How the SAT II U.S. History Tests History
How the SAT II U.S. History Tests History
Often, students think that studying history means memorizing lots of dates, names, and events. This sort of thinking will not serve you well on the SAT II U.S. History. While you do need to memorize facts, you also need to understand them within their larger contexts.
Thinking Contextually Helps You Study
Thinking about history in unifying terms like eras, movements, and trends helps you organize the information you learn. To demonstrate our point, imagine we had a box of 100 tacks, and we threw the tacks on the floor. Then we let you look at the tacks for 5 minutes. After that time, we asked you to go into another room and draw, on a piece of paper, where all of the tacks were. You probably wouldn’t do a very good job of it, would you? But if you noticed that the tacks were organized into geometric shapes—27 of the tacks were in a circle, 19 formed a triangle, another 28 formed a squiggly line, and 26 formed a hexagon—drawing them later would be much easier. The same idea applies to history: always be aware of the context the facts fit into.
Thinking contextually also ensures that you remain engaged with the material you’re studying. You might read over a list of facts and think you’ve “memorized” them, only to find you’ve forgetten everything on test day. But if you constantly try to fit what you learn into an era or trend, you give yourself an active grip on the material. This will make your studying more efficient and fruitful.
Thinking Contextually Helps You Answer SAT II U.S. History Questions
Many questions on the SAT II U.S. History are “big picture” questions. These test your general knowledge of an era or movement, and just knowing straight facts isn’t going to help you much. For example, look at the question below:
Which of the following best characterizes American foreign policy during the first half of the Progressive Era, 1900 to 1910?
(A) aggressive intervention, through both military involvement and capitalist investment
(B) strict isolationism
(C) minimal diplomacy, as the U.S. focused almost exclusively on domestic reform
(D) primarily business-minded, aimed at expanding markets overseas
(E) alarmist and reactionary in nature, as the Red Scare swept the nation
This question doesn’t ask you for names or dates. Instead, it tests to see if you understand the overall character of a particular era. Now, it is true that in order to understand an era you have to know certain facts, but you don’t have to know everything. There are a number of ways you could figure out the answer to the above question. If you know that the U.S. won the Spanish-American War in 1898 and in the process became a world power, you could deduce that the U.S. was heavily involved in foreign nations in the early 1900s, sometimes through military means. The answer has to be A. Alternately, you might have known that Teddy Roosevelt, president during that time period, advocated “big stick” diplomacy. Again, that implies military intervention, giving you the answer A. Note that you didn’t have to know that one of the territories the U.S. gained in the Spanish-American war was the Philippines or that Roosevelt helped engineer a revolt in Panama.
Fact Questions Are Trend Questions in Disguise
But what about the more nitpicky questions that test you on precise facts and names? First, we’ve already discussed how thinking about history in terms of eras, movements, and trends will help you to remember individual facts. But there’s an additional advantage: even if you aren’t sure about a particular fact, understanding historical trends can help you answer a question that covers that fact. Let’s say, for example, you are asked the following question:
John Calhoun most bitterly opposed Andrew Jackson’s policies regarding
(A) American involvement in Europe
(B) slavery
(C) income taxes
(D) the nullification crisis
(E) the Supreme Court
If you approach SAT II as if it’s testing only a collection of facts, you might panic if you don’t know remember who John Calhoun was. In fact, you might very well skip this question and move on, assuming you can’t answer it.
But if you approach the test with the understanding that all facts fit into trends, then not knowing who John Calhoun becomes less ominous. Based on the question, you know that Calhoun opposed Andrew Jackson on an issue. You know that this issue took place during Jackson’s presidency, and, if you studied well, you should know the general trends of Jackson’s presidency: an emerging two-party system that vastly increased popular interest and participation in government; the development of a strong executive branch that included a spoils system in which a party rewarded its followers with political posts; sectional strife over tariffs that led to the nullification crisis; and the removal of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia. With a basic understanding of the policies of the Jacksonian era, you can see that the answer to this question must be D.
The SAT II will ask questions in ways you won’t expect, forcing you to be flexible with your knowledge of history. While studying, always try to fit what you’re learning into the larger picture. Studying for the SAT II U.S. History Test should be like reading a great story, in which all details are connected and important.
Help | Feedback | Make a request | Report an error