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SAT Critical Reading


Long Reading Passages

Each long passage is approximately 500–800 words in length and is followed by 8–13 questions related to the passage.


Strategies for Long Passages

  • The questions following the passage are ordered not by difficulty but by the part of the passage to which they refer.

  • General questions that cover the entire passage may appear either at the beginning or the end of the group of questions.

  • Make sure you don’t skip over the italicized introductory that precedes the passage. The context that the intro provides often helps you understand the passage better.

When tackling long passages, follow these steps:

  1. Force yourself to focus

    • Treat the passage like it’s the most interesting thing in the world. You’ll understand and remember much more of the passage this way.

  2. Read and outline the passage

    • Mark up the passage as you read it. Underline important facts, jot down the purpose or meaning of a paragraph, and write notes in the margins.

    • Don’t look at the answer choices until you’re done reading and outlining. This will keep you focused and help you answer the questions by giving you a map of the passage.

  3. Answer specific questions

    • Specific questions refer to specific line numbers in the passage. Go back to the line numbers indicated and answer these questions first.

  4. Answer general questions

    • General questions ask about broad aspects of the passage—main idea, tone, argument, and so on. Tackle these questions last because they often take more time to answer than specific questions.

    • Your ability to answer general tone and main idea questions without looking back at the passage generally is a good gauge of how well you’re reading the passage.


Sample Long Passage

The following passage discusses the scientific life of Galileo Galilee in reference to the political, religious, artistic, and scientific movements of the age.
















Galileo Galilee was born in 1564 into a Europe wracked
by cultural ferment and religious strife. The popes of the
Roman Catholic Church, powerful in their roles as both
religious and secular leaders, had proven vulnerable to
the worldly and decadent spirit of the age, and their
personal immorality brought the reputation of the papacy
to historic lows. In 1517, Martin Luther, a former monk,
attacked Catholicism for having become too worldly and
politically corrupt and for obscuring the fundamentals
of Christianity with pagan elements. His reforming zeal,
which appealed to a notion of an original, “purified”
Christianity, set in motion the Protestant Reformation
and split European Christianity in two.
     In response, Roman Catholicism steeled itself for
battle and launched the Counter-Reformation, which
emphasized orthodoxy and fidelity to the true church.
The Counter-Reformation reinvigorated the church and,
to some extent, eliminated its excesses. But the Counter-
Reformation also contributed to the decline of the Italian
Renaissance, a revival of arts and letters that sought
to recover and rework the classical art and philosophy
of ancient Greece and Rome. The popes had once been
great patrons of Renaissance arts and sciences, but the
Counter-Reformation put an end to the church’s liberal
leniency in these areas. Further, the church’s new
emphasis on religious orthodoxy would soon clash with
the emerging scientific revolution. Galileo, with his study
of astronomy, found himself at the center of this clash.
     Conservative astronomers of Galileo’s time, working
without telescopes, ascribed without deviation to the
ancient theory of egocentricity. This theory of astronomy
held that the earth (“geo,” as in “geography” or “geology”)
lay at the center of the solar system, orbited by both the
sun and the other planets. Indeed, to the casual observer,
it seemed common sense that since the sun “rose” in the
morning and “set” at night, it must have circled around
the earth. Ancient authorities like Aristotle and the
Roman astronomer Ptolemy had championed this viewpoint,
and the notion also coincided with the Catholic
Church’s view of the universe, which placed mankind,
God’s principal creation, at the center of the cosmos.
Buttressed by common sense, the ancient philosophers,
and the church, the geocentric model of the universe
seemed secure in its authority. The Ptolemaic theory,
however, was not impervious to attack. In the 16th century,
astronomers strained to make modern observations
fit Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe.
     Increasingly complex mathematical systems
were necessary to reconcile these new observations
with Ptolemy’s system of interlocking orbits. Nicholas
Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, openly questioned the
Ptolemaic system and proposed a heliocentric system
in which the planets “including Earth” orbited the sun
(“Helios”). This more mathematically satisfying way of
arranging the solar system did not attract many supporters
at first, since the available data did not yet
support a wholesale abandonment of Ptolemy’s system. By
the end of the 16th century, however, astronomers like
Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) had also begun to embrace
Copernicus’s theory.
     Ultimately, Galileo’s telescope struck a fatal blow
to the Ptolemaic system. But, in a sense, the telescope
was also nearly fatal to Galileo himself. The Catholic
Church, desperately trying to hold the Protestant heresy
at bay, could not accept a scientific assault on its
own theories of the universe. The pressures of the age
set in motion a historic confrontation between religion
and science, one which would culminate in 1633 when
the church put Galileo on trial, forced him to recant
his stated and published scientific beliefs, and put him
under permanent house arrest.

  1. The term “ferment” in line 2 most closely means

    1. alienation

    2. turmoil

    3. consolidation

    4. decomposition

    5. stagnation

  2. Which of the following was NOT a reason for Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church (lines 7–10)?

    1. pagan elements in its practices

    2. the amorality of its leadership

    3. its excessive attention to piety

    4. its corruption and worldliness

    5. the political involvement of the popes

  3. Which of the following best explains why the Catholic Church started the Counter-Reformation (lines 14–18)?

    1. to fight scientific heresy

    2. to clean out its own ranks

    3. to reinvigorate artists and intellectuals

    4. to elect a new pope

    5. to counter Protestant challenges

  4. In the second paragraph, the passage implies that during the Renaissance, the Catholic Church

    1. saw little conflict between its own goals and those of the arts and sciences

    2. promoted the arts as a way to limit the social influence of scientists

    3. supported Martin Luther’s views on religion and the church

    4. had limited interaction with the religious affairs of commoners

    5. focused on spirituality as opposed to worldly matters

  5. The author’s description of Galileo’s telescope as having “struck a fatal blow” is an example of

    1. simile

    2. metaphor

    3. personification

    4. allusion

    5. irony

  6. Which of the following best states the main idea of the passage?

    1. Science always conflicts with religion.

    2. Science is vulnerable to outside social forces.

    3. Ideally, scientific theories should reinforce religious doctrine.

    4. Science operates in a vacuum.

    5. Advanced technology is the only route to good scientific theories.

  7. The author’s tone in this passage can best be described as

    1. analytical

    2. disturbed

    3. skeptical

    4. dramatic

    5. reverent


Answers and Explanations

  1. The correct answer is B.

    • This is a words-in-context question, so treat it like a Sentence Completion: Galileo

      Galilei was born in 1564 into a Europe wracked by cultural ---- and religious strife.

    • The sentence is one-way (there are no switch words), so the blank needs to fit with the ideas of wracked and strife, both of which are associated with fighting and chaos.

    • The best fit is B, turmoil.

  2. The correct answer is C.

    • This question involves specific information from the passage, so go back to the specific lines that the question addresses.

    • Lines 6–8 say that Luther attacked the church for having become too worldly and politically corrupt and for obscuring the fundamentals of Christianity with pagan elements.

    • You can eliminate A, B, D, and E easily. The answer is C.

  3. The correct answer is E.

    • This is a question about themes and arguments, so go back to the passage, read the specific lines cited in the question, and try to come up with your own answer first. Look at the answer choices only after you have your own answer in your head.

    • Specifically, the question tests your ability to differentiate between the causes and effects of the Counter-Reformation. Answers A, B, and C refer to effects of the Counter-Reformation, not causes.

    • After eliminating these choices, E is the best fit.

  4. The correct answer is A.

    • This is an implied information question, so again, come up with your own answer before looking at the answer choices. It’s especially helpful to think about the main idea of the passage to help you figure out the implied information.

    • In the second paragraph, the author says that during the Renaissance, the church was a great patron of the arts and sciences. This statement suggests that the church approved of the arts and sciences during the Renaissance.

    • Now go through the answer choices and look for a match. A is by far the best fit.

  5. The correct answer is C.

    • This question is about author’s technique, so it tests your knowledge of literary terms (see Literary Techniques and Figures of Speech).

    • In this question, a telescope—an inanimate object—is described as having struck a fatal blow. In other words, the author has given the telescope human qualities, which is the definition of personification. Therefore, C is correct.

  6. The correct answer is B.

    • This question deals with main idea, so the best way to tackle it is to try to come up with a one-sentence summary of the passage yourself before you look at the answer choices.

    • For this passage, you might come up with something like “Galileo’s scientific discoveries in particular, and science in general, were affected by the religious and social forces of the time.”

    • Now try to match this summary with the answer choices. The best fit is B.

  7. The correct answer is A.

    • This question asks you about the author’s attitude or tone. First, try to decide whether the author’s tone is positive, neutral, or negative, and then look at the answers and try to cross off those that don’t fit.

    • The passage describes an entire time period, covering different arguments and never condemning or praising either the Reformation or Galileo. It generally remains neutral, so you can eliminate B, C, and E.

    • The passage is not full of highs and lows or emotional interjections, so it is not dramatic. The best fit is A, analytical.