How to Conquer Long Passages on the SAT

I’ll admit it- even I don’t love long SAT passages. These passages are no one’s favorite since it can be easy to get bored and confused by them, so let’s focus on some important strategies that will help you better understand the passages and get more questions correct!

When faced with one long SAT reading comp passage, it is especially important to take notes as you read. Make sure you underline the main idea of the paragraph and circle any important details. When you finish reading one paragraph, make sure you write down what the function of that paragraph was before moving on. The function should answer the question: why did the author write this paragraph? How does it fit into the whole passage? What’s its purpose?

Some common functions include: to introduce the topic, to support the topic, to introduce a new viewpoint, to bring in a counterargument, to provide an example, to describe a hypothesis, to offer an explanation, etc. A passage is simply the sum of its parts (in this case, its paragraphs). If you understand the parts, you’ll understand the whole. Think of each paragraph in terms of a verb and you’ll be on your way to answering those tough “The third paragraph serves primarily to…” questions. The key rule here: Don’t keep reading if you don’t understand why the author wrote the paragraph.

Another important tip to remember is to read the blurb! Many students overlook those few sentences and just dive right into the first paragraph, but it’s important to read the blurb first so you can understand the context of the passage. Often the blurb will tell you the purpose of the passage – the reason why the author wrote it. Is the passage a book review? Part of a novel or short story? An explanation of a scientific phenomena? Make sure you write down the purpose of the entire passage when you are done, before you answer questions!

A final tip to help you with the longest passages, besides noting the function/purpose and reading the blurb, is to pay attention to the author’s point of view and places where the author reveals opinion. How does the author feel about the topic? If this is a prose passage, how does the author feel about the characters? I like to write either a happy face or a sad face next to words that reveal opinion. For example, if the author described a character as “charming” and “clever,” I would put a smiley face next to those words. A quick glance to that paragraph later would remind me of the author’s opinion.

Let’s say we had a science-themed passage about hurricanes. Here is how our notes might look on this passage:

Para. 1: to introduce the topic of hurricanes – describe how powerful they are
Para. 2: to describe how a hurricane forms (☺- author v. interested in them)
Para. 3: to explain the history of hurricanes (where recorded; notable hurricanes)
Para. 4: to summarize how Hurricane Katrina happened
Para. 5: to recommend how hurricanes can be better detected/damage prevented
Para. 6: to explain how politics prevents this (low funding, etc.)

Overall Purpose: to describe how hurricanes form, their history & advocate more funding for their research

Ask yourself questions as you read and think critically to prevent even the most confusing and boring passages from distracting you from your goal!

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