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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Essays Changes and Basic Features
The new (or “redesigned”) SAT essay, debuting in March of 2016 as an optional section on the new SAT, looks radically different than the earlier version of the essay. Instead of coming up with your own argument, you’ll now be required to analyze someone else’s argument. This argument takes the form of a 650-750 word article, and you’ll be given a total of 50 minutes, instead of 25, to read and respond to it.
In short, the SAT asks you to describe how the article in question persuades the reader of its point. In particular, you’re asked to consider its use of evidence, reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements.
Scoring has also changed. Instead of receiving a cumulative score of 2-12, you’ll now receive three cumulative scores of 2-8 in three separate categories (with 2 being the lowest score and 8 the highest). Two separate graders will read your work and each will rank it on a scale of 1-4 for each category. When they’re finished, their scores will be combined into your three cumulative scores. The three categories are writing (how well write, i.e. your grammar and style), reading (how well you understood the article) and analysis (how well you assessed the writer’s persuasive techniques). It’s possible to do very strongly in one category but very poorly in another, and there is no overall single score for the essay as a whole.
Even though each essay will feature a different passage, the essay question itself—show how the author persuades the reader of her argument—will never change. For this reason it’s completely possible to prepare for the essay in advance.
Should You Take The New (Redesigned) Essay?
Unlike the old SAT essay, the new version is optional. Some colleges will require the essay, some will recommend it, and others will neither require nor recommend it. In the Ivy League, for instance, the essay is currently required by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, whereas Columbia, Penn, Brown and Cornell are not requiring it. You can find an official list of each college’s policy here.
Because a number of colleges do require or recommend you submit essay scores, I recommend anyone sitting for the SAT also sit for the essay. Even if you’re not currently planning on applying to a college that asks for the essay, you might later decide to apply to a school that does. College lists change frequently and you never know where you might want ultimately apply. The last thing you want is to have to retake the entire exam, or, worse yet, not be able to apply to a particular college, just because you took the exam without the essay.
How To Write A High Scoring Essay
Before you begin writing your essay, you’ll want to make sure you read the passage carefully. It’s important to read actively, always keeping in mind the author’s main point and how the various parts of her argument relate to that point.
Before you start reading, look at the question that follows the passage. This question tells you the main point of the passage, so you don’t have to figure it out on your own. For example, one official question reads “write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved.” This means that the main point or argument of the passage is that natural darkness should be preserved.
After you’ve ascertained the main point from the question, keep it in mind as you read the passage. Ask yourself how the author uses evidence, reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements to convince the reader of this main point, as well as how the various parts of her argument relate to the main point. Everything should lead back to the main point in some way.
As you read, annotate or note whenever you come across a device the author uses to persuade you of her argument. If you don’t understand something, go back and reread it. You have ample time to make sure you understand the passage, and it’s important you do so in order to get the highest “reading” category score possible. Confusing moments are often easier to make sense of after you’ve read the entire passage and understand the full context.
Once you’ve read the passage and identified key persuasive devices, it’s time to make a brief outline for your essay. A powerful way to structure your essay is to have an opening paragraph that states the thesis, followed by two or three paragraphs, each devoted to arguing one part of the thesis, followed by a conclusion that restates the thesis (although in slightly different language than in the opening paragraph).
The thesis should make a central claim that the entire essay then sets out to prove. You might argue, for example, that “the author uses statistical evidence, ironic language and emotional appeals to persuade the reader that natural darkness should be preserved.” The next paragraph would then provide concrete examples of how the author uses statistical evidence to persuade the reader, the following paragraph would discuss examples of ironic language, and the next paragraph would discuss specific examples of emotional appeals. The concluding paragraph would wrap things up by restating the thesis. Here’s an example of what your outline might look like:
P1: Thesis – author uses statistical evidence, ironic language and emotional appeals to persuade reader natural darkness should be preserved
P2: Statistical evidence examples
P3: Ironic language examples
P4: Emotional appeals examples
P5: Conclusion (restate thesis)
After you’ve completed this brief outline, you’re ready to write. Keep an eye on the clock and make sure to leave a couple minutes at the end so that you can review what you’ve written. This will give you a chance to correct any grammatical, spelling or stylistic mistakes before you hand in the essay.
Key Pointers and Mistakes To Avoid
When you’re coming up with your thesis, make sure to focus on what the author does to persuade the reader, rather than on what the author fails to do. Even if there are some shortcomings in the author’s argument, your task is to analyze what devices are used in order to persuade the reader, not what shortcomings might exist in the argument.
Similarly, make sure that your thesis explains what persuasive devices the author uses rather than whether her argument is right or wrong. Even if you personally agree or disagree with the argument, it’s important to stay neutral. Think of yourself as an impartial outside observer, confined to commenting on how the author constructs her argument, not on the merits of the argument itself.
When you write about your examples of persuasive elements, always make sure to tie those examples back to your central argument about persuasion. It’s easy to get so caught up in the details that you forget to state what those details are actually doing—attempting to persuade the reader of something—but it’s important to make this connection clear.
When you choose your examples, look for those examples that are most important to persuading the reader of the author’s argument. Avoid marginal and insignificant details that don’t play a big role in persuading the reader of the main point.
While the SAT asks you to consider the author’s use of “evidence, reasoning, and stylistic and persuasive devices,” you’re not required to discuss all three. In fact, it’s better to go into more detail on just two than to try to address all three and use less detail in the process.
As you discuss specific persuasive elements, try to elaborate on how and why they work to persuade the reader of the main point. It’s not enough to simply mention a detail from the essay in one sentence. Try instead to really flesh out why a specific detail works persuasively—devote a number of sentences to explaining the different ways it functions. The highest scoring essays always go into great detail about a few select moments in the passage, rather than trying to briefly mention every persuasive moment in passing.
When discussing examples, avoid making broad claims that you can’t back up, such as “by discussing tragedy, the author moves the reader.” Instead, get into specifics: “when the author discusses tragedy, she chooses specific examples aimed at resonating with her audience. Since her audience is American, for example, she discusses the American tragedy of September 11th.”
You should also mention how key details and ideas interrelate to one another and the author’s main argument. Showing how everything “fits together” in the passage is critical for earning the highest score possible according to the SAT’s scoring rubric.
In citing specific examples, avoid lengthy direct quotations from the text. You should mainly reserve direct quotes for when you want to draw attention to the specific language or structure of the writing the author is using. Otherwise, it’s usually best to paraphrase what the author is saying. This is not only good writing practice, but it also demonstrates to the grader that you have understood the passage, which is critical to earning a high “reading” category score.
In order to earn a high “reading” score, it’s also important that you write a substantial amount. Essays earning the highest reading scores are usually among the longest, and this is because the more you write about the text, the clearer it is that you understand the text as a whole. Plan on using the full 50 minutes to write as much as possible when you’re not reading the passage or planning and reviewing your essay.
Common Persuasive Elements
There are an unlimited number of persuasive elements that an author can use to make a point, and each passage will feature different ones. That said, here are some common persuasive elements that you might see on any given passage:
Applying a general rule to a specific case
Deducing a general rule from specific cases
Using logic to rule a possibility in or out
Stylistic or Persuasive Elements
The author tries to sound like the reader
Irony or sarcasm
Grammar and Style Tips
Because your essay will receive a “writing” score, it’s important to use good grammar and style. Since you should already be studying grammar for the Writing and Language section of the redesigned SAT, try to apply the same rules you’re learning to your own writing on the essay.
To pick up as many “writing” points as possible, make sure that your writing flows smoothly from one idea to the next. Use strong and clear transitions at the start of each new paragraph. You might begin a new paragraph, for example, by saying “Similar to her use of historical evidence, the author employs statistical evidence to argue that the economy is strong.” You should also connect separate clauses with words and phrases that show the specific nature of their relationship, such as “thus,” “therefore,” “nevertheless,” “for example” and “in contrast.”
It’s also important to vary the structure of your sentences. Instead of writing “John is hungry. John is tired. John is not having a good day,” write “John is feeling hungry and tired. As you might guess, he is not having a good day.” Avoid starting consecutive sentences and paragraphs with the same word. One trick to help mix up sentence structure is to throw in an occasional rhetorical question, such as “How would the early Monicaros have felt if they too lacked freedom?”
Whenever possible, forgo passive sentences for active ones. Instead of writing “The apple was eaten by the boy,” for instance, write “The boy ate the apple.” What you’re essentially doing is replacing any “to be” verb forms (“was”) with a verb that represents the action actually taking place in the sentence (eating, or “ate”).
The SAT also expects you to write formally. This means avoiding contractions like “it’s” or “that’s” in favor of “it is” or “that is,” as well as avoiding the first person (I, we, me, etc.). You should also avoid clichés or any expressions that sound too colloquial. Try to emulate the type of formal writing you find in many academic essays and school textbooks. This also means aiming to use advanced vocabulary when appropriate. Just make sure you’re using any advanced word correctly—when in doubt, leave it out.
Practice Makes Perfect
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of what to do on the essay, it’s essential to practice. You’ll ideally want to write a couple of practice essays before you sit for the real thing.
It’s best to practice with official College Board essay prompts, since prompts written by test prep companies might not always represent what you’ll see on test day as accurately. Fortunately, College Board has already released a number of prompts. You can find two prompts, including scored sample responses with College Board commentary, here. There are also another four included with the four released practice tests here, as well as an additional two in the new Official SAT Study Guide.
If you’ve exhausted these eight practice prompts, you can also practice with old AP English Language and Composition free response questions, available here. The second question in each free response asks you to compete essentially the same task as the SAT essay question.
Make sure to adhere to the 50 minute time limit when practicing!
The new (or “redesigned”) SAT features a very different type of essay question than the prior SAT did. Although this essay is optional, it’s a good idea to take it so as not to close the door on any colleges you might be eventually wish to apply to. You can make sure you’re prepared on test day by combining the advice in this article with writing multiple, timed practice essays. Because the assignment and scoring criteria never change, preparing should leave you with no surprises and a high set of scores.
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