How to Break Down Long, Boring Passages on the SAT

EssaysIt’s not uncommon to feel more than a little bored somewhere in the middle of paragraph four or five of a long SAT reading passage. These passages are no one’s favorite since it can be easy to get confused by the dense detail-packed information, 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 use your pen to help you focus 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 (a funny name for any italicized information above the first paragraph)! 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 tsunamis. Here is how our notes might look on this passage:

Para. 1: to introduce the topic of tsunamis – describe how powerful they are

Para. 2: to describe how a tsunami forms (author v. interested in them)

Para. 3: to explain the history of tsunamis (where recorded; notable occurences)

Para. 4: to summarize how the Indian Ocean tsunami happened

Para. 5: to recommend how tsunamis can be better detected/damage prevented

Para. 6: to explain how politics prevents this (not enough $$, corrupt gov’t, etc.)

Overall Purpose: to describe how tsunamis form, their history & advocate more funding for early-warning

Remember: 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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Vivian Kerr is a regular contributor to the Veritas Prep blog, providing advice to help students better prepare for the GMAT and the SAT.