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Tips for Charts, Graphs, and Tables on the SAT Reading and Writing Sections

In this lesson, we’re going to cover four tips for dealing with the charts, graphs, tables, and other types of data presentations that accompany SAT Reading and Writing and Language passages. Students unfamiliar with the SAT format are often surprised to find that every section, including the Reading and Writing, includes some form of data presentation. However, Reading and Writing data presentations are really just visualizations of concepts found in and/or related to the passages themselves. They are essentially yet another way for the SAT to try to trick students into choosing deliberately-misleading wrong answer choices.


Identify what the graphic represents

The scope of what an SAT graphic can measure is extremely limited. For example, let’s say a pie chart breaks the population of the United States down by occupation and the description says “occupation of public transportation passengers.” All that this chart can tell you is that a certain percentage of people in certain occupations take public transit. The chart cannot tell you the frequency with which any group takes mass transit, whether a particular group prefers to take mass transit, or any other such information.


Eliminate wrong answers that go beyond what the graphic can tell you

Once you know what a graphic can tell you, your next step should be to eliminate any answer choices that include information that the graphic cannot tell you. If a question asked you for the conclusion that is supported by the data in our hypothetical pie chart, for instance, you would want to eliminate any answer choices that contain phrases such as “more often” or “less often” or that speculate about the motivations of the various groups for taking public transportation. 


There’s a good chance that eliminating these “trap” answer choices would leave you with the correct answer outright. However, if you still had a couple of answer choices left, the correct choice would be the one that most closely matches the percentages in the chart.


Look at only the data that a question asks about

SAT Reading and Writing questions must tell you which data you need to use to successfully answer a question. If a question says “based on the information in Figure 1,” look only at Figure 1. If a question mentions two specific variables, look at only those two variables.


Let’s say our transportation pie chart was followed by a second pie chart with different but related information and that both appeared after a Reading passage. A question could ask you to consider the data in the first pie chart, the data in the send chart, the information in the passage, or some combination thereof.


The key is to consider the data from a particular source only if a question specifically asks you to do so. If a question asks about the first chart, don’t bother looking at second chart and/or the passage. If a question asks you to compare the data in the two charts, ignore the information in the passage. If a question asks you to draw a conclusion from multiple graphics and a passage, any answer choices that misrepresent the graphic(s) and passage in any way whatsoever will automatically be wrong.


Don’t be intimidated by unfamiliar graphics

SAT Reading and Writing include a diverse range of charts, graphs, tables, and other types of data presentations. Most of these presentations will resemble ones that you’ve encountered in high school. However, you will occasionally come across a graphic that looks like nothing you’ve seen before. Don’t panic if this happens. The information presented will be as straightforward as the data contained in more familiar graphics, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.


Begin by reading any notes under the graphic. Test designers almost always include explanations of how to interpret data presentations that differ from what students are familiar with. Once you understand how to read the graphic, identify the variables being measured and any obvious trends in those variables. Don’t try to understand every single aspect of the graphic. The questions will ask about only specific aspects of the graphic, so focus on those aspects and ignore the rest.


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