How to Conquer Passage-Based History and Social Studies SAT Questions

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

When you take the SAT, at some point, you’ll be poring over a passage from history or social studies (anthropology, sociology, education, cultural studies, and so on). To get the best results, keep these tips in mind:

  • Go for the positive. The SAT doesn’t criticize anyone with the power to sue or contact the media. So if you see a question about the author’s tone or viewpoint, look for a positive answer unless the passage is about war criminals or another crew unlikely to be met with public sympathy.

  • Take note of the structure. The passages frequently present a claim and support it with sets of facts or quotations from experts. If you’re asked about the significance of a particular detail in a passage, the detail is probably evidence in the case that the author is making. In a history passage, chronology (order of events) may be particularly important. Sketch a short timeline if the passage seems to focus on a series of linked events.

  • Check the graphics. The information presented in tables, charts, diagrams, and other visuals is there for a reason. It may represent an opposing or corroborative (supporting or confirming) point.

  • Identify cause and effect. History and social studies passages often explain why something happens. Search for words such as therefore, hence, consequently, and others that signal a reason.

  • Look for opposing ideas. Experts like to argue, and human nature — the ultimate subject of social studies passages — provides plenty of arguable material. Historians, too, have been known to face off like opposing teams in a hockey game, criticizing others’ interpretations of archaeological discoveries or important events. Many history/social studies SAT passages present two or more viewpoints, in the paired passages and elsewhere. Look for the opposing sides, or identify the main theory and the objections to it.