SAT Reading: Guide to Scientific Concepts Passage

tl;dr: In this article, we discussed how to approach scientific concepts passages and rhetorical questions on the SAT. We go over a sample passage and some questions that you might see, and learn about analyzing purpose, point of view, word choice, text structure, and arguments. Don't let technical terms or unfamiliar concepts distract you! With a bit of practice, you can score great on this section.

Overview 📗

Welcome to the scientific concepts passage! In this article, we’ll be looking at how to approach scientific concepts, passages, and rhetorical questions!

Scientific concepts passages can contain a lot of technical terms, unfamiliar terms, and concepts, so it can be harder than other passage types. But on the bright side, the College Board will never require you to use outside knowledge. Though it might be helpful, you don’t need it to score greatly on this section.

So shall we get into some sample passages 🤩

Passage Example #1 🌙

[The following passage is adapted from an essay about the characteristics of lunar eclipses.

Many people are aware of the beauty of a solar eclipse, but are surprised to learn that lunar eclipses are often just as spectacular and are both more common and easier to observe. The filtering and refraction of light from the Earth’s atmosphere during a lunar eclipse creates stunning color effects that range from dark brown to red, orange, and yellow. Each of these light shows is unique since they are the result of the amount of dust and cloud cover in the Earth’s atmosphere at the time of the eclipse. While total solar eclipses last only for a few minutes and can be seen only in a small area of a few kilometers, total lunar eclipses can last for several hours and can be seen over much of the plant. In fact, the beauty and stability of lunar eclipse make them a favorite of both amateur and professional photographers.

Lunar eclipses generally occur two to three times a year and are possible only when the Moon is in its full phase. When we see the Moon, we are actually seeing sunlight reflected off the surface of the Moon. When the Earth is positioned in between the Moon and the Sun, however, the Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon and a lunar eclipse occurs. To better understand this process it’s helpful to imagine the Earth’s shadow on the Moon as a pair of nested cones, with the Earth at the apex of the cones, and the Moon at their bases. The outer, more diffuse cone of the shadow is called the penumbral shadow, while the inner, darker cone is the umbral shadow.]

Passage and Questions from Kaplan Prep Book

What is the central idea of the first paragraph? 🔍

First, locate the central idea of the first paragraph. This is where you’ll find the general overview of the whole passage and can help you navigate through it.

In the example passage, the first paragraph talks about how lunar eclipses are more common than solar eclipses. Then it briefly mentions how the eclipses are created by light filtration and retraction. But you can tell that the central idea is the fact that lunar eclipses are much more common than solar eclipses and are easier to observe.

How does each paragraph relate to the central idea? 🔎

Do the following paragraphs explain, support, refute, or summarize the central idea? Know how each paragraph relates to the central idea. Generally, you’ll have each paragraph explain, support, refute, or summarize the central idea, but that’s a general rule of thumb.

The second paragraph in the example passage explains the central idea, giving information on how lunar eclipses occur. We can learn that lunar eclipses occur two to three times a year, with the Earth’s shadow falling on the Moon.

Do the technical terms distract you? 😵

Try not to get distracted with technical terms! If you don’t quite understand a word, that means it’ll probably be defined in the passage or with a footnote. If you can figure it out with context clues, good for you! If not, don’t panic - you don’t need to understand every single word. If you don’t understand a very high-level vocab word and it’s not defined, then College Board is just cruel, and you are doing great by putting your best into the exam!

DO NOT get distracted by terms you don’t know, and don’t let it pull you down.


Okay, so let’s take a look at some sample questions.

[Question #1

1. According to the passage, the colors of a lunar eclipse are the result of

  • A. the penumbral shadow.
  • B. the stability of lunar eclipses.
  • C. filtering and refraction of light.
  • D. the sunlight reflected off the Moon.]

Okay, so for this question, let’s take a look at the question first. What are some keywords in the question? Color of a lunar eclipse. Since we know the keywords, let’s go back and refer to the passage. Where are these keywords mentioned? In the first paragraph. And what does the paragraph talk about the cause of the colors? Filtering and refraction of light. And that should give you the answer.

Answer: C

See? We had some technical terms, but that didn’t bother you at all! Even if you didn’t know what refraction was, it is totally possible to get the correct answer!

[Question #2

2. In the second paragraph, the phrase “pair of nested cones” serves to

  • A. offer support for a previous statement.
  • B. describe the diffraction of light through the atmosphere.
  • C. explain why lunar eclipses are favorites of photographers.
  • D. provide a concrete example to help readers visualize a phenomenon.]

These are some of those questions that you actually might be better off without looking at the answer choices first. Cover the choices up and make up the answer. Refer to the passage if needed. Then, check to see if an answer choice matches your answer. Does it?

Answer: D

If it didn’t match an answer choice, don’t worry. Before the phrase, the sentence actually gives you a clue, stating, “To better understand this process, it’s helpful to imagine…” (second paragraph). This should definitely help you out with choosing the correct answer.

daily practice for the SAT meme about crying
Image Courtesy to Prep Scholar

Rhetoric Questions 🗣️

Rhetoric refers to the language the author uses to persuade the reader or audience. When this is used in the SAT, it usually asks to analyze five things: purpose, point of view, word choice, text structure, and arguments.

Analyzing Purpose 💭

Why did the author write this passage? What does the author want the reader to think regarding this topic? Ask these questions to yourself when you’re asked by the question about the purpose of the whole passage.

But you can also be asked to identify the purpose of a part of the passage. In this case, ask yourself. What is the function of this section? How does this section help the overall purpose? Also, make sure to read around the cited portion to get a general idea of where you find your ideas.

Analyzing Point of View 👀

Usually, the point of view is closely tied with purpose. Though the author might write neutrally, other authors might have a strong opinion on a particular issue. In these questions, you’ll be asked to analyze the author’s perspective and how that affects content and style. This is identifying how the author says something.

When figuring this out, try to first identify if the author’s tone is positive, negative, or neutral. Does this tone change over the course of the passage? Is there something the author wants to change or stay the same? Is the author supportive or opposing of the topic?

Analyzing Word Choice ☝️

These questions will ask you why an author chose a certain word and how this affects the passage. They will ask about the function of a word or phrase within the passage and why the author chose this word or phrase out of the thousand others that could’ve been used.

Functions of these words could be: setting a mood, conveying an emotion, building to a conclusion, calling to action, or stating an opinion. Also, note that the correct answer to these questions will always match up with the author’s overall purpose!

Analyzing Text Structure 📜

When you’re analyzing text structures, you should consider two kinds: overall text structure and part-whole relationships.

Overall text structure refers to how the information in the passage is organized. Is it cause-and-effect or compare-and-contrast? Or is it sequence, problem-and-solution, or description?  

Part-whole relationships describe how a particular part of the passage relates to the overall text. For example, how does a sentence, quotation, or paragraph relate to the text? Each part plays a big role and serves a function, so it would be your job to identify those roles and functions.

Analyzing Arguments 🧠

There are three types of argument analysis questions, and they are:

  • Analyze claims and counterclaims
  • Assess reasoning
  • Analyze evidence

When you’re analyzing claims and counterclaims, you should always keep in mind that they are not opinions but the main points of a thesis. Counterclaims just mean claims that disagree with the central thesis.

The reasoning of a passage is basically the statements that support claims and counterclaims. In the SAT, you’ll probably be asked if an argument is logically reasonable.

Lastly, analyzing evidence. Evidence is any fact, reason, statistics, or other information that supports the main claim or counterclaim. In questions, you’ll be asked to assess why this piece of evidence was used and how it supports the claim.

Passage Example #2 🧬

[The following passage about evolutionary science was excerpted from the writings of a well-known biologist.

There is something intrinsically fascinating about the idea of evolution. What principles govern the evolution of species? And what does evolution tell us about the palace of Homo sapiens in the grand order of things? The writer George Bernard Shaw held that a mystical guiding force impels life to evolve toward eventual perfection. Modern scientists may not believe in this guiding force or in the possibility of perfection, but many would agree that life has been improving itself through evolution for billions of years. (Note that this conveniently makes Homo sapiens, a very recent product of evolution, one of the newest and most improved versions of life.) In the view of these scientists, constant competition among species is the engine that drives the process of evolution and propels life upward. In order to win one day’s struggle and live to fight another day, a species always has to adapt, be a little faster, a little stronger, and a little smarter than its competitors and its predecessors.

No less an eminence than Charles Darwin put forth the idea that species were in constant competition with each other. To Darwin, nature was a surface covered with thousands of sharp wedges, all packed together and jostling for the same space. Those wedges that fared best moved toward the center of the surface, improving their position by knocking other wedges away with violent blows. The standard example that textbooks give of such competitive wedging is the interaction between the brachiopods and the clams. Clams were long held to be ancient undersea competitors with brachiopods due to the fact that the two species inhabited the same ecological niche. Clams are abundant today, whereas brachiopods (dominant in ancient times) are not. Modern clams are also physiologically more complex than brachiopods are. The standard interpretation of these facts is that the clams’ physiology was an evolutionary improvement that gave them the ability to “knock away” the brachiopods.

In recent years, however, the prominent naturalists Stephen Jay Gould and C. Brad Calloway have challenged the validity of this example as well as the model it was meant to support. Gould and Calloway found that over most of geological time, claims and brachiopods went their separate ways. Never did the population of brachiopods dip as that of the clams rose, or vice versa. In fact, the two populations often grew simultaneously, which belies the notion that they were fighting fiercely over the same narrow turf and resources. That there were so many more clams than brachiopods today seems rather to be a consequence of mass dyings that occurred in the Permian period whatever caused the mass dyings - some scientists theorize that either there were massive ecological or geological changes, or a comet crashed down from the heavens - clams were simply able to weather the storm much better than the brachiopods.

Out of these observations, Gould and Calloway drew a number of far-reaching conclusions. For instance, they suggested that direct competition between species was far less frequent than Darwin thought. Perhaps nature was really a very large surface on which there were very few wedges, and the wedges consequently did not bang incessantly against each other. Perhaps the problem facing these wedges was rather that the surface continually altered its shape, and they had to struggle idedendently to stay in a good position on the surface as it changed. In this alternate model, competition between species is not the impetus for evolutionary adaptation - changes in the environment (geological and climatic variations) are.

So where does the leave Homo sapiens if evolution is a response to sudden, unpredictable, and sweeping changes in the environment rather than the result of a perpetual struggle? No longer are we the kings of the mountain who clawed our way to the top by advancing beyond other species. We are instead those who took to the mountains when floods began to rage below and then discovered that living high up has its definite advantages… so long as our mountain doesn’t decide to turn into a volcano.]

Passage and Questions from Kaplan Prep Book


Some sample questions!

[Question #1

1. The main purpose of the second and third paragraphs is to

  • A. question a standard theory in light of new scientific research.
  • B. provide an example of how evolutionary science has changed its focus.
  • C. highlight the difference between theoretical thinking and empirical data.
  • D. argue for caution before accepting a new scientific theory.]

So this is a rhetoric question where you need to analyze the purpose of paragraphs 2 and 3. Paragraph 2 was about Charles Darwin’s theory and evolutionary improvements with the example of clams. The third paragraph talks about Gould and Calloway’s claim that clams and brachiopods didn’t compete. In this case, Gould and Calloway are questioning Darwin’s theory with the discovery of clams and brachiopods. So then, what would the answer be?

Answer: A

The answer can’t be B, C, or D because choice B focuses on how evolutionary science changed its focus, which is not true. Choice C talks about theoretical thinking and empirical data, which is not mentioned in the passage. Choice D is eliminated because there is no mention of a new scientific theory in paragraphs 2 and 3.

[Question #2

2. The stance the author takes in the passage toward “Homo sapiens” is best described as

  • A. a skeptic questioning a cherished belief
  • B. an advocate seeking recognition for a new idea.
  • C. a philosopher outlining an ethical position.
  • D. a scientist presenting evidence for a hypothesis.]

This question asks you to analyze the point of view of the author. First of all, Homo sapiens is mentioned in the first and last paragraphs, which is where you should look at. In the last paragraph, the author states we are no longer “the kings of the mountain,” implying that humans must also adapt to the environment. And this tone is rather negative when regarding humans. Now, try finding an answer choice that has a similar, negative tone regarding the lives of humans.

Answer: A

As you can tell, the words “skeptic questioning” have a negative connotation, indicating that A is the answer. B is more positive, and C and D are neutral.

[Question #3

3. The author’s use of the phrase “no less an eminence than Charles Darwin” in paragraph 2 is primarily meant to convey

  • A. Darwin’s age when he developed his ideas about evolution.
  • B. the author’s skepticism toward Darwin’s ideas about evolution.
  • C. Darwin’s importance to the field of evolutionary science.
  • D. the author’s respect for Darwin’s historical significance.]

This is where you should analyze word choice! Why did the author use this phrase? Well, most of us are pretty familiar with Charles Darwin. And we know he is an important figure in evolutionary science. So that leads to the answer...

Answer: C

We can easily eliminate A and B because of their un-relatedness to the passage. Though technically D could also be the right answer, “eminence” gives the feeling of importance rather than respect, so it would make sense that C is the correct answer.

Conclusion 💯

That’s it! You got through the scientific concepts passage as well as synthesis questions and infographics. You’re one step closer to success for the SAT!!

Remember to read the scientific concepts passages slowly and carefully, noticing the central idea and how the succeeding paragraphs relate to the central idea. But don’t let those terms mess you up!

Rhetorical questions really ask you about why each word, sentence, and paragraph is present in the passage. If you really understand each purpose, function, and role of every part of the passage, you’ll be all set!

Make sure to refer back to Fiveable’s other SAT Reading articles 🤗

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