Essay Writing For Sats

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The SAT Essay is scored separately from the rest of the SAT now, thanks to the changes that went into effect in March 2016.

While the essay is now optional (you don't automatically have to take it every time you take the SAT), some colleges still require students to submit SAT essay scores with their applications. Learning how to consistently write a perfect SAT essay will be a huge boost to your application to these schools.

In this article, we'll discuss what it takes to get a perfect 8/8/8 on the SAT essay and what you need to do to train yourself to get this top score.

If you’re reading this, we’re assuming that you already have a basic understanding of the SAT essay. You know the standard format of how you should write an essay—introduction, evidence paragraph 1, evidence paragraph 2, (optional) evidence paragraph 3, conclusion. You know that you should state your thesis in the introduction. All of this will get you a 5/8 as long as you develop your points enough.

If you aren’t fully aware of the SAT essay building blocks, take a spin through our 15 SAT Essay tips to raise your essay score.

But how do you push your essay to the next level, from "adequate" to "outstanding?" That’s what this article is about.

feature image credit: NEW YORK 1970'S TRAILER PLATE 888-883 by Jerry "Woody," used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

The Big Secret

You’ll have to practice this. The perfect SAT essay is like a puzzle that happens to be in written form—it can be mastered, but to do it well and completely every time requires practice with a lot of sample topics. You need to learn the format of an effective essay and how to fill out a complete essay within 50 minutes.

 

What an SAT Essay Score of 8 Means

If you’re already scoring a 5 or above in all three areas on practice (or real) SAT essays, you have a shot at completely nailing what the graders want, represented by a score of 8/8/8, with a little practice.

But there’s something important to remember in your question for perfection: on the SAT essay, an 8 in all categories is not always achievable. We’ve got good news and bad news for those of you who are determined to score an 8/8/8 on the SAT essay.

 

Good News and Bad News by Mike Licht, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

The Bad News

Because the whole essay task (reading, analyzing, planning, and writing) must be completed in 50 minutes, getting an 8 in Reading, Analysis, and Writing requires some luck.

You have to read the article and analyze the way the author builds her/his argument, pick out the most important components to the argument, find evidence to support your interpretation, and plan out your essay before you can even start writing.

A lot depends on how quickly you can come up with a thesis and relevant support for whatever the prompt happens to be—you might find some articles easier to read and analyze the argumentative structure of than others.

You'll need to use precise language to show mastery of English writing. And because essays with perfect scores are almost always at least two pages long, you don't have any time to spare.

If you trip up on your execution of any of these aspects, the graders might not give your SAT essay an 8/8/8.

 

The Good News

Because the essay is so formulaic, it's always possible to get a 6 across the board. Sometimes you might find the author's argument to analyze harder than others, or sometimes you might find the article more difficult to get through, but you will always be able to impress them enough to get a 6/6/6.

No college worth its salt is going to base your college admissions decision on getting those last two points on an essay you had 50 minutes to write (especially when the essay is optional). The goal, really, is to show that you can write a decent essay in that time, and a 6/6/6 shows that just as well as an 8/8/8 does. But you should aim as high as you can, so keep reading to find out what it really takes to get a perfect score on the SAT essay.

 

The Difference Between a 6 and an 8

If we asked the College Board what the difference is between a 6 and an 8 SAT essay, they would direct us to the scoring rubric that shows the criteria for a 1, 2, 3, and 4 in Reading, Analysis, and Writing. (SAT essays are scored by two graders who each rate your essay on a scale of 1-4 in Reading, Analysis, and Writing; the two graders' scores are added together to get scores out of 8 for each domain.)

Below, we've excerpted the criteria for a 3 and a 4 in all three domains and described the differences between the 3 and 4 score levels for Reading, Analysis, and Writing. We’ve marked the differences between the 3 and 4 criteria in bold.

 

 

Proficient:

Score of 3 (6)

Advanced:

Score of 4 (8)

Major Differences

Reading

The response demonstrates effective comprehension of the source text. The response shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and important details. The response is free of substantive errors of fact and interpretation with regard to the text. The response makes appropriate use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating an understanding of the source text.

The response demonstrates thorough comprehension of the source text. The response shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and of most important details and how they interrelate, demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of the text. The response is free of errors of fact or interpretation with regard to the text. The response makes skillful use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating a complete understanding of the source text.

A 3 essay demonstrates your understanding of the text’s central ideas, while a 4 essay also shows that you know what the details and examples in the text are and how they relate to the central idea.

Analysis

The response offers an effective analysis of the source text and demonstrates an understanding of the analytical task. The response competently evaluates the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing. The response contains relevant and sufficient support for claim(s) or point(s) made. The response focuses primarily on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task.

The response offers an insightful analysis of the source text and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the analytical task. The response offers a thorough, well-considered evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing. The response contains relevant, sufficient, and strategically chosen support for claim(s) or point(s) made. The response focuses consistently on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task.

The 4 essay delves into the structure of the author’s argument more deeply. The writer not only states the techniques used in the text, but also thoroughly explains their impact on the reader. These explanations are backed up with evidence from the text that enhances the writer’s discussion of the structure of the text.

Writing

The response is mostly cohesive and demonstrates effective use and control of language. The response includes a central claim or implicit controlling idea. The response includes an effective introduction and conclusion. The response demonstrates a clear progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay. The response has variety in sentence structures. The response demonstrates some precise word choice. The response maintains a formal style and objective tone. The response shows a good control of the conventions of standard written English and is free of significant errors that detract from the quality of writing.

The response is cohesive and demonstrates a highly effective use and command of language. The response includes a precise central claim. The response includes a skillful introduction and conclusion. The response demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay. The response has a wide variety in sentence structures. The response demonstrates a consistent use of precise word choice. The response maintains a formal style and objective tone. The response shows a strong command of the conventions of standard written English and is free or virtually free of errors.

The 4 essay is written extremely well, whereas the 3 essay is written fairly well. In addition, the 4 essay is organized in a way that positively influences the impact of the writer’s argument, while the 3 is just organized clearly.

 

Let’s condense the information above. A perfect 4 essay:

  • is extremely clear
  • is consistent, smooth, and easy to read
  • has few errors
  • is not repetitive in content or language
  • is sufficiently detailed (using evidence from the text) to fully support the writer’s thesis
  • demonstrates that you understand the text and the author’s claim(s)

In other words, you need to excel in every one of these aspects to get a perfect score.

 

A Sample Essay

Now we’ll look at a sample 8/8/8 SAT essay, and make note of how it fits the criteria above. The prompt (taken from The Official SAT Study Guide) for the sample essay is as follows:

Write an essay in which you explain how Peter S. Goodman builds an argument to persuade his audience that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States. In your essay, analyze how Goodman uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

The passage to which this prompt refers appears on pp. 183-185 of The Official SAT Study Guide (March 2016 & Beyond), or on slightly different pages in later editions. You'll need the passage to follow along with the sample essay below.

Here’s the essay. Read it first, and we’ll have annotations below.

     In the article “Foreign News at a Crisis Point,” Peter S. Goodman eloquently argues the ‘point’ that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States. Goodman builds his argument by using facts and evidence, addressing the counterarguments, and couching it all in persuasive and compelling language.

     Goodman begins the article by bombarding the reader with facts and statistics. He states that, according to a census conducted by the American Journalism Review, the number of full-time foreign news correspondents in the United States dropped from 307 in 2003 to 234 in 2011. In addition, the AJR survey also discovered that “the space devoted to foreign news [in American papers] had shrunk by 53 percent” in the last 25 years.

     Beginning the article with all of these facts and figures has a couple of strengtheing effects on Goodman’s argument. First, by starting out with hard evidence, Goodman lays the groundwork of his own credibility. He’s not just writing an opinion piece—his opinion is backed by the truth. This will bring the readers onboard and make them more likely to trust everything else he says. Second, because Goodman presents these facts without much explaining/interpreting, the reader is forced to do the math herself. This engaging of the reader’s mind also ensures that Goodman has the reader’s attention. When the reader does the math to find a drop of 73 full-time foreign news correspondents employed by US papers in just 8 short years, she will find herself predisposed to agree with Goodman’s call for more professional foreign news reporting.

     In addition to employing facts to his argument’s advantage, Goodman also cunningly discusses the counterargument to his position. By writing about how social media and man-on-the-ground reporting has had some positive impact on the state of foreign news reporting, Goodman heads off naysayers at the pass. It would have been very easy for Goodman to elide over the whole issue of citizen reporting, but the resultant one-sided argument would have been much less convincing. Instead, Goodman acknowledges things like “the force of social media during the Arab Spring, as activists convened and reacted to changing circumstances.” As a result, when he partially refutes this counterargument, stating the “unease” many longtime profession correspondents feel over the trend of ‘citizen journalism’ feel, the reader is much more likely to believe him. After all, Goodman acknowledges that social media does have some power. Knowing that Goodman takes the power of social media seriously will make the reader more inclined, in turn, to take Goodman’s concern about the limits of social media seriously.

     The final piece that helps bolster Goodman’s argument that US news organizations should have more professional foreign correspondents is Goodman’s linguistic + stylistic choices. Goodman uses contrasts to draw the reader deeper into his mindset. By setting up the contrast between professional reporters as “informational filters” that discriminate good from bad and amateur, man-on-the-spot reporters as undiscriminating “funnels,” Goodman forces the reader to view the two in opposition and admit that professional filters are to be preferred over funnels that add “speculatio, propaganda, and other white noise” to their reporting. In addition, Goodman drives the reader along toward agreeing with his conclusion in the penultimate paragraph of the article with the repetition of the phrase “We need.” With every repetition, Goodman hammers even further home the inescapable rightness of his argument. The use of “We” more generally through the article serves to make the readers feel sympathetic towards Goodman and identify with him.

     By employing the rhetorical techniques of presenting facts, acknowledging the other side, and using persuasive language, Goodman convinces the reader of his claim.

 

Here are our notes on what stands out in this essay (general comments are in purple, spelling/grammar errors are highlighted in yellow):

 




 

Note that not every 8/8/8 essay needs to have exactly the same items in here, nor do you need to argue in exactly the same way. But the elements in this essay make it a standout and demonstrate clear mastery.

And now for the million-dollar question:

 

What Makes This SAT Essay an 8 Rather Than a 6?

Maybe you get the theory behind what makes an essay an 8/8/8, but how can you tell the difference between a 6 and an 8 in practice? Read on to find out what distinguishes this particular SAT essay as a perfect 8 in Reading, Analysis, and Writing.

 

Precise Language

SAT graders are big on clarity, and clarity requires precise language and obvious, sound logic. In this essay, vivid language is used effectively and appropriately:

  • Goodman is described as bombarding the reader with facts and figures
  • The writer describes Goodman as arguing his point using not just language but persuasive and compelling language:
  • The effect of Goodman’s argument is not just that it convinces the reader, but that "the reader…will find herself predisposed to agree with Goodman’s call for more professional foreign news reporting."

All of this clear and precise language helps support and explain the author's point (just as Goodman’s language supports his point in the text!).

 

Effective Analysis and Organization

The writer's clarity extends to her logic as well. Sufficient background is given to make it clear the writer read and understood the text. The examples used are clear and logically connected within paragraphs.

The writer also makes sure to identify the what/why/what of the author's argumentative devices:

  • What are the techniques the author used to persuade the reader of his claim?
  • Why did the author use them?
  • What effect does their use have on the reader?

The organization of the essay follows the organization set out in the introduction: the writer first discusses facts and evidence, then the presentation and refutation of a counterargument, then compelling language. Organization in the essay is aided by transitions between all paragraphs, which create a smooth, consistent argument that is easy to follow.

 

Consistency Throughout

The clarity of the argument and the lack of errors remain consistent from start to finish. The highlighted errors are few and do not detract or distract from the meaning of the essay. The wording of the thesis statement in the introduction and the conclusion is similar but not identical, and the description of how Goodman builds his argument is the same.

 

Dos piezas by Raúl Hernández González, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

Variety

The author uses a variety of words (marked in blue) and sentence structures to convey similar ideas in different ways throughout the essay. For instance, social media, man-on-the-ground (or man-on-the-spot) reporting, citizen journalism, and amateur reporting are all different words and phrases used to describe the same phenomenon of non-professional foreign news correspondents.

In paragraph 4, there's also a good example of a skillfully executed variation in sentence structure. “Knowing that Goodman takes the power of social media seriously will make the reader more inclined…” could easily be the simpler “Goodman takes the power of social media seriously, which makes the reader more likely to agree…” This kind of linguistic "flourish" can be found in most top-scoring SAT Essays.

Note that all of the varied usage described above is effective as well as varied. SAT vocab words and differening sentence structures aren't thrown into the essay haphazardly—it's clear, effective writing like what you might read in the New York Times.

 

Detailed Support and Length

The essay is long enough to detail three complex examples (discussing Goodman’s use of facts and evidence, a counterargument, and vivid language) and include introductory and concluding paragraphs.

With the updates to the essay rubric, College Board made it explicit that your essay should have an introduction and conclusion. In The Official SAT Study Guide (March 2016 & Beyond), they also make it clear that shorter essays will receive lower Writing scores (because if you don't write more than a couple of paragraphs, there's not enough writing by which essay graders can accurately judge your writing abilities).

But length means nothing if there isn't valuable information filling the space, so long SAT essays also need to be detailed—this author uses the space to give lots of context for her examples.

 

Dos and Don’ts for an 8/8/8 SAT Essay

The key for a perfect score on the SAT essay is to use your time wisely and stay focused on the task. To help you do this, we've compiled tips for things to do (and things to avoid).

 

Do spend time:

  • Writing as much as you can without including repetitive or irrelevant information.
  • Revising the first and last paragraphs (they stand out in readers’ minds).
  • Making sure you have effective transitions for a seamless essay.
  • Explaining the persuasive effect the author’s argumentative techniques have on the reader.

 

Don't spend time:

  • Thinking of “smart-sounding" evidence—analysis of how the author used a personal anecdote is just as viable as a discussion of the author’s use of logos and other rhetorical strategies.
  • Trying to correct every single error—the grammar and the spelling do not have to be perfect to score an 8 in Writing. This doesn't mean that you should just leave sentence fragments all over the place, but it does mean that accidentally leaving off the last letter of a word or making a small subject/verb agreement error won't be the end of the world (or of your perfect SAT essay score). Spend the extra time trying to write more and develop your points.
  • Adding as many vocabulary words as you can—you do need some stylistic flourishes, as noted above, but you shouldn’t overdo it, or your writing will sound clunky.

 

How to Train to Improve Your SAT Essay Score

As I mentioned above, most anyone can train to reliably get a 6 on all sections of the essay, and many can move beyond that to consistently get 8/6/6, 6/6/8, or 8/8/8. Here’s a framework for how to do this:

  • Read through our complete list of SAT essay prompts.
  • Memorize a list of persuasive techniques that you can find in most essay prompt articles.
  • Start by practicing with extended time (80 minutes) so you can feel what it takes to get a top-scoring essay. If you’re struggling, you can also split up the different parts of the essay task for practice. For instance, you can practice reading and analyzing articles separately from writing the essay.
  • Find a way to grade your essay. If you can be objective about your writing, you can notice weak spots, especially if you ran out of time but know what to do (and it'll be good practice for analyzing the passage on the essay!). Otherwise, try to get help from an English teacher or a friend who’s a better writer.
  • Start narrowing your essay time down to 50 minutes to mirror the actual test.

 

What’s Next?

Ready to get started with practice essays? Check out our thorough analysis of the SAT essay prompt and our complete list of prompts to practice with.

Use our 15 tips to improve your SAT essay score.

Follow along as I take you through how to write a top-scoring SAT essay, step by step.

Took the old SAT essay and want to know what's changed? Read our complete guide to the March 2016 SAT essay here.

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Looking for a great way to prep? Check out PrepScholar's online prep program. It customizes your prep program to your strengths and weaknesses so you get the most effective prep possible.

Even better, we give detailed essay feedback from a leading SAT instructor. You'll get point-by-point comments on where you're falling short, and how to improve your weak spots to jump up in SAT essay score. Click below to sign up for our 5-day free trial.

 

I know you’re probably thinking of the new SAT essay as a necessary evil—an optional evil, no less. But much of what you’ll learn here isn’t a means to a quick end, but something that you will be using for the rest of your life.

What I’m about to say probably won’t make me popular with many high school math teachers, but here it is. Some of the stuff that you’ll prep for in the math SAT section, you might never have to learn or use again. Now I, for one, think the unit circle is nifty but besides—maybe—a lower division math class in college, you won’t see it again, unless you have kids one day who need your help studying for a trig final. If you don’t plan on studying math or science in college, there’s a lot on the SAT math section (though by no means all) that fits into this category.

Writing, on the other hand, is very different. For the rest of your life writing is a skill that will make your college work load a lot more manageable and give you an edge in whatever professional career you choose (anything from a resume to an email will highlight your writing skills, or lack thereof).

That’s not to say the SAT essay totally mirrors that kind of writing. But by improving your overall writing ability as you study for the SAT, you’ll be honing a skill that you’ll be using for years to come.

Of course, the new SAT essay doesn’t boil down only to writing but also to understanding the specific format, and what the graders are expecting of you. The following tips will help you become both a better writer and better equipped to do well on the new essay. And when you’re done, check out the Magoosh SAT study guide for even more tips and tricks for SAT writing and grammar.

1. Understand the new SAT design

So the SAT essay has changed. As in really changed. No longer will you have to argue a point using contrived examples from either history or your personal life. Instead you are going to read a complex, opinion-driven essay. And here’s the kicker: you will not be asked whether you agree or disagree with the author’s point. Instead, you are going to write an essay that discusses how the writer goes about trying to persuade his or her audience.

This is not easy to do; I’m guessing, you’ve never written an essay exactly like this. Therefore, read some of the essay samples and the responses online to see exactly how one goes about discussing how a writer persuades his or her audience.

An important first step is to know the directions, which won’t change test day since the SAT will recycle them, word-for-word, as they appear below.

“Consider how the author (the name will change each time) uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.”

2. Know the fundamentals of rhetoric

It’s good to know how writers go about persuading us. Indeed, the ancients—meaning Greek dudes walking around in togas—developed a glossary of terms to describe the way a speaker or writer aims to persuade his or her audience.

Rhetor

This is a fancy way of referring to the speaker/writer, the person trying to argue at point. Those he or she aims to persuade is the audience. For the SAT, the writer of the article is the rhetor; the audience is made up of those who originally read the work. You, the SAT reader, however, are not the audience. Instead, you should think of yourself as a referee or judge. Your job is to describe how the rhetor is trying to persuade his or her audience.

To understand this, the next few terms are essential and tie back to the directions listed above.

Pathos

We are not robots; we are moved by passionate appeals. Compare the following:

        Closing the school down will exert a negative effect on the community at large.
        By closing down the school, administrators will displace hundreds of young children who have only just begun to forge friendships; additionally many local residents employed by the school might be forced to move from the area.

Both sentences are saying the same thing. But the first sentence likely leaves you feeling cold; the language is vague and technical. The second, by contrast, tugs at your heartstrings (the poor children!) Were this written on a petition to save the school, you’d be far more likely to sign it than the first sentence, I’m guessing. And that’s the point of pathos: it hopes to persuade us by appealing to our emotions.


Ethos

It is possible to make the sentence with the school even more persuasive without appealing even more to our emotions. How? Well, compare the following:

        According to the United States Department of Education, closing down the school will displace hundreds of young children who have only just begun to forge friendships; additionally many local residents employed by the school might be forced to move from the area.

All I did was attribute—or credit—the idea to an entity. But not just any entity. I appealed to the highest educational authority in the land. After all, if I put “I think”, you might wonder, who the heck I am. But by putting the United States Department of Education, I’ve invoked the highest authority in the land in matters of education. Ethos refers to the credibility of the speaker.

On the SAT essay, ethos will often take the form of “a study released by Harvard Medical school”. That is, the writer will quote where he or she is getting the information from. And it will never be their neighbor or that one lady they talked to on the bus. Writers will always quote leading authorities to give their claims greater authority. That way, their audience is more likely to be persuaded.


Logos

You might be thinking that the kids should just be able to go to another school. And surely there are more jobs in the area. Those are valid objections and that’s why writing doesn’t just aim to persuade us at an emotional level (pathos) but also at an intellectual or logical level (logos). How does the following use logos to build on the pathos?

        Happy Hills Private School is a one of a kind institution for gifted children recruited from all over the country. For many decades it has grown to such a degree that a large community has sprung up consisting of many who depend on the school for the livelihood. If the school shuts down, these educators, administrators and custodians will have to move elsewhere and many local businesses, which depend on their patronage, will be forced to close.
        Additionally, by closing down the school, administrators will displace hundreds of young children who have forged deep friendships.

We now have the necessary context to understand the logic behind the idea that a closure of a school means a serious disruption in the lives of students and for the community that depends on the school.

Logos, or logical statements, can often be identified by “if…then” statements. Notice the bolded part above. The second bolded part (“by closing…friendships”) also has a similar structure: if you close the school, this will happen (“by closing down the school, etc.”)

Two important points

        • All writing that you’ll see will use a combination of ethos, pathos, and logos. Sometimes in the same sentence:
              According to the education department’s report, if the school is closed down, hundreds of students will be torn from a nurturing environment and cast into alien—and possibly hostile—environments.
          (Okay, I got a little carried away with the pathos there!)
        • You should not call these rhetorical devices out by name (“the writer uses logos in line 4”) but use them as a general framework to understanding how the writers is trying to persuade his or her audience. I’ll describe how to this in tip #8.

3. Know how the new SAT essay is scored

Unlike the old SAT essay, which has a single score, the new SAT essay will contain three scores, one for reading, one for analysis, and one for writing. Two graders will score the essay and these scores will be added up. In the end, we get a grand total of 24, or a range of 2-8 for each of the three areas. A score report will look something like this: 7 reading/6 analysis/6 writing. While that adds up to 19, the SAT will deliver the score split three ways.

It’s also a good idea to know what these three different categories are. The reading score reflects your ability to understand the passage that you have to read. For instance, if you misinterpret what the author is trying to say this is going to hurt your score.

Analysis, which I will go over in depth in tip #8, is your ability to analyze how the author goes about persuading his or her audience. Remembering the fundamentals of rhetoric is a great first step.

Finally, writing is just what it sounds like: how do you use words to create sentences and convey your thoughts? Do you so in a way that is grammatically sound and your meaning is clear?

4. Read sample SAT essays

The College Board has provided us with new SAT essay samples. You might think to skip over these—but don’t. I can pontificate all day on what the test writers are looking for, but unless you actually look at how specific essays are graded, along with copious feedback from the graders, you won’t really get a sense of what the test writers are looking for.

You also won’t get a sense from what separates a writing score of ‘4’ from a writing score of ‘3’, an analysis score of ‘2’ from an analysis score of ‘1’, and so on. But you get all of that here: so study the prompt, the essay responses, the essay scores, and finally the feedback. Return to these samples essays often as you prep for the essay. Compare your essays to the samples to see where you’d likely score.

5. Assess your strengths and weaknesses

In looking at the samples, you’ll likely see things that the writers do well, and things they don’t do so well. Oftentimes our standard is our own writing. By looking at the samples, you’ll get a sense of the issues you need to work on. Maybe you can write wonderful flowery sentences, full of phrasal twists and turns. But when you read the passage, you are not exactly sure what to analyze or exactly what the essay graders are looking at when they grade for analysis (for more on analysis see step #8).

Of course, you might get the gist of the analysis, but you feel that you can’t get your thoughts down on paper, that you just freeze up midsentence.

6. Learn to outline your ideas based on the new SAT design

Whenever you are faced with a timed essay, it is a natural response to want to begin writing as soon as the teacher/proctor says “time”. If you don’t plan on how you’ll attack the essay, however, your essay will lack the organization the test graders are looking for. Most likely, you’ll describe the main points of the essay and just list out what you think are the rhetorical devices the author uses. The essay will lack any overarching point.

Instead, first write down a few main points the author is making. Then, quickly write down three distinct areas in which the author is using rhetoric. This second bit will help you focus your analysis. Often, it is a good idea to break up paragraphs either by the different areas of analysis used in the essay or by the specific points the author is trying to make and how he or she is specifically going about persuading the reader. By outlining you’ll have a clear idea of what you are going to write about, versus frantically grasping onto unrelated ideas just to keep the writing afloat.

7. Vary your sentence structure and vocabulary

        The SAT is an important test. The essay is very important for some. You need to understand what the test writers are looking for. This post will help you that.

What do you notice about these four short sentences? Do they put you off from reading more? The reason is that the sentence structure is almost exactly the same: subject + verb + object. Additionally, these four sentences lack any transitions, such as the word “additionally”.

Changing up your sentence structure makes your writing far more compelling. And using transitions will help tie ideas together both between and within sentences.

Finally, you’ll want to avoid using vague words such as “good”, “big”, especially if you repeat them. Notice the first two sentences use the word “important”. I’m not saying you should avoid this word altogether. But repeating it so closely together smacks of monotony, much as the sentence structure does.

Now, I’ll communicate the same ideas in the intro bit, varying up the sentence structure and vocabulary, while offering some helpful transition words.

        Many know the SAT might be the most important test for college admissions. Yet, for some, the essay can also play a significant role. For this group, understanding how the essay has changed and what the test graders expect is paramount. Hopefully, this post will help you that.

8.Work on understanding the analysis

What really makes the new SAT essay different—besides the fact that you don’t have to state your opinion—is the analysis. While many students are capable writers and have no issue comprehending what the author is trying to say, they aren’t sure how to go about discussing how exactly the author is trying to persuade us.

In tip #2, I talked about rhetoric, or the tools an author uses to persuade us. Understanding these is a first step to analyzing the essay. But you’ll want to go a step further. Since each essay is very specific, it’ll be doing things that can loosely be categorized as falling under pathos, logos, or ethos. Make sure you describe these specific things. For instance, let’s take an essay from a College Board official guide.

        At my family’s cabin on a Minnesota lake, I knew woods so dark that my hands disappeared before my eyes. I knew night skies in which meteors left smoky trails across sugary spreads of stars. But now, when 8 of 10 children born in the United States will never know a sky dark enough for the Milky Way, I worry we are rapidly losing night’s natural darkness before realizing its worth. This winter solstice, as we cheer the days’ gradual movement back toward light, let us also remember the irreplaceable value of darkness.

        -Adapted from Paul Bogard, “Let There be Dark”

It is not enough to say, “the author uses pathos because he reminds the author of a childhood experience and such experiences appeal to our emotions.” This is pretty obvious and superficial. Digging deeper means looking at the very specific writerly choices the author makes to really get into our psyche. Here is one possible way to describe this:

        To illustrate just how much darkness has become a scarce resource, Paul Bogard draws upon memories of the night sky from when he was a child. The author, though, is not merely content to describe the night sky but dramatizes the darkness: “I knew woods so dark…eyes”. Furthermore, he uses metaphorical descriptions to capture the intensity of the sky (“sugary trails”). As readers, we are readily transported to the vista unfolding above him. This description also allows the author to set up the dramatic contrast with tonight’s sky when he describes many children today who will “never know” such a sky. This last bit creates an effect of urgency: something must be done.

Notice I didn’t say “pathos” anywhere. Instead, I described—in meticulous detail—how the author constructs the paragraph to elicit a strong emotional response from the reader. I also analyzed how he constructed the passage, an example of logos; yet I didn’t call logos out by name. Instead, I describe the logic of the transitions and how this affected the emotional effect of the paragraph.

9. Get feedback only from those who’ve read tip #4

Since the new essay is an entirely different animal, many—including your teachers—don’t really know what it is testing. Yet, for feedback, we are inclined to go to our teachers or other intelligent adults in our lives. Make sure that said parties have read sample essays and the scores these essays have received. Otherwise, you might get feedback that doesn’t help you improve in a way that the essay graders are looking for.

One exception is the writing score, since the conventions of writing—what makes a good sentence, good syntax, and good word choice—hasn’t changed. Here is feedback from students who have already taken the new SAT.

10. Read with a critical eye

Assuming you’ve read all of the above and have a good idea of how the SAT essay is constructed, you can start to read a little differently. What do I mean? Well, for the Reading Comprehension section, I recommend that students read articles from the New York Times or some other popular online newspaper. While reading the article, put on your grammar hat on and analyze the sentences. Do you notice the subordinating conjunctions? How about the use—and the correct use, mind you—of em-dashes?

But it’s not just about grammar. By analyzing professional writing, you can improve your writing, noticing the transitions and the vocabulary such articles use. Of course, it doesn’t hurt with your overall comprehension, something that bleeds into both the writing section and the reading comprehension of the new SAT.

Finally, with more pointed pieces—such as those you’ll find in the New York Times op-Ed section—you’ll be able to see how authors use the tools of rhetoric. In other words, you’ll be analyzing and comprehending just as you’ll have to do on the actual SAT essay.


Now that we’ve discussed tips for the new SAT essay, discover how Magoosh can assist you on the math and reading sections!

About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 10 million views. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog! You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!


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