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About the SAT/ACT and LSAT

About SAT Exam

Passage-based Reading

The reading questions on the SAT measure a student's ability to read and think carefully about several different passages ranging in length from about 100 to about 850 words. Passages are taken from a variety of fields, including the humanities, social studies, natural sciences, and literary fiction. They vary in style and can include narrative, argumentative, and expository elements. Some selections consist of a pair of related passages on a shared issue or theme that you are asked to compare and contrast.

The following kinds of questions may be asked about a passage:

  • Vocabulary in Context: These questions ask you to determine the meanings of words from their context in the reading passage.

  • Literal Comprehension: These questions assess your understanding of significant information directly stated in the passage.

  • Extended Reasoning: These questions measure your ability to synthesize and analyze information as well as to evaluate the assumptions made and the techniques used by the author. Most of the reading questions fall into this category. You may be asked to identify cause and effect, make inferences, recognize a main idea or an author's tone, and follow the logic of an analogy or an argument.

Approaching Passage-based Reading
Below are samples of the kind of reading passages and questions that may appear on your test. For each set of sample materials, you should:
  • read the passage carefully,
  • decide on the best answer to each question, and then
  • read the explanation for the correct answer.

The passages below are followed by questions based on their content; questions following a pair of related passages may also be based on the relationship between the paired passages. Answer the questions on the basis of what is stated or implied in the passages and in any introductory material that may be provided.
The questions below are based on the following passage.

Line 5 "The rock was still wet. The
animal was glistening, like it was
still swimming," recalls Hou
Xianguang. Hou discovered the
unusual fossil while surveying rocks
Line 10 as a paleontology graduate student
in 1984, near the Chinese town of
Chengjiang. "My teachers always
talked about the Burgess Shale
animals. It looked like one of them.
Line 15 My hands began to shake."
Hou had indeed found a Naraoia
like those from Canada. However,
Hou's animal was 15 million years
older than its Canadian relatives.

Some of the reading passages in the SAT are as short as a paragraph or two, about 100 words in length. You will also find one or more pairs of related short passages in each edition of the test. Such material can be followed by two to five questions that measure the same kinds of reading skills as are measured by the questions following longer passages.

Sample Questions
Some questions ask you to recognize the meaning of a word as it is used in the context of the passage.

In line 5, "surveying" most nearly means
(A) calculating the value of
(B) examining comprehensively
(C) determining the boundaries of
(D) polling randomly
(E) conducting a statistical study of

Correct answer: (B)

The word "surveying" has a number of meanings, several of which are included in the choices above. In the context of this passage, however, only (B) makes sense. A student in the field of "paleontology" is one who studies prehistoric life as recorded in fossil remains. One of the activities of such a student would be to examine rocks carefully and "comprehensively" while looking for fossils.

(A), (C), and (E) are incorrect because someone who studies fossils would not calculate the "value" of rocks, or determine the "boundaries" of rocks, or conduct a "statistical study" of rocks.

(D) is wrong because "polling" rocks makes no sense at all.

You may be asked to make an inference or draw a conclusion about a statement made in the passage.

It can be inferred that Hou Xianguang's "hands began to shake" (line 11) because he was
(A) afraid that he might lose the fossil
(B) worried about the implications of his finding
(C) concerned that he might not get credit for his work
(D) uncertain about the authenticity of the fossil
(E) excited about the magnitude of his discovery

In the passage, Hou states that the fossil that he found "looked like" certain other fossils that his "teacher always talked about." He understands almost immediately, therefore, the significance of what he has found, and so (E) is the correct answer: Hou's hands were shaking because he was "excited about the magnitude of his discovery."
  • (A) is wrong because there is no suggestion that Hou was "afraid that he might lose the fossil."
  • (B) and (C) are wrong because Hou was not "worried about" his discovery or "concerned that he might not get credit." The passage indicates only that Hou recognized that he had found something valuable.
  • (D) is wrong because Hou's immediate reaction is that he thinks he has found an important fossil. The first two sentences of the passage dramatize the discovery; it is Hou's excitement that causes him to tremble, not his uncertainty.