The Skinny on RP Content
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
Nonfiction Passages
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
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 Passages
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
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 Passages
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 can support.
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 at 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
  • Frankenstein
  • Great Expectations
  • The Crucible
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • Heart of Darkness
  • 1984
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Brave New World
  • The Canterbury Tales
  • Things Fall Apart
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Jane Eyre
  • Fahrenheit 451
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