SAT Reading: US Founding Documents

By James Rodkey

(ACT, SAT, ESOL, Latin, BMAT, GRE, TSA tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

The SAT Reading section contains 5 passages: 1 narrative fiction passage, 1 social science passage, 2 physical science passages, and 1 history passage. The history passage can be the most challenging passage on the Reading Test for many (if not most) students. Today we’ll take a closer look at some of the content covered by the history passage and suggest one helpful tip to be more prepared to understand and answer questions about it.

First of all, it’s important to know what the history passage covers. Broadly speaking, the history passage can come from two different general content areas, which the College Board calls “US Founding Documents” and “The Great Global Conversation”. The first one is easy enough: the selection will come from a piece of writing or speech from the earliest period of American history, from the revolution to the establishment of a federal government with the current constitution. The second category, “The Great Global Conversation”, is slightly more opaque. This generally refers to periods in US history that were focused on movements for equal rights. These include the abolitionist movement in the mid-19th century, the women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. These are all important periods of US history that all SAT takers should know something about, even if only the superficial facts of those movements.

At the moment we will focus on the US founding documents content area and talk about one great resource that can be informative and useful: The Federalist Papers.

Historical Context

After America declared independence from England and fought a bloody war to ensure perpetual sovereignty, the 13 original states drew up and ratified a document called the Articles of Confederation, which served as America’s constitution from 1781 until 1789, when it was replaced with the current version of the constitution. This original document was focused on preserving the rights of individual states and delegated little power to any central governing body. Over time, the Articles proved to be inadequate to address the needs of the rapidly growing and expanding US, so the states decided to convene to discuss changes to the government. This meeting, commonly referred to as the Constitutional Convention, proposed an entirely new form of government with a strong federal component and a chief executive (the President). The new proposal was sent to the states, which each held ratifying conventions to debate and confirm or reject the constitution.

Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists

It is during this time of state ratification that The Federalist Papers were written. After the proposal was sent to the states to discuss, newspaper articles (written pseudonymously) criticizing the new government began to appear. These anti-federalists, as they came to be called, objected to the strengthening of the central government and therefore discouraged the ratification of the new constitution.

In response to these sentiments, three prominent political thinkers of the day, Alexander Hamilton (of the popular eponymous musical), John Jay, and James Madison (the eventual 4th President of the US) wrote a series of articles in response to the anti-federalists. Much more organized and cohesive, these writings came to be known as The Federalist Papers and are now presented as a collection of 85 essays on the topic of adopting the new constitution and its strong federal government.

The Federalist Papers are an invaluable source of reading practice for any student preparing to take the SAT. The history passages on the exam are often more than a century old and written in a highly rhetorical style; students are therefore unlikely to encounter writing similar to this without actively seeking it. Luckily, given the age of the essays, the texts of all of these writings are public domain and consequently free for anyone to read. So, sometime before you intend to take the SAT, do a quick internet search for The Federalist Papers, and make those essays a part of your test preparation– you’ll be much more comfortable reading the history passage on the test!


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The Edge Learning Center is Hong Kong’s premier Test Preparation, Academic Tutoring, and Admissions Consulting services provider. Founded in 2008, The Edge has helped thousands of students improve their ACT and SAT scores as well as their IB and AP grades. The AC team has just finished off another successful period in which students gained acceptance to schools such as Columbia, MIT, UChicago, and more! Check out the rest of our 2018-9 Admissions Results!

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