Determining the Author's Purpose in SAT Passages

Nothing sets my students into a panic more consistently than being asked to describe the main purpose or the author’s intent when examining a passage.  “But that’s not fair!” they say, “This is an opinion question.”

Though it is easy to get oneself into a tizzy and wallow in frustration at a question of this sort, it is important to remember that nothing is a matter of opinion on the SAT. Every answer is objectively true and supported by the text.  The trick is examining what the passage is accomplishing.         

The first task when you are approaching a question like this is to look at the story or article and describe, in one or two sentences, what it is about.  We all do this with content much more complicated than short passages.  When someone asks you what a movie, let say, The Lion King, is about, you would probably say something like, “It’s a coming of age story about lion cub who finds his place in the world.” This is similar to what we do with passages, but in making our description of a passage, we want to state what a passage does as well as what content it engages.

A passage could deal with dinosaurs, for example, but it is too reductive to state the passage is about dinosaurs.  What is the author doing? The author could be:

  • Convincing you of a viewpoint (are there arguments and examples to support an argument?)
  • Comparing two different viewpoints (different arguments are presented, but the author doesn’t pick a side)
  • Describing or explaining a phenomenon (is it mostly descriptive or explanatory?)
  • Telling a story (is there a clear narrative?)

These are the kinds of questions that we must ask in determining purpose.  Usually if we only look at the first few words of the answer choices for these key indicator words (describing, arguing, comparing, etc.), we can eliminate the majority of the possibilities because the answers describe something that is not accomplished by the text.  If our imaginary article is comparing existing theories about the extinction of the dinosaurs without making a judgment on which argument is stronger, then any answer choice that states that the author is arguing, or convincing, and not comparing or explaining is WRONG.  What if an answer choice states that the author is making an argument on a possible cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs? That’s sort of what the author is doing, right? Nope! It’s wrong, wrong, wrong. “Sort of” true answers are not correct. All parts of an answer choice MUST be correct and supported by the passage in order for the answer to be true.  It is often easier to figure out what the author is NOT doing and eliminate all choices that describe an untruth.

As long as we follow these simple steps, we should be able to approach this kind of question with ease:

  • Describe what passage accomplishes (is the author explaining, arguing, comparing, etc.)
  • Examine the answer choices to see which actions the author is and isn’t accomplishing
  • Eliminate choices that don’t describe what the author is doing
  • Examine all parts of remaining answer choices and make sure they are supported in the text (ALL ANSWERS ARE STATED IN OR SUPPORTED BY THE TEXT)

Don’t fear these types of questions.  There are many difficult searches for purpose that you may engage with in your life, the purpose of an SAT article is easy to find: it’s all in the text.

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David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy.

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