What are the SHSAT ELA topics, and how to improve your ELA score?

By Bobby-Tariq Tutoring Center | Updated on January 17, 2020

Each year, 30,000 eighth graders and 3,000 ninth graders take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) in the hopes of gaining admission to the most elite high schools in New York City, the specialized high schools. This exam is accordingly competitive, pushing students to learn more advanced topics in order to garner the scores needed to enter these prestigious schools. The test is comprised of an English Language Arts and a Math section. This post is your very own guide to the most crucial and necessary concepts on the ELA section of the exam. Read on to learn more about how you can improve on the SHSAT ELA section, which is thought to be the tougher of the two sections.

What is the SHSAT ELA section?

ELA has been a foundational part of most students’ academic journeys, allowing students the opportunity to learn how to express themselves and decode how authors do that as well. The SHSAT tests students’ knowledge of foundational concepts in English along with some more advanced topics that show that students have an edge on the competition. There is one main way to improve your reading score, and that is to read. Read advertisements on the subway. Read short stories online. Read Reddit posts if you can’t bring yourself to read anything else.

The ELA section of the exam has 57 questions. Of these, 3-5 are revising/editing sentences, 6-8 are revising/editing passages, and the remaining 46 questions are devoted to reading comprehension. The suggested time for the ELA section is 90 minutes, but if you know that you take longer to answer reading comprehension questions, perhaps you can take a bit of time from the math section. Again, it’s up to you!

This part of the exam asks you to apply English conventions to revise passages and standalone sentences, but it also tests you on a variety of topics: science, social studies, humanities, poetry, and literary fiction. The four types of reading comprehension questions are global, detail, inference, and function. We will discuss those more below.
Some tips for the ELA section:
  • Ask yourself whether there are specific words or phrases that make sentences harder to read or understand
  • Could some sentences be written more clearly with less words?
  • Do some sentences seem illogical or redundant? Take notes of issues.
  • Make sure you read each word carefully and re-read if necessary. Sometimes small words are the issue with the sentence, and we miss them.
  • Read the passage carefully – don’t just skim. This will help you avoid making assumptions. Remember, you should only answer questions based on the passage, not on your prior knowledge.
  • Try to summarize each paragraph on its own in order to help you put the pieces together to form a complete idea.
  • If you don’t have much time left and cannot figure out some final questions, don’t be afraid to make an educated guess. You won’t be penalized for incorrect answers, but you will gain points for correct answers. Even if you are making an educated guess, you will have a 25% chance of getting the problem right.
To do well on the ELA section of the exam, you will need to think holistically rather than just narrowing in on specific details, especially for the revising/editing questions. Be sure to reserve time for the topics and areas that you find most difficult while working through questions that you find easy more quickly. Remember, these won’t be the most interesting passages – the test writers don’t want you to be entertained. They want to test your focus and your knowledge.

Revising/Editing Sentences

The revising and editing section might only have 11 questions, but those points matter! Be sure to use the Bobby-Tariq method to boost your ELA section score. Firstly, be sure to read carefully and identify the problem. Is there a grammar error? Is there a mistake in word choice? Is a specific word in the wrong tense? Next, be sure to select the correct sentence that needs to be addressed.

Revising/Editing Passages

For passages, be sure to think holistically when you are revising/editing. Think about the sentence in the context of the larger passage and what it means. First, read the passage and identify what the issue is. Perhaps the structure is off. Maybe there are some underdeveloped ideas. Make note of the errors that you see because they will be useful to you later. Next, be sure to remove any answers that don’t make any sense. Only keep answer choices that address the issues that you noted earlier. And then, choose the choice that gives you a sentence whose meaning does not change, which has no grammatical errors, makes sense in context, and is as concise as possible.

Reading Comprehension

Again, the simplest way to prepare for the reading comprehension section is to read. Read as much as you can! The passages on the exam include many genres: social studies, humanities, poetry, fiction, and science. The test writers are giving you variety, but they won’t be introducing the most fascinating passages, and this is on purpose. By building up your reading stamina, you’ll be ready for the boring passages that the test takers will bring you.

There are four types of questions in the reading comprehension subsection of the ELA section.
  • Global: these questions ask about central ideas.
  • Detail: these questions ask about specific details, quotes, or figures in the text.
  • Inference: these questions ask you to extend the knowledge you’ve gained through the text to make an educated inference.
  • Function: these questions ask you to make a judgment about the purpose of a certain decision the author has made.


Bobby-Tariq Tutoring Center has been working tirelessly over the past ten years to ensure that the SHSAT is something that all of our students can easily overcome. We are training the next generation of beasts, and the first step to becoming a beast is mastering the ELA section of the SHSAT. We hope to provide you with the resources you need to do this. Our resources include these excellent preparatory books, our SHSAT classes where we provide attention and care to our students, and even private tutors.

Learn more about the exam and the ELA section specifically in our SHSAT guide.
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