The Skinny on RP Content
RPs on the new SAT split into two big categories:
- Nonfiction passages (on everything from
science to art to history to literature)
- Fiction passages excerpted from literary works
These are the RPs that you expect to see on the
SAT. You know, the ones with a bunch of paragraphs about a Native
American tribe, the scientist who invented carbon dating, or a famous
Civil War battle. These passages are always nonfiction with no distinct
narrative voice. That means they’re based on facts and read like
newspaper or journal articles. The individual “voice” or identity
of the author does not play much of a role in the discussion or
the topic at hand in these passages.
None of these passages require you to have any background
knowledge in the topics they cover. The passage or passages always
contain every bit of information you need to answer the questions
correctly. Below, we list a few details about the specific kinds
of nonfiction, nonnarrative passages you can expect to encounter
on the new SAT. But keep in mind that all of these subcategories
test similar skills, namely, how well you can understand and evaluate
what the passage contains.
Science passages range from discussions or debates
about topics in science to descriptions of scientific events throughout
history. For example, science subject matter may include a scientist
arguing that genetics affect decisions about where people build
their cities, a historian describing the disagreements between physicists
in the early twentieth century, or an explanation of the earthworm’s
digestive system. All the science you need to know is presented
in the passage—you should not expect to find anything like physics or
chemistry formulas in science RPs.
History RPs come in two forms: (1) passages taken from
history, such as a historical address about an event or situation
in society, and (2) passages in which historians write about and
interpret history. Questions about history passages tend to focus heavily
on your ability to understand the author’s argument. History passages
also frequently test your understanding of unfamiliar words in context.
For example, a question about a passage on the Civil War may ask
you to identify the definition of a word like bayonet based
on the context of the passage.
Literary Criticism Passages
These passages usually discuss one of the following topics:
a particular book or writer, a literary movement or trend, or some
overarching literary concept. Questions following literary criticism
RPs are almost always about the tone of the passage or the writer’s
point of view or overall opinion. Vocabulary is a dead giveaway
of the writer’s tone and argument in these passages.
Art passages discuss specific pieces of art, trends in
art history, or particular artists. “Art” on the SAT usually means
painting, architecture, or music. Art passages might involve the
artist speaking about his or her own work, the artist speaking about
his or her field in general, a critic discussing a specific work
or artist, or a description of some controversy in the art world.
Passages about specific artists usually try to locate that artist
in the context of broader trends or movements.
Fiction is the wildcard that the new SAT has thrown into
the long RP mix. Every Critical Reading section
of the new SAT includes one fiction narrative passage. Fiction passages
are very different from other RPs on the test, since they’re the
product of a writer’s imagination. Instead of dealing with arguments
or big concepts in science, literature, art, and history, fictional
narratives require you to deal with characters, emotions, point
of view, and literary style.
This means you have to think a little differently. As
you read a fiction passage, think about why the author chose to
write what he or she wrote. Why did the writer choose the images
described in the passage? What rhetorical device like similes, metaphors,
and personification did the author use? What is the tone? What is
the writer’s relationship to the characters, memories, or events
being described? How do the characters feel about each other or
about these memories or events?
Don’t read too deeply into these passages. It won’t ask
you for a poetic interpretation or an innovative analysis of a passage.
It will only ask you questions that you can answer based on what’s
right in front of you. That makes the best approach to fiction narrative
interpreting only what you read directly in the passage. If you
feel like you’re stretching for an answer, you’re probably not on
the right track. Stick to the facts and ideas that the passage itself
Hmmm . . . Have I Read This Before?
The reading passages on the old SAT were excerpts from
obscure books that no high school student would ever have read.
Using oddball sources helped bolster the test’s fairness, since
almost nobody would have read the books from which the passages were
excerpted (unless you had perchance sat down one Saturday to read Anook: Tales
of an Eskimo Goat Herder). So, their decision to use Anook and
others like him made sense.
The new SAT aims to do a better job than the old SAT of
mirroring what students actually learn in school. To encourage high
schools to align what they teach, the SAT has now decided to use
passages from popular works of literature that high school teachers
often assign. The new SAT now includes excerpts from books commonly read
in high school, like Animal Farm and The
Great Gatsby. Does this mean your Critical Reading score
can be dramatically affected by luck? Yes!
What can you do in response to this bizarre change? We’ve
already encouraged you to read as much as you can in anticipation
of the SAT, and the change to using popular works as sources only
reinforces that advice. It’s highly unlikely, however, that you’ll
have just read the book from which the passage you encounter is excerpted.
Nobody knows exactly which books the SAT will use as sources for
passages, so trying to read as many books as possible won’t be an
effective way to prepare for this change. The best thing to do is
to continue reading and training yourself to read and think critically.
Rather than reading only popular fiction, newspapers, or magazines,
it’s probably a good idea to start reading some of the classics
commonly studied in high school. You can’t read them all, of course,
but you can read some of the most popular and important titles,
which we’ve listed below. You can also read summaries
and commentary on hundreds of literary classics for free online
. Here are the top
twenty SparkNotes literature titles:
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- The Great Gatsby
- The Scarlet Letter
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Lord of the Flies
- The Catcher in the Rye
- The Odyssey
- Great Expectations
- The Crucible
- A Tale of Two Cities
- Heart of Darkness
- Of Mice and Men
- Brave New World
- The Canterbury Tales
- Things Fall Apart
- Pride and Prejudice
- Jane Eyre
- Fahrenheit 451