SAT Critical Reading

The Critical Reading (often abbreviated as CR) section of the SAT totals 70 minutes in length and comprises 67 questions, of which 48 are passage- based (they test your ability to read effectively) and 19 are sentence- completion questions (these test your applied vocabulary). The CR section breaks these questions into three sections: one of 20 minutes and two of 25 minutes.

There are three main types of passage-based questions: short passage questions (off of which there are typically just a couple questions), long-passage questions, and dual- passage questions (which require more comparative reading and synthesizing of information on your part).

Sentence Completion

These questions test applied vocabulary. I say “applied” because the questions do not merely ask the definitions of words; they require that you, using your knowledge of the words’ definitions, select the most appropriate word in the context of the sentence. Basically, if you know the definitions of the words that are on the test and you have an understanding of syntax, you will get all the questions on this section correct.

First, let’s tackle the syntax element. Syntax generally refers to the relationship of the various phrases and clauses of a sentence. In order to understand what meaning is most appropriate in the blank, you must understand how the sentence is put together—this will allow you to know which words the word that you are looking for should semantically (i.e., with respect to meaning) differ from or agree with.

Consider the following sentence:

Instead of cautiously walking through the apple-tree forest, George carelessly ran through it

The trigger word here is “Instead,” which signals to us that the second part of the sentence will convey a message that differs from that communicated in the first part of the sentence. Therefore, we know that whatever words were chosen to modify “walking” or “ran,” they have to mean roughly opposite things. Indeed, if either italicized word were omitted, you could probably arrive at a near synonym to that in the above sentence. This is what you will have to do on the SAT, but usually with more-esoteric words. Here is one more example:

Bob, who welcomed all his fellow mice in for dinner almost every night, was praised as one of the most hospitable in his community.

We cannot rely so readily on grammatical symmetries for this sentence (e.g., adverb cautiously vs. adverb carelessly). Nonetheless, all the contextual information that we need is contained within the sentence. If we were asked to fill in the blank where “hospitable” now sits, in order to describe Bob, we would have to use the only information that the sentence gives us about him: he is welcoming. Thus, whatever we put in the blank needs to mean something to that effect.

On the test, there will also be some questions with two blanks. These should be approached in the same way, as they are fundamentally no different from single-blank questions. In fact, they may even be easier: if you can eliminate either of the choices for an answer, you know that it is incorrect.


For most students, the factor most limiting of their capacity to do well on the Sentence Completion questions is vocabulary. Some of the vocabulary tested on the SAT is not commonplace among most teenagers’ conversations. One way to build a robust vocabulary is to read a lot and look up any new words that you encounter. This is a great lifelong habit and will likely yield the most organic lexicon.

However, the most effective way to build a vocabulary that will help you on the SAT is to memorize words from books made especially for the test. Because the English language comprises so many words (hundreds of thousands), there is, of course, no way to ensure that you will know every word that will appear on your administration of the SAT. Nonetheless, rest assured: words on the SAT are not randomly selected from the Oxford English Dictionary; the selections are actually somewhat predictable. Preparatory companies exploit this by compiling word lists that are actually manageable in their brevity but helpful in their coverage.

The most efficient sources are Direct Hits Core Vocab and Direct Hits Toughest Vocab as discussed before. The books do not include many words, but they are very well-chosen and accompanied by interesting blurbs to help students better remember them. Everyone who takes the SAT should know the words in these books.

Once you have completed Direct Hits, additional vocabulary prep is not worth the time investment. Have a good vocabulary base, but focus more on understanding the structure of sentence completion questions.

Passage-Based Questions

These questions test your ability to read critically. Unlike the ACT Reading section, whose questions’ answers are largely pulled almost word-for-word from the text, the SAT Critical Reading section’s passage-based questions strike a balance between overly subjective and ambiguous questions and those of the type that the ACT has. Only with examples can you get a meaningful sense of how you need to think in order to consistently answer these questions correctly, yet one rule is paramount: every correct answer will be supported by the text. Keep this in mind at all times when answering passage-based questions on the SAT.Here is one effective process for approaching passages on the SAT:

  1. Immediately to the questions and find any line numberings.

2. Very quickly, mark these lines in the corresponding passage. These first two steps should not take more than 10-15 seconds.

3. Read the passage — focus and speed are crucial here. Obviously, you need to move very quickly, but do not go so fast that you cannot comprehend what you are reading.

4. When you begin to approach a marked section, go to the corresponding question and read it. Then read the marked section and see whether you can answer the question at that time. If not, move on.

5. Continue this until the end of the passage. At that time, go to any unanswered questions; these are usually general tone or purpose questions, or ones that require comparing or contrasting aspects of two passages. Because you have read through the entirety of the passage, you should know exactly where to look.

Finding the optimal pace at which you read the passages is crucial. Doing practice tests will help you to find this pace, and it will likewise increase the pace at which you can read for understanding. Another great way to increase your pace without sacrificing your accuracy is to make yourself acutely interested in the passage. Your brain will process information that it deems unimportant relatively slowly. You must therefore make yourself think that what you are reading is extremely interesting and, in turn, important. Such an attitude will heighten your focus. Hang on to every word; you will understand and remember more in a shorter period of time. Some people find visualizing what is described by the passage to be helpful.

Some guides suggest making notes about the text on your exam booklet, such as summaries of what is going on or thoughts on the author’s purpose. Integrating this process into your thinking is fine; actually writing these things down, though, is probably too time- consuming.

A lot of what is mentioned in the “How can I get the most out of The Blue Book?” section applies very much to improving on the passage-based questions.

A very similar approach is known as the Noitaraprep CR strategy.