Passage-based reading skills are incredibly important on admissions tests. Your ability to engage with unfamiliar complex tests and extract important information under timed conditions will have a big impact on your SAT score and an even bigger one on your ACT score. As the old RIF commercials used to preach, reading is fundamental.
Most strategic guides to reading on standardized tests focus on the primacy of THESIS. Basically, every passage–whether social studies, natural science, or humanities–is written to make one important point. Each of these passages focus on a specific topic and readers must understand exactly what the author wrote the passage to say about that topic. Test takers who understand topic (what the passage is about), thesis (what the passage says about the topic), and perspective (how the author feels about the topic) are positioned to pick up most or all of the points on the passage.
This assumes, of course, the passage is non-fiction.
Fiction passages differ significantly from those drawn from non-fiction sources. Thesis may be the single most important element of most test passages, but a fiction passage doesn’t even have thesis. Instead, readers should focus on STORY, the chain of events that drives the narrative or the window into human experience the author seeks to illuminate. Test questions on fiction passages test comprehension of character interaction and introspection in the context of the story.
Perspective plays a different role in fiction passages than their non-fiction counterparts. While every piece of writing requires some interpretation of mood, tone, and connotation, these elements fundamentally drive storytelling. Test takers must be sensitive to nuance and indications of emotion without reading too much into the passage. Tone serves the same critical role in fiction passages as scope does in non-fiction by defining what may be fairly inferred and tested. For example, correct answers to questions on a wry Mark Twain narrative will be the ones focusing on humor, irony, and wit, whereas those elements would probably be wrong for questions on a tragedy.
The first Reading passage on every SAT and ACT will be adapted from a work of modern or classic fiction. Considerations of topic, thesis, and perspective will win the day on every other passage, but the prose fiction and narrative passages demand a different approach. Pay attention to story and tone in both the passage and its corresponding questions, and yours will be a tale of testing triumph!