Ethan's Quick Reference Guide to the Eight Types of SAT Critical Reading Questions

1. Main Idea

What this question is usually asking: What’s the big idea? What’s the main point or thesis?

Tip: Decide what the main point is before looking at your answer choices.

Examples of this type of question:

  • The main point of the passage is to
  • The passage can primarily be described as
  • The passage as a whole primarily concerned with


2. Direct Comprehension

What this question is usually asking: What does the author mean [in this tiny part right here]?

Tip: Use the “one thumb” rule: answer is often within one thumb’s distance above or below the reference line.


  • The phrase “X” refers to
  • The author apparently believes which of the following about X?
  • All of the following X can be found in the passage EXCEPT 


3. Purpose/Rhetorical Strategy

What this question is usually asking: What is the author doing in this part of the passage? (or) Why is this section of the passage here?


  • The purpose of the fifth paragraph is to
  • The author mentions X in order to demonstrate
  • The quotation marks around X serve to emphasize


4. Inference

What this question is usually asking: What is the least we can assume here?

Tip: the answer on the SAT is likely to be a very conservative inference and there will always be textual evidence.

My favorite exercise for this: What’s the least we can assume based on the statement, “Kobe Bryant once scored 83 points in a basketball game...”?


  • It can be inferred from X that
  • The statement in X suggests/implies that
  • X is based on the assumption that


5. Analogy/Application

What this question is usually asking: based on the relationship between A and B (in the passage), what is the relationship between X and Y (in the answer choices).

Tip: Here you’ll likely have to determine the relationship between two things and then apply that relationship to one or two other things.

Example: Say that in the passage a physicist criticizes the work of a painter. The “relationship” here is one person criticizing something outside his/her field. An question SAT might ask:

Which of the following would be analogous to that situation?

a. a mother criticizing her child’s choice of clothing
b. a farmer telling a sailor about his fear of an impending drought
c. a circus artist taking issue with the research methods of a psychologist


The answer is C. The key here is to determine the initial relationship (the one mentioned in the passage) first and then look at the answer choices.


  • Which of the following, if true, would most directly prove/disprove/affirm/undermine/ support X in the passage?
  • Which best describes/characterizes the relationship between X and Y?
  • Which of the following situations is most analogous to X situation in the passage?


6. Compare

What this question is usually asking: How is A related to--or different from--B?

Tip: Again, look at the passage first to determine the relationship. Then look at the answers. Notice I’m repeating that. Why? It’s important.


  • Both passages agree on which of the following points?
  • The author of Passage 1 would most likely assert with of the following about 2?
  • Compared to Passage 1’s tone, Passage 2’s tone is 


7. Tone

What this question is usually asking: What’s the attitude/feel/vibe of the passage or selection?

Tip: First ask yourself “Is the tone negative, positive, neutral or ambivalent? Then ask, “How strong 1-10?” Usually you can cross off 3-4 answers just by doing that.


  • The author’s tone in X is best described as
  • The author’s attitude toward X might best be described as
  • The mood of X is best described/characterized as 


8. Vocab in context

What this question is usually asking: What does this word mean as it is used here?

Tip: It’s probably not a weird word. It’s probably a word that you know being used in a way you mightnot know.

Tip 2: So you’ll probably cross out the obvious definition. (Examples: If the word is “striking” chances are you’ll cross out “hitting,” in favor of something more like “noticeable.” If the word is “staple,” chances are you’ll cross out “thin metal wire,” in favor of something more like “primary” or “standard,” as in “staple crop.”)


  • The word “X” most nearly means
  • In context, the word “X” is best understood to mean
  • In line X, the word Y most nearly means


Written by Ethan Sawyer – In addition to being the College Essay Guy, Ethan is a writer, teacher, speaker, and voice actor. He has worked at Elite since 2003 is also the coordinator for the Elite Community Scholars Program, a program very close to his heart. You can email him at The views expressed in this blog post are Ethan's and don't necessarily reflect those of Elite Educational Institute.