How to Interpret Visual Elements on the New SAT

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

Bowing to the real world, where visual elements — charts, tables, graphs, diagrams, and so forth — carry valuable information, the redesigned SAT includes visuals in science and history/social studies passages. To garner (harvest) every scrap of information from a visual element, follow these guidelines:

  • Look at everything. The title, the explanation on the top, bottom, or sides, the labels inside a diagram — everything. You never know which part may be relevant. Imagine the difference in a graph with bars reaching levels of 12, 18, and 11. Now imagine that you neglected to read the note telling you that each level represented 10,000 people. A bar drawn to level 12, then, represents not a dozen people but 120,000 — a fact you can be sure the SAT-makers will quiz you on.

  • Note all the variables. Depending on the type of graph you see, a variable (what changes) may be represented by a line, a section of a circle, or a bar. Some graphs include more than one factor — perhaps a solid line depicting (showing) peanut butter sales and a dotted line tracing jelly sales. Bars may appear in pairs, with one a deep shade and the other a little lighter, comparing peanut butter and jelly sales each year. You need all the information you can get to answer some questions.

  • Note the relationship between the visual element and the text. Most of the time, these two parts work together. The imaginary bar graph referred to in the preceding bullet point may tell you how many people took the SAT in a particular year, while the text may explain how many test-takers sat for the SAT in a particular geographical area. Together, these statistics may help you answer a question about — well, SAT distribution, testing misery, or something else.

Visual elements are good sources for fact or inference questions. Try this one.

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  1. Referring to the chart, which statement about Dengue Fever is true?

    (A)Infants are less likely to contract Dengue Fever than the elderly.

    (B)In 2010, most cases of Dengue Fever occurred in people aged 40 to 60.

    (C)The risk of catching Dengue Fever rises with age.

    (D)Dengue Fever is especially dangerous for infants and children.

The bar graph shows the number of cases of Dengue Fever, not the danger. A glance at the height of each bar tells the rest of the story: The bars for ages 40 to 49 and 50 to 59 are higher than those for other age groups. Therefore, Choice (B) is correct.