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Practicing for the History Passages on the SAT

What are the history passages on the SAT?

On the SAT, one of the most difficult aspects is the history passages that appear on every test. Often written in archaic language, these passages are wordy and logically complex and may seem meandering to students. This is because of how the English language is always evolving: considering how lingo across generations today is so different, for example, it is no small wonder, then, that students will have a hard time understanding what people from even a hundred years ago wrote.

How should I prepare for the historical passages?

To help prepare students for the historical passages, we usually tell them to start with a basic understanding of the contexts that the historical passages come from. This is because while they are difficult to read, historical passages will usually focus on a key moment from American history. For example, there are many 19th century texts that surround slavery and womens’ rights that appear on the test. Other periods, such as the Civil Rights Movement, Westward expansion, the Reconstruction era, and more are discussed as well, so even a basic understanding of the events and themes of these times will help students orient themselves to the text with a slight understanding of what the author is most likely trying to argue for or against.

However, students may also get some 19th or 20th century texts that don’t fall under these categories, or even something more philosophical that isn’t tied to a particular moment in history. In such cases, students need to try their best to do what they usually do when reading the science or social science passages: understand the structure of the passage and work from there. To start with, the history passages tend to be argumentative, so one can usually find the general thesis towards the end of the first or second paragraph. Though the paragraphs are not as obviously organized as those of the science and social science texts, it is still important to locate the topic sentence. This will help students to find something to anchor to; if they’re able to find something that they understand, they can try to make sense of the rest of the passage based on what already clicks. In other words, they must use what they know to put the puzzle together by making connections and inferences.

Additionally, the language of history passages tends to repeat itself, so if students don’t understand one sentence, they may try to glean its meaning from another sentence or by at least identifying the main idea of that section of the text. It is also good to remember that there are certain parts of the passages that are not actually very important, and are only there to make the language more “interesting”. Thus, by ignoring the flowery language, students may better understand the main points of a text. That being said, it takes practice and time to differentiate between more and less important points in the text.

Lastly, to prepare, students can also read historical documents and passages that have helpful analysis and guides already online. For example, you can browse Sparknotes’ No Fear series online to select a historical piece of literature or writing and read the piece with the Sparknotes No Fear guide to help you understand themes and language. In addition, the makers of the SAT– the College Board– are also responsible for designing the AP US History (APUSH) curriculum, which covers almost all of the history topics that have appeared on the SAT. Thus students may watch APUSH review videos on Youtube to get a quick sense of historical context for SAT history passages. Students can also look for lighter historical texts such as “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine or even the U.S. Constitution for reading and comprehension practice.

Regardless, getting comfortable with historical texts takes practice and, most importantly, patience. Need help preparing? Dragon Prep offers consulting and tutoring services to help guide your child’s pre-college process. For more information, call or WhatsApp 9835 8011 or visit


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