Thinking Like a Test-Maker: Noticing Tone


A few weeks ago, we discussed the logic that guides the makers of standardized tests. When we think like test-makers, we’re often better able to predict correct answers and eliminate incorrect ones.

Last time, we applied the thinking like a test-maker method to the solving of questions about the addition or deletion of sentences. Another type of question that can be solved in this way is the tone question, which appears on both the ACT English and SAT Writing sections.

Tone questions may relate to individual words, phrases, or complete sentences. They will prompt you to select a word, phrase, or sentence that’s consistent with the tone of the passage as a whole, and to avoid choosing something that’s inconsistent with that tone.

When it comes to tone, ACT and SAT passages can be divided into three loose categories:

1. The Personal Essay (Relatively Informal)

Personal essay passages are distinguished by their use of a first-person narrator with a relatively informal voice. You’re much more likely to encounter such passages on the ACT than on the SAT.

These passages are the most likely to have exclamations, witticisms, and colloquial, everyday language. However, I’ve used the phrase “relatively informal” here because, when compared with the ways that we communicate with our close friends or with people who understand the same slang terms or references, personal essays will still seem pretty straitlaced.

Personal essays resemble the kind of assignment that you may receive in a high school Language Arts class—something like, “Recall a place that you have a strong personal connection to.”

2. The Journalistic Article (Semi-formal)

Journalistic essays resemble the kind of accessible writing that you might find in a magazine like Popular Science or Brain Pickings—not quite as informal as, say, Buzzfeed, but still potentially using the kind of attention-grabbing tricks that journalists use to engage readers: descriptive openings, some light humor, or vivid imagery.

Journalistic articles are less conversational than personal essays, partially because journalistic articles do not use the first-person pronoun.

3. The Explanatory Essay (Formal)

Explanatory essays read like something you might find in a textbook or an encyclopedia. Explanatory essays won’t use highly specialized language or disciplinary jargon, but they will be primarily focused on explaining something in a formal way.

Note that by formal I don’t mean “fancy,” or the way that characters might talk to one another in an old book (although some wrong answer choices might contain such “fancy” language). I just mean that the language will be more matter-of-fact and unadorned. “Featured” Wikipedia articles are a good example of this style.

Every time you encounter a new passage, think about which of these three categories it fits into. Notice the word choices that the author makes. Are they warm and conversational, or straightforward and plain? Do they have the imprint of a distinct person’s voice, or do they seem more anonymous?

The next step is where it helps to think like a test-maker. If you’d written this passage in a particular style, how might you intentionally make a mess of it?

If you wrote a personal essay, you could introduce a term that was much too formal. If you wrote an explanatory essay, you could use a term that was too conversational. A journalistic article could go either way; the test-maker might add something just a little too formal or a little too informal for the passage.

Going forward, keep asking yourself how you might make a mess of a passage even when reading passages that don’t directly ask about tone. By doing so, you’ll be that much better prepared when you do encounter tone questions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.