SAT Reading Strategies: Watch Out For Pivots

The SAT will throw many types of passages at you, ranging from personal narratives to scientific essays. Some of them will hardly involve the author's point of view—for example, those that simply explain a phenomenon or tell a story. In others, the author will play a much bigger role, injecting his or her opinion here and there, sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly.

To do well on the SAT Reading section, you must be able to identify the places in the passage where the author expresses his or her opinion. This can be especially difficult when the majority of the passage is background information, evidence, and references to other people's opinions. One of the most effective strategies is to look for pivots.

Pivot (n.)
A shift in the passage that reveals the author's opinion or stance.

Let's take a look at a few SAT-level passages to see how pivots help us understand the author's point of view.

In 2010 Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design, announced that philosophy was "dead" because it had "not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics". He was not referring to ethics, political theory or aesthetics. He meant metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that aspires to the most general understanding of nature—of space and time, the fundamental stuff of the world. If philosophers really wanted to make progress, they should abandon their armchairs and their subtle arguments, wise up to maths and listen to the physicists.

This view has significant support among philosophers in the English-speaking world. Bristol philosopher James Ladyman, who argues that metaphysics should be naturalised, and who describes the accusation of "scientism" as "badge of honour", is by no means an isolated case.

But there could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help...

To figure out what the author is saying here, we must first distinguish what he's saying from what other people are saying. What!?, you might ask. It's only the author talking here...he wrote the whole thing. What do you mean other people?

All too often, we assume that because one author wrote the passage, everything in it must reflect that author's voice and attitude. Not true. Writing is a conversation between many people, a back and forth between many voices, even when there is just one author. Just because you've written something down doesn't mean all of it is your own opinion. You could be summarizing others' opinions, setting up context for what will be your argument, or weaving in information that actually challenges your view.

And in fact, that's exactly what's happening in this passage. In the first paragraph, the author does not present his own view but the views of others. By attributing what is said to "Stephen Hawking" and even using quotes, the author makes it clear that Stephen Hawking's views are not necessarily his own. This distinction is extremely important because a lot of students, after reading this passage, think the author's main idea is that "philosophers...should wise up to maths and listen to the physicists." Completely wrong! Don't assume that any sentence you come across reflects the author's point of view.

The second paragraph still doesn't give us a clear indication of the author's true perspective. How do we know? Well, like he did in the first paragraph, the author again distances himself from the views being expressed by attributing them to "philosophers" and "James Ladyman." Furthermore, he hasn't injected any language that would implicitly pass judgment on those views. An astute reader should realize that the author is still not presenting his own view but the views of others.

It's not until the third paragraph that we finally get to the author's perspective—the pivot. Notice that the third paragraph opens with the word "but," indicating a strong shift in the passage. Also notice the use of a direct, authoritative, and declarative tone in the third paragraph. Even though the author doesn't explicitly state "I believe..." or "I think...," it's absolutely clear that the author is taking his stance here: Philosophers need not bow down to the physicists. After all, physics is a mess. This is exactly the pivot you need to pay attention to if you are to conquer SAT questions that ask you for the author's main idea.

Let's do more pivot hunting. The following comes from a dual passage.

Passage 1

The ability of the "I Have a Dream" speech to highlight King's early career at the expense of his later career accounts for the tone of impatience and betrayal that often appears when modern-day supporters of King's agenda talk about the speech. Former Georgia state legislator Julian Bond said in 1986 that commemorations of King seemed to "focus almost entirely on Martin Luther King the dreamer, not on Martin King the antiwar activist, not on Martin King the challenger of the economic order, not on Martin King the opponent of apartheid, not on the complete Martin Luther King." One King scholar has proposed a ten-year moratorium on reading or listening to the "I Have a Dream" speech, in the hopes that America will then discover the rest of King's legacy.

This proposal effectively concedes that King's magnificent address cannot be recovered from the misuse and overquotation it has suffered since his death. But it is not clear that this is so. Even now, upon hearing the speech, one is struck by the many forms of King's genius. Many people can still remember the first time they heard "I Have a Dream," and they tend to speak of that memory with the reverence reserved for a religious experience.

Read through it and see if you can find where the pivot is. If you noticed that the pivot is the short sentence in the second paragraph, "But it is not clear that this is so," then you're getting the hang of it. While the first paragraph talks about how King's "I Have a Dream" speech is harming the rest of his legacy, this point is not the author's own (the author's references to "Julian Bond" and "one King scholar" make this distinction clear). The author's view is in fact the opposite—"it's not clear" that King's famous speech has damaged his legacy, and the author goes on to explain his point of view in the subsequent sentences.

I hope you are starting to understand why distinguishing the author's voice from the rest of the voices in the passage is so important. To truly get at the author's point of view, you must first hone in on those places where the author, and not somebody else, takes the stand.

Passage 2

Martin Luther King was at his best when he was willing to reshape the wisdom of many of his intellectual predecessors. He ingeniously harnessed their ideas to his views to advocate sweeping social change. He believed that his early views on race failed to challenge America fundamentally. He later confessed that he had underestimated how deeply entrenched racism was in America. If Black Americans could not depend on goodwill to create social change, they had to provoke social change through bigger efforts at nonviolent direct action. This meant that Blacks and their allies had to obtain political power. They also had to try to restructure American society, solving the riddles of poverty and economic inequality.

This is not the image of King that is celebrated on Martin Luther King Day. Many of King's admirers are uncomfortable with a focus on his mature beliefs. They seek to deflect unfair attacks on King's legacy by shrouding him in the cloth of superhuman heroism. In truth, this shroud is little more than romantic tissue. King's image has often suffered a sad fate. His strengths have been needlessly exaggerated, his weaknesses wildly overplayed. King's true legacy has been lost to cultural amnesia.

The pivot here is quite easy to spot—it's simply the first sentence of the first paragraph, which starts to draw a sharp contrast between Martin Luther King and the way he's portrayed today. The author finalizes his point of view by stating, "King's true legacy has been lost to cultural amnesia."

So without reading the full two passages (I've shortened them), we can already start to see the relationship between Passage 1 and Passage 2 (a common SAT question). The author of Passage 2 believes that "King's true legacy has been lost," while the author of Passage 1 would say that "it is not clear that this is so." Of course, we would want to read the rest of the passages to confirm our thoughts, but it's amazing how much you can tell just by focusing on the places where the author actually expresses his own point of view (the pivots).

In this last example, I've highlighted the pivots in bold so that you can analyze them yourself.

The question of whether or not we are alone in the universe is debatably one of the deepest philosophical questions that modern science is trying to answer. The idea of life on other worlds is, by now, deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness. Whether you know of the idea from H.G. Wells or Carl Sagan, it's hard to find anyone who hasn't at least encountered the idea of aliens. Whether or not we admit it, the very question of something as unknown as alien life is somehow captivating. As a child, the idea always fascinated me. I was an avid reader of stories by people like Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven, and a keen watcher of shows on TV like Lost in Space and Star Trek. That the uncountable millions of stars in the night sky might possess planets of their own, perhaps with life unlike anything around us here on Earth, fuelled many summer nights of stargazing.

Excitingly, the human race is, perhaps, finally on the brink of being able to answer the question of whether life exists elsewhere in the galaxy. While the same has been said before by people far greater than I, it is my firm belief that in the very near future, astronomers will finally have firm evidence of extraterrestrial life. I won't put an estimate on how many years it may take. Such estimates have been made before and seldom have any true meaning. But I do believe it will be soon, and I certainly expect it to be within our lifetimes.

I included this last example to show you a few things:

  1. A pivot doesn't necessarily have to express a sharp disagreement in the flow of the passage. It can simply reaffirm the ideas that led up to it.
  2. The author's point of view is expressed both in the pivot sentence and usually right after it. Notice how the author offers even more of his perspective after the pivot in each paragraph. These are the parts you want to focus on when answering questions about the author's point of view.
  3. Pivots can be anywhere. They are NOT necessarily the topic sentences of each paragraph. A lot of students are taught that the topic sentence, being the most important sentence in a paragraph, is supposed to indicate any shift in the main idea. After all, that's what paragraphs are for, right? While this may be true for your school essays, it's not true for the SATs. As is the case with most writing in the real world, SAT passages do not always conform to the rules set by your English teachers (shocker!). Stop treating topic sentences as special. Instead, learn to look for pivots.
  4. There may be multiple pivots in any given passage. Again, writing is a conversation, a back-and-forth between what the author says and what others say. Get in the habit of underlining any pivots that you see. That way, should you get any questions that deal with the author's point of view, you can easily refer back to them.


Although I've only presented portions of certain passages here for the sake of brevity, I strongly encourage you to apply this strategy to full passages and see how you fare on the questions.

Lastly, not every passage will contain pivots. But the ones that don't—typically narration and expository passages—won't involve questions about the author's overall point of view or attitude anyway. I'll be talking more about those types of passages in future posts.

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The first passage is an excerpt from Philosophy isn't Dead Yet by Raymond Tallis at The Guardian.
The last passage is an excerpt from The Search for Life in the Universe by Markus Hammonds at Science Calling!.
All excerpts were taken for teaching purposes only and are not intended as copyright infringement.