How to Conquer Passage-Based Literary Questions on the SAT

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

When you enter SAT Reading-Passage World, be sure to take weapons — not swords and machine guns but logic and comprehension skills. If you face a literary passage on the SAT (one from fiction or a memoir), keep in mind the following tips:

  • Notice the details. SAT literary passages often contain a great deal of description, as in “George toppled the structure, which was made of stacked, square pancakes soaked in maple syrup.” Take note of the small stuff because you may find a question addressing the symbolism of maple syrup or square pancakes.

  • Stay attuned to word choice. A literary passage is perfectly suited to questions about the author’s tone (bitter, nostalgic, fond, critical, and so forth). Pay attention to connotation — not the dictionary definition but the feelings associated with a word.

  • Keep in mind the big picture. Literary questions frequently single out one example and ask you to explain its context or significance. Think about the big picture when you get to one of these questions. How does the detail fit into the whole?

  • Forget about plot. Plot isn’t important in fiction passages because not much can happen in 500 or so words. Concentrate on identifying scene, character traits, point of view, and symbols.

  • Listen to a literary passage. Of course, you can’t make any noise while taking the SAT, but you can let the little voice in your head read expressively, as if you were acting. Chances are you’ll pick up some information from your mental reenactment that you can use when answering the questions.