Reading comprehension, rhetorical and synthesis skills are all key when taking the reading section of the SAT.

The redesigned SAT‘s reading section includes a single set of paired passages. Paired passages assess reading comprehension and synthesis skills via questions that require students to compare and contrast two passages.

Students who are unfamiliar with paired passages or who struggle with synthesis may be uncertain about how to approach this portion of the SAT reading test. To become more comfortable with paired passages, consider the following strategies.

Recognize that paired passages are identifiable. When taking the SAT, it will be apparent when you have arrived at the paired passage questions. The instructions will state, “Questions x-y are based on the following passages.”

You will also notice that the two passages appear back-to-back across several columns. Due to this predictable layout, you will not need to devote a great deal of time to evaluating which passages are paired.

Also keep in mind that paired passages only cover certain areas: science (biology, chemistry, Earth science and physics) and history (founding U.S. documents and global texts). The discipline that the passage relates to should serve as another indicator that it is a paired passage.

Address items that focus on each individual passage before answering synthesis questions. Paired passage questions appear in a specific order. See page 14 of this practice test from the College Board as an example of how paired passages are displayed, followed by the relevant questions.

First are the items about Passage 1, then the questions about Passage 2 and then finally the items about both readings. The latter questions draw upon synthesis, an advanced critical thinking skill that requires students to combine information in unique ways.

Our short-term memories can be surprisingly inaccurate. For this reason, consider avoiding the impulse to read both passages consecutively.

Instead, read Passage 1 and then respond to the questions about that passage. The same approach should be applied to Passage 2: Read it after completing Passage 1 items and then answer the questions that relate exclusively to the second passage.

The synthesis questions should be completed last, once you have a strong understanding of both texts.

Note that synthesis items may assess passage content or rhetorical strategies. The paired passages portion of the SAT includes a variety of question types. Questions can be content-based, or they can assess rhetorical strategies.

Content questions may require you to summarize the main idea, recall details or understand vocabulary in context. Rhetorical strategy questions, in contrast, may test for items like the author’s intent or tone.

To get better at answering content questions, students should practice reading for main ideas. Helpful exercises include summarizing each paragraph in one sentence and underlining thesis statements.

Students can improve on rhetorical strategy questions by reading for main ideas as well. However, in addition to reading more efficiently, students must take time to familiarize themselves with common rhetorical strategies such as metaphors or allusions.

By familiarizing yourself with paired passages, you can see that they are not that different from the other readings in this section of the SAT, and you can set yourself up for success accordingly.