SAT Reading: Guide to the Social Science Passage

tl;dr: In this article, we go over social science passages, synthesis questions and infographics. Social science passages are similar to historical documents passages, so take the same approach. Synthesis questions ask you to combine info from a paired set of passages or analyze an infographic. Infographics are in social sciences and scientific concept passages and test your ability to read data, draw conclusions and combine info from the passage to the graph. Good luck on the SAT!

Overview 📘

Welcome to another SAT reading article! In this article, we will be going over social science passages, synthesis questions, and infographics!

Social science passages are pretty similar to historical documents passages. So, take the same approach toward social science passages as historical document passages!

While that, synthesis questions and infographics can be a whole new thing! These usually come with a paired passage set

So without further ado, let's look at an example passage 🤩

Futurama meme with text that reads: not sure if test was easy or got everything wrong
Image Courtesy of Prep Scholar

Passage Example #1 🚗

[The following passage, adapted from an article in an encyclopedia of American culture, addresses some of the influences of the automobile on American life.

Few developments have so greatly affected American life as the automobile. Indeed, it would be hard to overestimate its impact. Since mass production of the automobile became feasible in the early twentieth century, the car has had a significant effect on nearly every facet of American life, including how we work, where we live, and what we believe.

Interestingly, it was the process of building cars rather than the cars themselves that first brought a sea change to the American workplace. In 1914, a Ford plant in Highland Park, Michigan, used the first electric conveyor belt, greatly increasing the efficiency of automobile manufacturing. Assembly lines for the production of automobiles were quickly adopted and became highly mechanized, providing a new model for industrial business. In contrast to European manufacturers, which employed a higher percentage of skilled laborers to produce fewer and costlier cars, American companies focused on turning out a large quantity of affordable cars utilizing less-skilled laborers. Assembly-line production was a mixed blessing, as it enabled higher productivity and more affordable cars but resulted in less-satisfied workers with less-interesting jobs. The value of efficiency was emphasized over personal pride and investment in the work.

As cars became more popular, their effect on population distribution was likewise profound. Unlike railroads, which helped concentrate the population in cities, the automobile contributed to urban sprawl and, eventually, to the rise of suburbs. People no longer needed to live near public transportation lines or within walking distance of their jobs, and so were drawn to outlying areas with less congestion and lower property taxes. Business district became less centralized for similar reasons. Sadly, this movement towards suburbs exacerbated social stratification. Since cars were initially affordable only to wealthier people, the upper and middle classes moved out of cities. Many businesses followed, attracted by the educated, well-trained workforce. As good jobs also moved out of cities, the people who remained were further disadvantaged and even less able to leave. Though few anticipated it in the heady early days of suburban growth, by the century's end, cars had helped further entrench social divisions in America by making possible great physical distances between rich and poor.

Automobile ownership has also transformed our individual lives and values. Historian James Flink has observed that automobiles particularly altered the work patterns and recreational opportunities of farmers and other rural inhabitants by reducing the isolation that had been characteristic of life in the country. Of course, there were also profound changes in the recreational activities of suburban and urban dwellers. For example, the 1950s saw a huge increase in drive-in movie theaters, fast-food establishments, supermarkets, and shopping centers - most facets of how we ate, shopped, and played changed to accommodate the car. Family life was also affected: Cars changed dating behavior by allowing teenagers more independence from parental supervision and control, and they provided women with more freedom to leave the home. This personal mobility and autonomy afforded by the car has become an integral part of American culture.]

Passage and Questions from Kaplan Prep Book

What is the topic of the passage? 🔍

Try to identify the passage's topic, which can usually be found in the first paragraph (and in the thesis sentence). If you think you’ve found it, underline it, highlight it, or circle it so that you can refer to it anytime.

In the passage, the author talks about the different impacts the automobile had on American culture and society, so that is its topic!

What is the topic sentence of each paragraph? 🔎

Each paragraph is a separate paragraph for a reason - which means you should always look for why that paragraph deserved its own paragraph. What role does this paragraph play? Does it provide evidence to support a previous claim? Or does it introduce new claims? Try asking yourself and these questions and figuring out the important details within the passage.

In the passage, each paragraph talks about the manufacturing process, popularity, and ownership respectively.

What is the purpose of the passage? 💭

Why did the author decide to write on this topic? Though it might be hard to answer, most purposes are fairly common: to inform, refute, promote, explore, etc. Knowing the purpose of the passage is critical to answering most of the questions.

In the case of the example passage, the author writes to inform how automobiles have changed society. Thus, this is an informative passage!

Questions ❓

Now let’s see how well you understood the reading!

[Question #1

  1. The author refers to European and American manufacturing practices in the second paragraph primarily to
  1. demonstrate the quality difference between European and American cars.
  2. argue for a return to a less mechanized but less efficient factory system.
  3. highlight the positive and negative effects of the automobile on the American workplace.
  4. suggest that greater efficiency and more skilled laborers can improve the American workplace.]

In this question, you should think about how the question aligns with the author’s central idea (influence of automobiles on the U.S.). Choice B does not match the author’s informative tone, and choices A and D don’t work either because the author doesn't talk about manufacturing details. The author talks about how the assembly line impacted the American workforce, which leaves us with one answer.

Answer:  C

[Question #2

  1. In the sentence “Unlike railroads, which helped concentrate the population in cities, the automobile contributed to urban sprawl and, eventually, to the rise of suburbs,” what distinction does the author draw between the two types of transportation?
  1. Railroads are a more efficient mode of transportation than automobiles.
  2. Automobiles allow greater flexibility, while railroads cooperate on a fixed schedule.
  3. Railroads promote clustered populations, while automobiles promote dispersed populations.
  4. Automobiles replaced railroads as the preferred American mode of transportation.

This question is asking for the author’s reasoning. And the author states that railroads brought people together, while cars brought people apart, which matches an answer choice!]

Answer: C

The answer can’t be A, B, or D because they don’t necessarily connect to the sentence mentioned in the question.

Synthesis Questions 👀

Synthesis questions ask you to combine information from a paired set of passages or a question that asks you to analyze an infographic.

Paired passages are usually for the historical document passages, social science passages, or scientific concepts passages. So for paired passages, you should read passage 1 and then answer the questions regarding only passage 1. Then, you should do the same for passage 2. After finishing, answer the questions about both passages. By reading the passages individually, you can easily get a sense of the central idea and purpose, which is important for synthesizing information.

Infographics 📊

Yay! Infographics! These are usually in social sciences or scientific concepts passages. Infographics are generally there to test your ability to read data, draw conclusions and combine information from the passage to the graph. When you’re approaching an infographic question, make sure to do the three.

First, read the question (obviously) and know what you are looking for from the infographic.

Second, examine the infographic, including units of measurement, labels, titles, and axes. This is important to know so you can identify what the infographic is trying to show. Make sure to circle parts of the infographic that will help you answer the question.

Third, predict the answer. Try not to look at the answer choices until you get a general prediction of the answer.

Passage Example #2 🍔

[Passage 1 recommends more action to address the problem of obesity in the United States. Passage 2 questions how the issue of obesity has been portrayed.

Passage 1

Researchers have consistently proven obesity to be a leading risk factor for several diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, and many types of cancer. Disturbingly, obesity is on the rise. From 1960 to 2000, the obesity rate rose from 13.3 to 30.9 percent of the population and jumped nearly 75 percent from 1991 to 2001 alone. As the prevalence of obesity increases, so too do the economic consequences of the condition. Missed work and the escalating expense of health care are part of the hundred-billion-dollar-plus total cost of obesity that affects the nation’s economy. Intensified government efforts to address obesity and its consequences would benefit not only the nation’s economy, but also the well-being of its citizens.

Passage 2

The United States of America is getting fatter. Statistics show that obesity rates more than doubled from 1960 to 2000. However, advocates who cite such statistics and demand government action ignore existing initiatives. The U.S. government has responded to the obesity epidemic by creating many programs aimed at obesity awareness, prevention, and control. In addition, its healthcare system continues to improve and respond to the needs of the obese population. Statistics describing rising obesity rates are alarmist and neglect existing anti-obesity efforts, as well as the non quantitative factors that affect health. Fighting obesity is a noble objective, but the overzealous use of statistics contributes to an incomplete and ultimately inaccurate portrayal of the situation.

bar chart of overweight and obese adults in comparison to percentage of population in India, China, Mexico, and USA
Passage, Questions and Infographic from Kaplan Prep Book

Questions ❓

Let’s dive into some questions!

[Questions #1

  1. One difference between the responses described in the passages is that, unlike the author of Passage 1, the author of Passage 2
  1. Suggests that new government efforts to combat obesity would be largely ineffective.
  2. Recommends conducting additional research before intensifying government efforts.
  3. Cites existing programs and improved healthcare efforts that already address the problem.
  4. Claims fighting obesity should not be a national concern.]

So this is a question about the opinions of the authors. So how do they differ? We could tell from passage 1 that the author concentrates more on how the government should combat obesity. On the flip side, author 2 talks more about the existing programs and cites that statistics can be misleading. So, in this case, what would be the correct answer?

Answer: C

By process of elimination, we can also solve this. It can’t be A, because author 2 doesn’t talk about the ineffective nature of new efforts but talks about how efforts are already being made. B and D don’t make sense, so we’re only left with C.

[Question #2

  1. Are the benefits of addressing the consequences of obesity described in Passage 1 consistent with the main conclusion drawn by the author of Passage 2?
  1. Yes, because the conclusion suggests that addressing obesity has societal value.
  2. Yes, because the conclusion implies that government is best suited to pursue such goals.
  3. No, because the conclusion offers alternative benefits associated with a different approach.
  4. No, because the conclusion focuses only on the use of statistics to evaluate the problem.]

So this question is asking about the conclusions now. So what was the conclusion for Passage 2? It was that fighting obesity is good, but statistics can be misleading. And what does Passage 1 say about these benefits? Passage 1 states that fighting obesity would help the nation’s economy and “the well-being of its citizens.” So we can figure out that both passages talk about the same benefits.

Answer: A

It can’t be B, C, or D. Choice B talks about the government pursuing those goals, which is never mentioned in the conclusion. Though it does talk about how government action is ignored, it doesn’t talk about how well-suited the government is to pursue these goals. Choice C talks about alternative benefits, which is not true; both passages talk about the same benefits. Lastly, choice D talks about passage 2’s focus on statistics - which is true. But passage 2 doesn’t only focus on statistics which is why D doesn’t work. Also, remember those answer choices with extreme words like only, never, always, one, etc., are usually not the right answer, so try to avoid those.

[Question #3

  1. Based on the information in Passage 2 and the chart, it can be reasonably inferred that
  1. Obesity rates for U.S. women are increasing more rapidly than are the rates for U.S. men.
  2. In the United States, the proportion of overweight men to overweight women suggests that existing initiatives are more effective for women.
  3. The statistics displayed in the graph suggest a serious problem, but don’t present a complete picture.
  4. Governments in other countries have spent too much time fighting obesity. ]

Okay, so by looking at the problem, we can easily tell that we need to refer back to the infographic. So first, let’s identify what the infographic is displaying. It’s showing the percent of the obese population per country (U.S., Mexico, China, India). The x-axis is the four countries, and the y-axis is the population percentage. The key also gives you four categories: men and women who are overweight and obese.

Now, look at the answer choices. Choice A doesn’t match the infographic because the graph doesn’t show any change over time. It’s just the current percentage. So we can cross out choice A.

Next, we look at choice B. Choice B doesn’t work either because the graph doesn’t show the effectiveness of any program. The graph shows no relationship at all! So cross out B.

Choice C seems to make sense since the statistics show how much more Americans are obese than other countries. So keep choice C in mind, but don’t choose it yet.

Lastly, let's look at choice D. This can’t be the right answer because nowhere in the graph shows government involvement or action. So what does that leave you with?

Answer: C

Choice C is the correct answer because none of the others work. Also, if you look closely, the last bit of the choice has “don’t present a complete picture,” which matches up perfectly with Passage 2’s conclusion. Therefore, we can pinpoint C as the correct answer.

Conclusion 💯

Woohoo! I can already see 1600 coming into your score release report! You got through the social science passage as well as synthesis questions and infographics.

Remember that social science passages questions heavily rely on the purpose and central idea, so while reading, pay close attention to it!

Synthesis questions require you to connect ideas from two passages and an infographic. But if you read carefully, you’ll be able to find the right answer!

Bottom line: the SAT is only an exam, so don’t let it define you. Just put your best into it, and you’ll be amazed at how much you can do ✨

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