentionally leave the conclusion unstated,
or we may present a position and then contrast it with an opposing position,
or we may draw an extended analogy.
There is an endless number of writing techniques that authors use to
present their ideas, so we cannot classify every method. However, some
techniques are very common to the type of explanatory or opinionated writing
found in SAT passages.
A. Compare and contrast two positions.
This technique has a number of variations, but the most common and direct
is to develop two ideas or systems (comparing) and then point out why one
is better than the other (contrasting).
Writing-technique questions are similar to main idea questions; except
that they ask about how the author presents his ideas, not about the ideas
themselves. Generally, you will be given only two writing methods to choose
from, but each method will have two or more variations.
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
Which one of the following best describes the organization of the passage?
(A) Two systems of criminal justice are compared and contrasted, and
one is deemed to be better than the other.
(B) One system of criminal justice is presented as better than another.
Then evidence is offered to support that claim.
(C) Two systems of criminal justice are analyzed, and one specific example
is examined in detail.
(D) A set of examples is furnished. Then a conclusion is drawn from
(E) The inner workings of the criminal justice system are illustrated
by using two systems.
Clearly the author is comparing and contrasting two criminal justice
systems. Indeed, the opening to paragraph two makes this explicit. The
author uses a mixed form of comparison and contrast. He opens the passage
by developing (comparing) both systems and then shifts to developing just
the adversarial system. He opens the second paragraph by contrasting the
two criminal justice systems and then further develops just the inquisitorial
system. Finally, he closes by again contrasting the two systems and implying
that the inquisitorial system is superior.
Only two answer-choices, (A) and (B), have any real merit. They say
essentially the same thing--though in different order. Notice in the passage
that the author does not indicate which system is better until the end
of paragraph one, and he does not make that certain until paragraph two.
This contradicts the order given by (B). Hence the answer is (A). (Note:
In (A) the order is not specified and therefore is harder to attack, whereas
in (B) the order is definite and therefore is easier to attack. Remember
that a measured response is harder to attack and therefore is more likely
to be the answer.)
B. Show cause and effect.
In this technique, the author typically shows how a particular cause
leads to a certain result or set of results. It is not uncommon for this
method to introduce a sequence of causes and effects. A causes B, which
causes C, which causes D, and so on. Hence B is both the effect of A and
the cause of C.
Thirdly, I worry about the private automobile. It is a dirty, noisy,
wasteful, and lonely means of travel. It pollutes the air, ruins the safety
and sociability of the street, and exercises upon the individual a discipline
which takes away far more freedom than it gives him. It causes an enormous
amount of land to be unnecessarily abstracted from nature and from plant
life and to become devoid of any natural function. It explodes cities,
grievously impairs the whole institution of neighborliness, fragmentizes
and destroys communities. It has already spelled the end of our cities
as real cultural and social communities, and has made impossible the construction
of any others in their place. Together with the airplane, it has crowded
out other, more civilized and more convenient means of transport, leaving
older people, infirm people, poor people and children in a worse situation
than they were a hundred years ago. It continues to lend a terrible element
of fragility to our civilization, placing us in a situation where our life
would break down completely if anything ever interfered with the oil supply.
George F. Kennan
Which of the following best describes the organization of the passage?
(A) A problem is presented and then a possible solution is discussed.
(B) The benefits and demerits of the automobile are compared and contrasted.
(C) A topic is presented and a number of its effects are discussed.
(D) A set of examples is furnished to support a conclusion.
This passage is laden with effects. Kennan introduces the cause, the
automobile, in the opening sentence and from there on presents a series
of effects--the automobile pollutes, enslaves, and so on. Hence the answer
is (C). Note: (D) is the second-best choice; it is disqualified by two
flaws. First, in this context, "examples" is not as precise as "effects."
Second, the order is wrong: the conclusion, "I worry about the private
automobile" is presented first and then the examples: it pollutes, it enslaves,
C. State a position and then give supporting evidence.
This technique is common with opinionated passages. Equally common is
the reverse order. That is, the supporting evidence is presented and then
the position or conclusion is stated. And sometimes the evidence will be
structured to build up to a conclusion which is then left unstated. If
this is done skillfully the reader will be more likely to arrive at the
same conclusion as the author.
Extension questions are the most common. They require you to go beyond
what is stated in the passage, asking you to draw an inference from the
passage, to make a conclusion based on the passage, or to identify one
of the author's tacit assumptions.
Since extension questions require you to go beyond the passage, the
correct answer must say more than what is said in the passage. Beware of
same language traps with these questions: the correct answer will often
both paraphrase and extend a statement in the passage, but it will not
directly quote it.
"Same Language" traps: For extension questions, any answer-choice
that explicitly refers to or repeats a statement in the passage will probably
The correct answer to an extension question will not require a quantum
leap in thought, but it will add significantly to the ideas presented in
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
The author views the prosecution's role in the inquisitorial system
(A) an advocate for both society and the defendant
(B) solely responsible for starting a trial
(C) a protector of the legal rule
(D) an investigator only
(E) an aggressive but fair investigator
This is an extension question. So the answer will not be explicitly
stated in the passage, but it will be strongly supported by it.
The author states that the prosecutor is duty bound to present any evidence
that may prove the defendant innocent and that he must disclose all pretrial
evidence (i.e., have no tricks up his sleeve). This is the essence of fair
play. The answer is (E).
Application questions differ from extension questions only in degree.
Extension questions ask you to apply what you have learned from the passage
to derive new information about the same subject, whereas application questions
go one step further, asking you to apply what you have learned from the
passage to a different or hypothetical situation.
To answer an application question, take the author's perspective. Ask
yourself: what am I arguing for? what might make my argument stronger?
what might make it weaker?
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
Based on the information in the passage, it can be inferred that which
one of the following would most logically begin a paragraph immediately
following the passage?
(A) Because of the inquisitorial system's thoroughness in conducting
its pretrial investigation, it can be concluded that a defendant who is
innocent would prefer to be tried under the inquisitorial system, whereas
a defendant who is guilty would prefer to be tried under the adversarial
(B) As the preceding analysis shows, the legal system is in a constant
state of flux. For now the inquisitorial system is ascendant, but it will
probably be soon replaced by another system.
(C) The accusatorial system begins where the inquisitorial system ends.
So it is three steps removed from the system of private vengeance, and
therefore historically superior to it.
(D) Because in the inquisitorial system the judge must take an active
role in the conduct of the trial, his competency and expertise have become
(E) The criminal justice system has evolved to the point that it no
longer seems to be derivative of the system of private vengeance. Modern
systems of criminal justice empower all of society with the right to instigate
a legal action, and the need for vengeance is satisfied through a surrogate--the
The author has rather thoroughly presented his position, so the next
paragraph would be a natural place for him to summarize it. The passage
compares and contrasts two systems of criminal justice, implying that the
inquisitorial system is superior. We expect the concluding paragraph to
sum up this position. Now all legal theory aside, the system of justice
under which an innocent person would choose to be judged would, as a practical
matter, pretty much sum up the situation. Hence the answer is (A).
Tone questions ask you to identify the writer's attitude or perspective.
Is the writer's feeling toward the subject positive, negative, or neutral?
Does the writer give his own opinion, or does he objectively present the
opinions of others?
Before you read the answer-choices, decide whether the writer's tone
is positive, negative, or neutral. It is best to do this without referring
to the passage.
However, if you did not get a feel for the writer's attitude on the
first reading, check the adjectives that he chooses. Adjectives and, to
a lesser extent, adverbs express our feelings toward subjects. For instance,
if we agree with a person who holds strong feelings about a subject, we
may describe his opinions as impassioned. On the other hand, if we disagree
with him, we may describe his opinions as excitable, which has the same
meaning as "impassioned" but carries a negative connotation.
Example: (Refer to the first passage.)
The author's attitude toward the adversarial system can best be described
(A) encouraged that it is far removed from the system of private vengeance
(B) concerned that it does not allow all members of society to instigate
(C) pleased that it does not require the defendant to conduct his own
(D) hopeful that it will be replaced by the inquisitorial system
(E) doubtful that it is the best vehicle for justice
The author does not reveal his feelings toward the adversarial system
until the end of paragraph one. Clearly the clause "the adversarial system
of criminal procedure symbolizes and regularizes the punitive combat" indicates
that he has a negative attitude toward the system. This is confirmed in
the second paragraph when he states that the inquisitorial system is historically
superior to the adversarial system. So he feels that the adversarial system
The "two-out-of-five" rule is at work here: only choices (D) and (E)
have any real merit. Both are good answers. But which one is better? Intuitively,
choice (E) is more likely to be the answer because it is more measured.
To decide between two choices attack each: the one that survives is the
answer. Now a tone question should be answered from what is directly stated
in the passage--not from what it implies. Although the author has reservations
toward the adversarial system, at no point does he say that he hopes the
inquisitorial system will replace it, he may prefer a third system over
both. This eliminates (D); the answer therefore is (E).
As mentioned before, each passage contains 200 to 600 words and only
four to seven questions, so you will not be tested on most of the material
in the passage. Your best reading strategy, therefore, is to identify the
places from which questions will most likely be drawn and concentrate your
Pivotal words can help in this regard. Following are the most common
As you may have noticed, these words indicate contrast. Pivotal words
warn that the author is about to either make a U-turn or introduce a counter-premise
(concession to a minor point that weakens the argument).
I submit that the strikers should accept the management's offer. Admittedly,
it is less than what was demanded. But it does resolve the main grievance--inadequate
health care. Furthermore, an independent study shows that a wage increase
greater than 5% would leave the company unable to compete against Japan
and Germany, forcing it into bankruptcy.
The conclusion, "the strikers should accept the management's offer,"
is stated in the first sentence. Then "Admittedly" introduces a concession
(counter-premise); namely, that the offer was less than what was demanded.
This weakens the speaker's case, but it addresses a potential criticism
of his position before it can be made. The last two sentences of the argument
present more compelling reasons to accept the offer and form the gist of
Pivotal words mark natural places for questions to be drawn. At a pivotal
word, the author changes direction. The SAT writers form questions at these
junctures to test whether you turned with the author or you continued to
go straight. Rarely do the SAT writers let a pivotal word pass without
drawing a question from its sentence.
Word analysis (etymology) is the process of separating a word
into its parts and then using the meanings of those parts to deduce
the meaning of the original word. Take, for example, the word
INTERMINABLE. It is made up of three parts: a prefix IN (not),
a root TERMIN (stop), and a suffix ABLE (can do). Therefore, by
word analysis, INTERMINABLE means "not able to stop." This is
not the literal meaning of INTERMINABLE (endless), but it is close
enough to find an antonym. For another example, consider the word
RETROSPECT. It is made up of the prefix RETRO (back) and the root
SPECT (to look). Hence, RETROSPECT means "to look back (in time),
Word analysis is very effective in decoding the meaning of words.
However, you must be careful in its application since words do
not always have the same meaning as the sum of the meanings of
their parts. In fact, on occasion words can have the opposite
meaning of their parts. For example, by word analysis the word
AWFUL should mean "full of awe," or awe-inspiring. But over the
years it has come to mean just the opposite--terrible. In spite
of the shortcomings, word analysis gives the correct meaning of
a word (or at least a hint of it) far more often than not and
therefore is a useful tool.
Analysis: IN (not); DE (thoroughly); FATIG (fatigue); ABLE (can
Meaning: cannot be fatigued, tireless
Analysis: CIRCUM (around); SPECT (to look)
Meaning: to look around, that is, to be cautious
Analysis: ANTI (against); PATH (to feel); Y (noun suffix)
Meaning: to feel strongly against something, to hate
Sentence completions begin each reading section. This is fortunate since
the sentence completions are a good warm-up for the harder reading comprehension.
The sentence completions form the most straightforward part of
the SAT, and most students do well on them.
Before You Look At The Answer-Choices, Think Of A Word That
"Fits" The Sentence.
Crestfallen by having done poorly on the SAT, Susan began to
question her abilities. Her self-confidence was ..........
If somebody is crestfallen (despairing) and has begun to question
herself, then her self-confidence would be destroyed. Hence, the
answer is (B).
Be Alert To Transitional Words.
Transitional words tell you what is coming up. They indicate
that the author is now going to draw a contrast with something
stated previously, or support something stated previously.
A. Contrast Indicators
To contrast two things is to point out how they differ. In this
type of sentence completion problem, we look for a word that has
the opposite meaning (an antonym) of some key word or phrase in
the sentence. Following are some of the most common contrast indicators:
Although the warring parties had settled a number of disputes,
past experience made them .......... to express optimism that
the talks would be a success.
"Although" sets up a contrast between what has occurred--success
on some issues--and what can be expected to occur--success for
the whole talks. Hence, the parties are reluctant to express optimism.
The common word "reluctant" is not offered as an answer-choice,
but a synonym--reticent--is. The answer is (E).
B. Support Indicators
Supporting words support or further explain what has already
been said. These words often introduce synonyms for words elsewhere
in the sentence. Following are some common supporting words:
Davis is an opprobrious and .......... speaker, equally caustic
toward friend or foe--a true curmudgeon.
"And" in the sentence indicates that the missing adjective is
similar in meaning to "opprobrious," which is very negative. Now,
vituperative--the only negative word--means "abusive." Hence,
the answer is (B).
C. Cause And Effect Indicators
These words indicate that one thing causes another to occur.
Some of the most common cause and effect indicators are
|If , Then .
Because the House has the votes to override a presidential veto,
the President has no choice but to .........
Since the House has the votes to pass the bill or motion, the
President would be wise to compromise and make the best of the
situation. The answer is (E).
This rather advanced grammatical structure is very common on
the SAT. (Don't confuse "apposition" with "opposition": they have
Words or phrases in apposition are placed next to each other,
and the second word or phrase defines, clarifies, or gives evidence
to the first word or phrase. The second word or phrase will be
set off from the first by a comma, semicolon, hyphen, or parentheses.
Note: If a comma is not followed by a linking word--such as and,
for, yet--then the following phrase is probably appositional.
Identifying an appositional structure, can greatly simplify a
sentence completion problem since the appositional word, phrase,
or clause will define the missing word.
His novels are .......... ; he uses a long circumlocution when
a direct coupling of a simple subject and verb would be best.
The sentence has no linking words (such as because, although,
etc.). Hence, the phrase following the semicolon is in apposition
to the missing word--it defines or further clarifies the missing
word. Now, writing filled with circumlocutions is aptly described
as prolix. The answer is (A).