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Introduction to Reading Comprehension

​On the 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.

Most people find the passages difficult because the subject matter is dry and unfamiliar. Obscure subject matter is chosen so that your reading comprehension will be tested, not your knowledge of a particular subject. Also the more esoteric the subject the more likely everyone taking the test will be on an even playing field. However, because the material must still be accessible to laymen, you won’t find any tracts on subtle issues of philosophy or abstract mathematics. In fact, if you read books on current affairs and the Op/Ed page of the newspaper, then the style of writing used in the SAT passages will be familiar and you probably won’t find the reading comprehension section particularly difficult.

The passages use a formal, compact style. They are typically taken from articles in academic journals, but they are rarely reprinted verbatim. Usually the chosen article is heavily edited until it is honed down to about 150 to 850 words. The formal style of the piece is retained but much of the “fluff” is removed. The editing process condenses the article to about one-third its original length. Thus, an SAT passage contains about three times as much information for its length as does the original article. This is why the passages are similar to the writing on the Op/Ed page of a newspaper. After all, a person writing a piece for the Op/Ed page must express all his ideas in about 500 words, and he must use a formal (grammatical) style to convince people that he is well educated.

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