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SAT Reading Test: content areas

An overview of the Reading Test content

In this series of articles, we’re going to take an in-depth look at the SAT Reading Test. On the Test, you will encounter a variety of passages broken into three content areas:

U.S. and World Literature.

Includes prose fiction texts, both contemporary and classic, by American and international authors. These texts may be intact short stories or passages from novels and short stories and written by either well-known or less well-known authors working in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries.
Excerpt from a Reading passage: This passage is adapted from Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome, originally pulished in 1911. Mattie Silver is Ethan's household employee.
Mattie Silver had lived under Ethan's roof for a year, and from early morning till they met at supper he had frequent chances of seeing her; but no moments in her company were comparable to those when, her arm in his, and her light step flying to keep time with his long stride, they walked back through the night to the farm. He had taken to the girl from the first day, when he had driven over to the Flats to meet her, and she had smiled and waved to him from the train, crying out, "You must be Ethan!" as she jumped down with her bundles, while he reflected, looking over her slight person: 'She don't look much on housework, but she ain't a fretter, anyhow." But it was not only that the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth. The girl was more than the bright serviceable creature he had thought her. She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will.

History/Social Studies.

The History/Social Studies domain comprises texts in two subareas: Social Science and Founding Documents/Great Global Conversation.
  • The Social Science subarea includes passages that deal with information and ideas drawn from the fields of anthropology, communication studies, economics, education, human geography, law, linguistics, political science, psychology, and sociology and their various subfields. Social Science passages will sometimes include graphics or pairs of passages. Questions will ask you to determine relationships between the graphic or to analyze how two paired passages relate to one another.
Excerpt from a Reading passage: This passage is adapted from Richard Florida, The Great Reset. (c) 2010 by Richard Florida.
In today's idea-driven economy, the cost of time is what really matters. With the constant pressure to innovate, it makes little sense to waste countless collective hours commuting. So, the most efficient and productive regions are those in which people are thinking and working--not sitting in traffic.
the auto-dependent transportation system has reached its limit in most major cities and megaregions. Commuting by car is among the least efficient of all our activities--not to mention among the least enjoyable, according to detailed research by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues. Though one might think that the economic crisis beginning in 2007 would have reduced traffic (high unemployment means fewer workers traveling to and from work), the opposite has been true. Average commutes have lengthened, and congestion has gotten worse, if anything. The average commute rose in 2008 to 25.5 minutes, "erasing years of decreases to stand at the level of 2000, as people had to leave home earlier in the morning to pick up friends for their ride to work or to catch a bus or subway train," according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which collects the figures. And those are average figures. Commutes are far longer in the big West coast cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and the East Coast cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. In many of these cities, gridlock has become the norm, not just at rush hour but all day, every day.
Image of a bar graph that accompanies a Reading passage. The title is "The Most Congested Cities in 2011 Yearly Hours of Delay per Automobile Commuter". The "very large city average" is listed as approximately 50 hours of delay per automobile commuter.
  • The Founding Documents/Great Global Conversations include classic and contemporary texts by American and international authors who are grappling with political, legal, social, moral, and ethical issues in an attempt to answer a simple but profound question: How should we live together? Founding Documents and Great Global Conversation texts may also appear in pairs.
Image of a Reading passage excerpt. It says:
Questions 4-8 are based on the following passage.
The passage is adapted from a speech delivered by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas on July 25, 1974. She was a member of the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives. In the passage, Jordan discusses how and when a United States president may be impeached, or charged with serious offenses while in office. Jordan's speech was delivered in the context of impeachment hearings against then President Richard M. Nixon.
Today, I am an inquisitor. An hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And Ia m not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.
"Who can so properly be the inquisitors for the nation as the representatives of the nation themselves?" "The subjects of its jurisdictions are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men." And that's what we're talking about. In other words, [the jurisdiction comes] from the abuse or violation of some public trust.
If it is wrong, I suggest, it is a misreading of the Constitution for any member here to assert that for a member to vote for an article of impeachment means that that member must be convinced that the President should be removed from office.


Includes passages that deal with information and ideas drawn from biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth science and their various subfields. Passages may discuss recent discoveries, interesting hypotheses and theories, and innovative research studies and methods. Science passages will sometimes include graphics or pairs of passages. Questions will ask you to determine relationships between the graphic or to analyze how two paired passages relate to one another.
Image of a paired passage excerpt: "Passage 1 is adapted from Susan Milius, "A Different Kind of Smart" . . . . Passage 2 is adapted from Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds.
Passage 1 In 1894, British psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan published what's called Morgan's canon, the principle that suggestions of humanlike mental processes behind an animal's behavior should be rejected if a simpler explanation will do.
Still, people seem to maintain certain expectations, especially when it comes to birds and mammals. "We somehow want to prove they are as 'smart' as people," zoologist Sara Shettleworth says. We want a bird that masters a vexing problem to be employing human-style insight.
New Caledonian crows face the high end of these expectations, as possibly the second-best toolmakers on the planet.
Image of a paired passage excerpt, continued from the previous image.
Passage 2 For one month after they left the nest, I led my four young ravens at least once and sometimes several times a day on thirty-minute walks. During these walks, I wrote down everything in their environment they pecked at. In the first sessions, I tried to be a teacher. I touched specific objects--sticks, moss, rocks--and nothing that I touched remained untouched by them. They came to investigate what I had investigated, leading me to assume that young birds are aided in learning to identify food from the parents' example. They also, however, contacted almost everything else that lay directly in their own paths. They soon became more independent by taking their own routes near mine. Even while walking along on their own, they pulled at leaves, grass stems, flowers, bark, pine needles, seeds, cones, clods of earth, and other objects they encountered. I wrote all this down, converting it to numbers. After they were thoroughly familiar with the background objects in these woods and started to ignore them, I seeded the path we would later walk together with objects they had never before encountered. Some of these were conspicuous food items: raspberries, dead meal worm beetles, and cooked corn kernels. Others were conspicuous and inedible: pebbles, glass chips, red winterberries. Still others were such highly cryptic foods as encased caddisfly larvae and moth cocoons. The results were dramatic.
On Official SAT Practice with Khan Academy, students will see the categories of Literature, History, Social Science, and Science. The Founding Documents and Great Global Conversation texts can be found under the History category.
You will not need to know the names of these categories for the test, but this gives you an idea of the passage content.


This article was adapted from the following sources:
“SAT Practice Tests” from The College Board.

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