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Articles / Preparing for College / Understanding Passages on the SAT Literature Subject Test

Understanding Passages on the SAT Literature Subject Test

Rob Franek
Written by Rob Franek | Dec. 11, 2019
Understanding Passages on the SAT Literature Subject Test


The SAT Literature Subject Test may sound fairly straightforward, especially if you're familiar with SAT or ACT Reading. However, it's more than just a few passages and sets of accompanying questions. Here's a guide to preparing for and tackling the different portions on test day.

Structure of the SAT Literature Test

Similar to the other SAT Subject Tests, the Literature test is one hour long and consists of all multiple-choice questions, and awards a score between 200 and 800, with penalties for each incorrect answer. Specifically to Literature, there are going to be approximately seven passages (sometimes six, sometimes eight), and around 60 questions spread out across those.

Understanding the Passages

There will be anywhere from four to 12 questions for each passage, depending on the text's length. Those reading samples will pull from various times throughout history and locations from across the globe. The authors featured will predominantly come from British and American literature, and if there is an author from another country, the passage will have been written in English; there are no translations on the test.

The material will roughly but evenly split between three historical chunks of time:

  • Before 1700
  • 1700 to 1900
  • After 1900

The content will be half prose, half poetry, with occasionally something outside of those genres, like drama.

The composition of this test is clearly different from that of the SAT and ACT. First, poetry doesn't appear on either of those tests, but makes up almost half of the exam here. Second, there will be far more passages from before 1900 than you saw on the SAT or ACT. Different content means different questions, so you'll want to carefully consider how to best approach them.

Approaching the Passages

Your Personal Order of Difficulty (POOD) is just that — personal. If you feel stronger with prose than poetry, start with the passages that excerpt from novels. Of those, if you prefer contemporary works to classic ones, start with the material after 1900. From what's left, decide on whether you feel better with longer passages with more questions, or shorter passages with fewer questions.

Next, read! Your goal isn't to closely study the text — you'll go back to the passage for many of the questions anyway. Instead, focus on determining the main theme and tone. Don't get caught up in portions of the text that are confusing or unclear. Additionally, read poetry sentence by sentence and not line by line. The lines will be important for answering some questions (say, about rhyme scheme), but reading by sentences will make it easier to determine the theme and tone.

As with any standardized test, preparation is key. The Literature test rewards not only knowing how to approach the passages and questions, but also knowing content such as key literary terms. Resources like our SAT Subject Test Literature Prep will give you the practice and guidance you need in order to be successful on test day.

Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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