Pretty much everyone agrees that SAT passages can be boring. Really boring. They’re like the literary equivalent of your physics teacher droning on…and on…and on while you try your hardest not to turn fifth period into an inadvertent nap time.
I don’t draw this science analogy by accident: of all the types of passages on the SAT, science passages tend to score the lowest in terms of their engagement factor. They also tend to be written in a tone that’s considerably more neutral (or “objective” or “analytical”) than that found in other types of passages.
But just because the author writes in an objective tone does not mean that he/she is entirely neutral. That is, an author can use language that does not contain any strong wording and still clearly indicate that they believe that one idea or theory is right and that another one is wrong.The fact that they do not say I think or I believe and avoid using words like absolutely or conclusively in no way detracts from the fact that they are still expressing a point of view rather than simply rattling off an objective set of facts — and it’s your job to figure out, based on the passage alone, what that point of view or opinion is and why the author holds it.
The ability to distinguish between tone and point of view is crucial on the SAT; sometimes it’s even tested directly. (As a matter of fact, this post was inspired by an exchange that involved me convincing a student that the correct answer to a tone question could still be “impartial” even though the author of the passage had a distinct opinion).
Incidentally, this is a point that most of the major commercial test-prep books stumble over: though sometimes dense, their passages tend to be overly straightforward and factual. SAT passages are, for all intents and purposes, not just straightforward and factual, even if they do sometimes contain lots of facts.
Think of it this way: most English teachers forbid their students from using “I” in their papers. They typically justify this prohibition by arguing that everything you write is by definition your opinion (at least under normal circumstances), and besides, having to read a two dozen sentences that start with “I think” or “I believe” or “In my opinion” in the space of three pages would drive anyone crazy. SAT passages are based on the same principle.
So the next time you’re faced with a passage about, say, string theory (actually one of the SAT’s preferred topics), forget the details of the theory itself and focus on what the author thinks is important — or not important — about it. If you get a question that asks about a detail about it, you can always go back and reread, but the details shouldn’t be your main focus. Because guess what: if you know what the author thinks, you can probably figure out a lot of the questions just based on that knowledge. But if you’ve gotten caught up in trying to understand the details, you’ll probably get, well…not very far.