How to Prepare for theSAT Reading and Writing Test

Written by Edward James

Achieving an outstanding score on the SAT Reading and Writing test will make your application attractive to the best universities.

Scoring highly on this part of the test marks you out as a candidate with excellent facility with language, a particularly useful skill if you're thinking of majoring in a social science or humanities subject.

The SAT is divided into two sections: Mathematics and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing. Your answers to each of these sections will be marked out of 800 and the results combined for your overall score.

In 2023, successful applicants to the most competitive universities typically scored between 1470 and 1580 in their SATs. To maximise your chances of acceptance to these universities, you will therefore need to excel in both parts of the test.

Understanding the Reading & Writing section of the SAT

Reading & Writing section structure

The Reading and Writing test consists of two 32-minute sections (called 'modules'), containing a total of 54 questions.

When answering each module, you can move back and forth between the questions and check your answers until the time elapses, at which point your answers are submitted automatically. Once the time has expired at the end of the first module, that part of the test is finished and you should move on to the second module.  

The SAT is an 'adaptive' test which candidates complete digitally. This means that if you submit strong answers on the first module, you'll be asked more challenging questions on the second. Likewise, submitting a weaker set of answers on the first module will mean that you will be set easier questions on the second.  

For each question, you will read an unseen passage of between 25 and 150 words and answer a single multiple-choice question about it. These passages may be taken from the subject areas of history, social science, literature, the humanities and science.

Skills tested

The SAT Reading & Writing modules test four main skill areas:

  1. Information and Ideas: this refers to your ability to locate, understand and interpret information presented in a text or diagram.
  2. Craft and Structure: these questions test your ability to understand writers' uses of words and phrases in particular contexts and to evaluate how language is employed for particular effect.
  3. Expression of Ideas: this refers to your ability to re-write part of a text to improve the effectiveness of its expression.
  4. Standard English Conventions: these questions measure your ability to edit a text so that it conforms to the conventions of standard language use, grammar and punctuation.

These category-headings don't appear in the test itself. However, the SAT does group questions from each of these skill areas together, ranging from the easiest to the hardest.

Sample questions for each skill area of the SAT Reading & Writing test

Information and Ideas

The following text is adapted from William Shakespeare’s 1609 poem “Sonnet 27.” The poem is addressed to a close friend as if he were physically present.

Weary with toil, I [hurry] to my bed,

The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;

But then begins a journey in my head

To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:

For then my thoughts—from far where I abide—

[Begin] a zealous pilgrimage to thee,

And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,

What is the main idea of the text?

A) The speaker is asleep and dreaming about travelling to see the friend.
B) The speaker is planning an upcoming trip to the friend’s house.
C) The speaker is too fatigued to continue a discussion with the friend.
D) The speaker is thinking about the friend instead of immediately falling asleep

Craft and Structure

“To You” is an 1856 poem by Walt Whitman. In the poem, Whitman suggests that readers, whom he addresses directly, have not fully understood themselves, writing, _______

Which quotation from “To You” most effectively illustrates the claim?

A) “You have not known what you are, you have slumber’d upon yourself / all your life, / Your eyelids have been the same as closed most of the time.”
B) “These immense meadows, these interminable rivers, you are immense / and interminable as they.”
C) “I should have made my way straight to you long ago, / I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing / but you.”
D) “I will leave all and come and make the hymns of you, / None has understood you, but I understand you.”

Expression of Ideas

Seminole/Muscogee director Sterlin Harjo _______ television’s tendency to situate Native characters in the distant past: this rejection is evident in his series Reservation Dogs, which revolves around teenagers who dress in contemporary styles and whose dialogue is laced with current slang.

Which choice completes the text with the most logical and precise word or phrase?

A) repudiates
B) proclaims
C) foretells
D) recants

Standard English Conventions

In 1453, English King Henry VI became unfit to rule after falling gravely ill. As a result, Parliament appointed Richard, Third Duke of York, who had a strong claim to the English throne, to rule as Lord Protector. Upon recovering two years later, _______ forcing an angered Richard from the royal court and precipitating a series of battles later known as the Wars of the Roses.

Which choice completes the text so that it conforms to the conventions of Standard English?

A) Henry resumed his reign,
B) the reign of Henry resumed,
C) Henry’s reign resumed,
D) it was Henry who resumed his reign,

Test-taking strategies

The multiple-choice options are designed to induce doubts in the candidate about the correct answer. There will always be a right answer – but each of the four options will exude an aura of plausibility. Some of the options may also be worded very similarly.

It can therefore be helpful if you form your own idea of the right answer before you read the options. This way you'll be less likely to doubt your choice of answer.

Apply this tactic to the 'Information and Ideas' question that was quoted earlier.

A quick reading of this passage flags up some of its main themes. These include tiredness ('weary with toil'); active thoughts ('a journey in my head'); the speaker's passionate feelings for his friend ('a zealous pilgrimage to thee') and insomnia ('my drooping eyelids open wide'). It's clear from these details that the speaker is exhausted but can't sleep because he's thinking about his friend.

Now look at the multiple-choice options in the light of these ideas.

A is clearly incorrect – the speaker isn't referring to a literal journey but one that takes place in his mind. B and C are too specific as they include details not mentioned in the passage: there's no reference to the speaker's friend's house nor to any discussion they've had.

Having spent time thinking for yourself about the passage's main idea, you can rule out the incorrect options very quickly to arrive at the correct answer: D.

If you're struggling to determine the correct answer, focus on eliminating the obviously incorrect ones

You can then work out the right answer by paying very close attention to the language of the remaining options.

The advice given in the previous section isn't applicable to all questions on the paper. There will be times when you'll have to read the question straight through, including all the multiple-choice options.

Take the 'Craft and Structure' question quoted earlier.

You've been asked to identify a quotation which suggests that the poem's readers don't fully understand themselves.

Options B and C can be ruled out quickly. B concerns the idea of immensity, not a lack of self-knowledge; C refers to the poet's own regrets about his relationship with his readers.

Candidates may find themselves hovering between options A and D because both concern the difficulty of understanding others.

However, the question asks which quotation suggests that Whitman's readers lack understanding of themselves. This ought to direct you to option A which contains two phrases which refer directly to deficient self-knowledge: 'you have slumber'd upon yourself' and 'you have not known what you are'.  

If you struggle to answer inference questions, try re-wording some of the passage into simpler terms

Inference questions ask you to choose an option from a list of statements which will logically complete an unseen passage. Students often find answering these questions the most challenging aspect of the SAT.

Take the following example:

Although military veterans make up a small proportion of the total population of the United States, they occupy a significantly higher proportion of the jobs in the civilian government. One possible explanation for this disproportionate representation is that military service familiarizes people with certain organizational structures that are also reflected in the civilian government bureaucracy, and this familiarity thus _______

Which choice most logically completes the text? 

A) makes civilian government jobs especially appealing to military veterans.
B) alters the typical relationship between military service and subsequent career preferences.
C) encourages nonveterans applying for civilian government jobs to consider military service instead.
D) increases the number of civilian government jobs that require some amount of military experience to perform.

Effective study techniques for the SAT Reading & Writing test

Broaden your vocabulary through independent reading, not through rote-learning

If you encounter an unknown word in a practice paper, look up its dictionary definition but, more importantly, find some examples of how it might be used in a sentence. Keep a log of these examples.

It's obviously helpful to keep extending your vocabulary through reading a wide range of literary and academic writing. This will also nurture the skills of comprehension and analysis that you'll use elsewhere on the SAT.

However, trying to 'cram' lists of unfamiliar vocabulary isn't a very useful strategy as it denies you access to the contexts in which words acquire their meanings, making them harder to recall under pressure.

Revise the rules of standard language use, grammar and punctuation

You may not have studied these topics formally for many years. However, don't assume that understanding these rules is simply a matter of common sense or that they can be learnt by osmosis.

Important rules to note:

  • use of colons, semi-colons and full-stops
  • agreement between subjects and verbs
  • use of pronouns
  • avoidance of misplaced modifiers
  • the distinction between 'less' and 'fewer'
  • appropriate use of conjunctions and adverbial connectives (e.g. how to use 'however')
  • rules concerning sentence structure (e.g. avoiding ending sentences with prepositions)
  • use of commonly confused homophones (e.g. 'affect' and 'effect').

Use practice papers to identify your weaknesses

After you complete each practice paper, make sure that you reflect on your performance by doing all the following things. (This process will probably take longer than it did to complete the paper itself. It is, however, time well spent.)

  • Identify why you dropped marks and keep a record of the reasons why. For example, you might write: 'I was confused by the similar wording of options A and D' in Question 4' or 'I didn't understand some of the political vocabulary used in the passage for Question 10'. As you practise an increasing numbers of papers, you'll start to spot patterns in the mistakes that you make. Doing this allows you to target your revision so you can address the weaker aspects of your skill set.
  • Identify the questions where you had to guess the answers and think about the factors that informed your guess. Add these to the record that I mentioned above. Now that the time pressure is off, can you arrive at the correct answer using logic?
  • Identify the questions on which you spent the most time. How might you have answered these more efficiently?

Once you take time to understand their mistakes through this kind of analytical self-reflection, you will start to see improvements on your SAT scores very quickly.

How to manage your time

Ideally, reserve the final weeks before the exam for targeted, weakness-focused review. This is where your collection of mistakes will come in handy. Use them - they are your best friend.

Look at where you went wrong; understand those concepts or errors in your reading. You will be far less likely to commit these errors again. Keep reviewing the topics that constitute the weaker areas of your understanding and focus on relevant sample questions.

Timed practice is key in these final weeks. With all of your hard work up until this point, your theoretical foundation should be sturdy enough for you to focus your time largely on practice tests, enabling you to improve in time management and feel more comfortable completing the challenge in the time allotted.

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