SSAT: How to Master the Reading Section

SSAT Reading Section

The Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) is one of the most popular private school admissions tests for students entering middle school or high school. That makes it a very important test for your child to master.

The SSAT for Middle and Upper Level tests follow the following format:

SSAT Section Types, Number of Questions, and Time Limits

The Reading section is one of the main scored sections of the SSAT, varying in difficulty level according to your child’s grade group.

The SSAT Reading section can be especially challenging for students. The passage types are complex and the questions are significantly different from the questions that are commonly asked in school.

Don’t worry though — our friendly team at MEK Review is here to help!

In this article, we’ll show you:

  • What to expect on the SSAT Reading section
  • Common mistakes students and parents make when trying to prepare
  • How your child can drastically improve their score

Let’s get started!

What to Expect for the SSAT Reading Section

The SSAT Reading section consists of:

  • 40 questions
  • 5 answer choices
  • 7-8 passages

These 40 questions must be completed in 40 minutes.

SSAT Reading Passage Types:

• Literary fiction
• Humanities (biography, art, poetry)
• Science (anthropology, astronomy, medicine)
• Social studies (history, sociology, economics)

SSAT Reading Question Types:

  • Recognize the main idea
  • Locate details
  • Make inferences
  • Derive the meaning of a word or phrase from its context
  • Determine the author’s purpose
  • Determine the author’s attitude and tone
  • Understand and evaluate opinions/arguments
  • Make predictions based on information in the passage

SSAT Reading passages tend to be relatively short. However, they often have complex sentence structures. The passages are usually not straightforward. Students will be asked to read about topics they are most likely unfamiliar with. The questions themselves can be equally complex.


This sample passage from a SSAT test contains an excerpt from an actual historical speech. As you can see, the SSAT passage uses higher-level vocabulary and rhetorical syntax — most students have little exposure to these elements in school.

Here is a sample question for this passage:

The correct answer is: (A) It points out that all citizens should be able to elect their government.

To arrive at this answer, students not only have to correctly identify the main claim of the passage but also correctly connect the idea to the provided Abraham Lincoln quote. They will also need to avoid tempting or misleading answer choices such as (B) and (C) which mention “women” and have a shallow connection to the women’s suffrage topic of the text.

Why Students Struggle

The SSAT Reading section of the test requires a strong grasp of vocabulary, an ability to recognize a text’s main idea purpose, and a familiarity with multiple types of texts.

Most students are not exposed to these types of texts in school, especially poetry, a genre included at least once on most SSAT tests. Students often feel uncomfortable with poetry and are unsure of how to approach this type of passage.

Moreover, although students usually do learn reading comprehension and analysis skills in school, their school classes often interact with these texts in a different manner. Most discussions in students’ English classes emphasize “text-to-text,” “text-to-self,” and “text-to-world” connections, whereas their other humanities and science classes usually use texts as a springboard for discussion and fact acquisition.

The SSAT Reading section requires a much higher degree of accuracy. It places an emphasis on understanding the specific details and rhetorical devices of a text, while also correctly identifying the overall purpose or ideas of a paragraph or passage.

This is why students MUST spend time preparing for the test outside of the classroom if they want to do well.

Common Mistakes in Preparation

Once your child begins preparation for the SSAT Reading section, avoid the following common mistakes made by both parents and students:

Mistake #1: Not Beginning Prep Early Enough

Many parents and students believe that all students need to do to improve their score is spend 6 weeks taking practice tests, studying a little, and maybe meeting with a tutor. Not so!

Although any amount of preparation can help, your child needs 3-6 months to see significant improvement in his or her score and to reach an elite score range.

It takes time for students to become familiar with the variety of texts they are asked to work with on the test. They will need to build their vocabulary, and they will need to build up their test taking skills.

This takes not just repeated practice but also a variety of tools, skills, and information that students need to obtain and then practice using effectively.

Mistake #2: Frustration Over Scores

Most students scores do not improve linearly. In fact, student progress often mimics the graph below.

As you can see, this student is progressing but not in a completely linear fashion.

Why is this? Why don’t students just get better every time they take the exam?

There are a variety of reasons. For one, each test varies slightly in terms of difficulty. Furthermore, individual students may find certain reading sections harder than others based on their unique experiences with that type of test or their comfort level with the vocabulary.

Students need to consistently work with a variety of passages and questions in order to trust their progression. In the meantime, a student can feel frustrated when they improve on one test and drop back down on the next or if they feel stuck in a certain score range.

Parents should encourage students to not let this discourage them. This is all part of the process. Students often improve in small leaps, reaching a certain score range and spending some time in it before leaping to the next score range. The only time students get permanently stuck at a certain level is when they give up or when they don’t have the right tools or strategies to push them to the next level.

Mistake #3: Taking Only Practice Tests

Of course, taking full-length practice tests is an important part of preparing for this exam. Students need to build up their test-taking skills, understand how to manage their time effectively, and improve their mental endurance.

However, parents and students often mistakenly believe that just taking test after test will improve students’ scores. What usually happens is students experience an initial increase in score and then plateau without ever reaching a top tier score.

For the SSAT Reading section, students need to work on specific strategies, such as annotation, identifying the main idea, recognizing tone, or interpreting poetry, to finally see large gains in scores.

How to Prepare for the SSAT Reading Section

Now that you know what not to do, here are 5 tips for helping your child successfully prepare for the SSAT Reading section!

Tip #1: Build Vocabulary and Word-in-Context Skills

You might think that building vocabulary will only help students with the SSAT Verbal section. Not true!

Knowing above grade-level vocabulary is an essential part to fully understanding the diverse range of texts students will encounter during the SSAT Reading section.

Check out our article on the SSAT Verbal section for more tips.

However, even if your child builds vocabulary, it is likely she or he will encounter an unknown vocabulary word during the Reading section or even a familiar word used in an unfamiliar way. Usually, students are asked to define such words on the SSAT test.

This is why it is important to not just build your child’s vocabulary but teach him or her how to use context clues to determine the meaning of a new word.

Tip #2: Read Different Types of Text

Students should feel comfortable with a variety of texts including fiction, historical documents, scientific texts, and poetry.

Poetry: For poetry, both The Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets provide a good list of poems that students should be familiar with. The Poetry Foundation even aligns the poems with Common Core Standards and categorizes them by grade level. Reading and discussing these poems with your child is a wonderful way to expose him or her to poetry and make this genre less intimidating.

Natural and Social Sciences: For the natural and social science texts, students can explore newspaper articles on these topics. Show your child articles from regular online new sites like The New York Times or from organizations that specialize in science such as Science News.

One great resource is Newsela, which not only provides a variety of news articles but also lets you specify the grade level and difficulty level of the text. Unfortunately, you must have an account in order to access the articles. But access is free to teachers and their students. So if your child’s school doesn’t already utilize this resource, just ask his or her teacher to sign up.

Literary Fiction: For literary fiction, try to expose your child to fictional short stories that you can discuss with them afterwards. Below are websites that provide a great list of short stories, all of which can be found for free online.

Tip #3: Build Comprehension and Analytical Reading Skills

It’s not enough to learn vocabulary and read a bunch of texts. Students need to practice answering SSAT-style questions and learn the specific skills tested on the exam.

Students need the following skills to do well on the SSAT Reading section:

  • Annotation strategies
  • Ability to identify the text’s tone
  • Ability to identify the author’s purpose
  • Ability to make correct inferences
  • Know how to summarize a text correctly
  • Determine the main idea of a passage or paragraph
  • Make predictions

Students need to practice these skills using quality material that mimics the unique SSAT style of questioning. However, practice isn’t enough. To succeed, they first need to learn the correct strategy and method for tackling these question types.

Tip#4: Learn Test-Taking Strategies

Even students who have built their vocabulary, read a variety of texts, and practiced answering SSAT Reading questions will not be fully prepared to reach their maximum score unless they also learn and practice good test-taking strategies.

To better prepare your child, have him or her take timed drills for both short quizzes and full-length exams. This helps students not only with time management but with managing any test-taking anxiety and building mental endurance.

Students also need smart test-taking strategies such as knowing which passages or questions to tackle first or when to skip a question (remember: the SSAT test deducts points for wrong answers, basically penalizing wild guessing).

Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Finish easier passages first. How does a student determine which passage is easy? This is highly personalized! By becoming familiar with a variety of texts, your child should figure out which types of texts she does better on and which texts are more of a struggle. Then, when she sees, for example, a poem, scientific text or another passage type that is difficult for her on the SSAT test, she’ll already know to save those texts for last.
  • Only give a question 2 passes. When a student tackles a question, he should use the strategies he has learned to attempt to answer it. If he cannot determine the answer, he should try one more time. If he still cannot determine the answer, he should move on! Skip the question rather than sinking any more time into it.
  • Answer questions strategically. Since the SSAT test penalizes students for wrong answers, your child should practice answering strategically. If she can eliminate a few answer choices, it is statistically beneficial for her to guess among the remaining answer choices, even if she isn’t sure. If she can’t eliminate any answers or only 1, then it’s better to skip that question altogether.

Tip #5: Create a Solid Study Plan

Parents and students often assume that they need a study plan for the SSAT Verbal and Math sections of the test but not for the Reading section.

That’s not true!

Help your child create a study plan for the Reading section. This should include studying vocabulary, reading different texts, and practicing their reading and test-taking skills.

Putting It All Together

To help your child design and follow an effective, proven study plan, use MEK Review!

Using our proven timeline, we start our students’ SSAT preparation in the summer through our Exam Prep 8 course for incoming 8th graders and MEK Learning Circles for our younger students. Both programs expose students to a variety of texts and teach them the correct way to tackle reading comprehension and analysis questions.

We also show students how to create a study plan for each week.

During the Fall, our students transition into more intensive SSAT prep through our group classes or one-on-one private tutoring. Students take weekly full-length tests and learn test-taking techniques, while still working on reading strategies and skills.

Our program helps students score in the 90th percentile of test-takers or higher!

Call 855-346-1410 or contact us today to register your child or receive more information.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Rachel Erwin

Rachel is the Dean of Faculty, in charge of teacher training and material development. She teaches College Test Prep, H.S. Test Prep, and College Application Essays. Within the English Department, she serves as a coordinator for the Exam Prep team, working diligently to ensure all students’ success. With her clear and systematic approach to teaching, she helps students make huge improvements.


Don’t miss the next insider event.


Looking for an ACT Program? Click Here