SAT Reading: The Dreaded History Passage

In the SAT Reading section, for most students, one passage causes far more problems than the rest: the history passage. This passage, which can take the form of Founding Documents or a “Great Global Conversations” passage (GGC), often steals away students’ time, making them feel out of step in the rest of the test. 

But why is the history passage so demanding? Let’s break this down a bit. 

What is the History Passage?

Generally, this passage is a primary source document (or pair of primary source documents), dating from the 18th to 20th centuries and taking the form of speeches, letters, declarations, or editorials. Sometimes, the history passage will be an excerpt from a founding document, such as The Federalist Papers. The SAT loves to include passages about political and social movements. 

A few favorite topics that have popped up on multiple tests: indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s rights (especially suffrage, education, and gender equality), abolition, and the beginnings of democracy. For example, one GGC features an excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

What makes the Founding Document or GGC a stumbling block for students?

Convoluted Arguments: Due to the nature of writing in earlier centuries, often, these passages contain arguments that are unclear and indirect, containing circular reasoning or attempts at propriety that obscure their main points. The lack of directness requires a closer reading than some of the other passages may.  

Complex Syntax: In earlier time periods, using more complicated sentence structure (resulting in very long sentences) showcased a writer’s educated status; therefore, some passages may feature unnecessarily long sentences, in which the main idea is interrupted by examples and asides. It is important in these kinds of lengthy sentences to trace pronouns. Make sure you know what the “it” or “they” is referring to.

Higher-Level Vocabulary: Similarly, in these speeches, letters, editorials, and other texts, there is often vocabulary that a student does not know or that is being used in an unfamiliar way. Click here to check out our post on “solving” unknown words.

Historical Context: Technically, the SAT gives you all the historical information you need to both understand the passage and answer the questions within the opening blurb and the passage itself; however, I’ve noticed that many students who have taken or are taking US, World, or European History (AP, honors, or regular) tend to do better on these passages: they are more familiar with reading historical documents and with certain historical figures who make an appearance. Students who have never taken a history class prior to doing this type of passage tend to struggle understanding the premise of a writer’s argument.

How to conquer this passage?

  1. Use what you do know (anchors) to figure out what you don’t. Possible anchors in the text could be the gist of the argument, a clear topic sentence, a strongly negative tone, the historical context, or the ending paragraph. Don’t waste time trying to unpack every part of the passage. 

  2. Avoid re-reading. This is a timed test, so if you find yourself reading and re-reading a line to break down every detail like you might in an English class, then you will run out of time or force yourself into a rushing situation. You don’t need to have a perfect understanding of the passage to answer the questions. Often, the questions’ and answers’ phrasing can actually help you better understand the passage as you go.

  3. Read the opening blurb prior to the start of the passage. This blurb can often contain important historical context that frames the passages and even gives you main ideas within the passage. 

  4. Use the main idea or central stance to eliminate wrong answers. If you know that, for example, Mary Wollstonecraft wants women to be seen as equal to men and to have the same rights as men do, then you can eliminate any answers that counter this idea. Often you can use an answer from one question to help you answer another question. Make sure you are consistent.

  5. Match the tone of the passage and the tone of the answer choices. Let the author’s attitude within the passage assist you. For example, if an author is optimistic about a situation, then eliminate any negative answer choices that counter this positive tone. 

  6. Use one author’s stance to understand the other’s stance. If it is a paired section with two history passages, more than likely the two authors are in disagreement about some aspect of the topic. If you understand the gist of one author’s argument, then it is reasonable to assume that the other author is on the other side of the argument. Also, note that if the authors largely disagree, you will be asked what they agree on. 

  7. Eliminate using wrong answer patterns. Remember that this history passage has the same kinds of questions as the other four passages. Click here to check out our previous post on Wrong Answer Patterns.

While all of the above strategies will help you through this passage, the most important tip is to practice reading historical documents. Become familiar with this kind of passage and with using context to overcome unknown diction and clunky syntax. 

The SAT Reading section is designed to challenge you, but Pivot Tutors can help equip you with the tools and strategies to tackle this test! Contact Pivot today to create your personalized prep plan.

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