On the old 2400-point SAT (which was last administered in 2015), the SAT essay questions were often vague philosophical prompts asking you to develop and support your position on the topic. Students were expected to write a persuasive essay. They would consider multiple points of view, take a stance, and write an essay that supported that stance. This opened itself up to all sorts of shenanigans by students, like blatantly lying about personal examples (I’m guilty…) or using examples from classic novels to show off their smarts.
On the new SAT – the SAT that you will take – the format of the SAT essay is different. Now the SAT is about analyzing how an author develops her argument and convinces readers of her point. Instead of writing a persuasive essay, you are analyzing a persuasive essay. On the new SAT essay you are responsible not just for writing a top-notch essay, but also for reading, comprehending, and analyzing another piece of work. The preparation you have already done for the reading and writing sections of the SAT will come in handy while you are developing your essay. You will use your reading comprehension skills when analyzing the essay prompt, and you will use your standard written convention skills while writing your essay. These differences mean that the same old strategies won’t cut it anymore.
Luckily, there’s an effective way to make the new essay as formulaic as the old essay, giving students a useful framework that they can always use, regardless of the prompt.
First, here are the directions for the essay. The top of the page will read something like:
As you read the passage below, consider how (the author) 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.
After the article, the instructions for the essay will be:
Write an essay in which you explain how (the author) builds an argument to persuade his/her audience that (author’s argument is true). In your essay, analyze how (the author) uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his/her argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with (the author’s) claims, but rather explain how (the author) builds an argument to persuade his/her audience.
At first glance, these directions might seem vague. “Evidence,” “reasoning,” and “stylistic or persuasive elements” are sometimes too broad to conceive an essay out of.
So for clarity, let’s talk a bit about what this essay is not. This essay is not about the test taker’s opinion on the subject of the prompt essay, nor is it about whether or not the test taker agrees with the prompt essay author’s point of view. The SAT essay should be an analysis of how the author builds their argument, and what rhetorical and literary devices they use to build said argument.
Here’s where the formulaic strategy comes in. The classic five paragraph essay structure is a classic for a reason. Consider starting your essay with an introduction that includes a thesis and the literary devices that you plan to explore. The introduction is followed by body paragraphs that give examples from the prompt. Make sure these answers are specific. Vague and general supporting statements will not score as highly as thorough and specific examples. Finally, end your SAT essay with a conclusion that restates the thesis statement and the major points of the essay. Your conclusion should not include any new information. Stick to summarizing and restating the main points from your essay. When going from one paragraph to another use transition statements that link your ideas. If you make your SAT essay easy to read and easy to follow it will be easy for the grader to assign the maximum number of points.
Brainstorming is essential for every well written SAT essay. Think of brainstorming as a map: without a map your essay might end up lost or wandering around in the wrong place! You have 50 minutes to write your essay, so spend some of that time reading the prompt and outlining the essay. Your brainstorm should include your thesis statement, the topics of your body paragraphs, supporting examples from the text, and transition sentences for going from paragraph to paragraph. Once you have your essay outlined, you can begin the writing stage.
On every SAT essay, I like to have three go-to techniques that I always look for when reading the article and can use in my essay. As I read, I underline any examples I find for later use. These three are pathos, logos, and ethos – modes of persuasion that are present in practically all argumentative writing, modes of persuasion are easy to apply to an SAT essay. Plus, analyzing how the author uses these intellectual terms will show your grader that you have a high-level command of rhetorical analysis, and set you up for a classic five-paragraph essay. Let’s break down these techniques further:
Pathos is an appeal to emotion. Authors use pathos to draw readers into their pieces and connect them with the story. You can often find examples of pathos in anecdotes, calls to action, or appeals to a common purpose. Pathos is an effective literary device because emotions are powerful. Examples using pathos are relatable, the reader can empathize with the situation. Look at how the author tries to make the reader care on a personal level. Here is an example of pathos: “Despite working three jobs, under the new tax code Vivian could not afford braces for her son.” This is effective because the reader can imagine working hard and still struggling. If the author is arguing against the new tax code, she makes a compelling case with pathos.
Logos is an appeal to logic. Authors use logos to make their pieces more intellectually persuasive and consistent. You can often find examples of logos in the use of data, statistics, or research. You can also find logos in trains of reasoning: if x happens, then y will also happen, because of factor z (or something akin to that). Logos is an effective persuasive technique because it builds on facts and cause and effect relationships. Data, statistics, and research are easy to find when reading the passage because they often include numbers or the names of official institutions. Here is an example of logos: “according to the Center for Disease Control, 610,000 people die from heart disease in the United States every year.” By using a statistic, the author establishes credibility. If the author is trying to convince the reader that heart health is important, this example makes a compelling case. You don’t have to take the author’s word for it, the facts make her case for her.
Ethos is an appeal to ethics, character, or credibility. Authors use ethos to add authority or legitimacy to their arguments. This can be done by demonstrating that the author is qualified to make the argument he or she is making. It can also be done by citing experts or authority figures who let the reader know that the author’s claims are backed up by sound evidence or opinion. As such, ethos is often present in quotes from experts or citations of authority figures. Here is an example of ethos: “After spending twenty years observing chimpanzees I can say with confidence that chimps display remarkable emotional intelligence.” The author’s obvious experience gives her argument credibility.
These three modes of persuasion – pathos, logos and ethos – are specific and complex enough to let you write a sophisticated new SAT essay, as well as broad enough to allow you to find and analyze them in any article the SAT essay throws at you. This combination of factors creates a structure of analyzing how the author uses pathos, logos and ethos to build his or her argument that is a great way to approach the new SAT essay.
The SAT essay is graded by two different graders. They will assign a score from 1-4 in three categories: reading, analysis, and writing. The two scores will be added together, so each category of the essay grade will have a score between two and eight points. As the essay writer, you want to make the grader’s job as easy as possible. You want to give them a reason to give you the maximum number of points.
So what are the graders looking for? Each SAT essay grader is given the same grading rubric. The rubric includes a breakdown for each category (reading, analysis, and writing) and each score (1-4).
In the reading category, graders are looking for evidence that you understood the main argument of the prompt essay. Did you identify and interpret the thesis of the prompt essay? Do you use the text to support your interpretation? Remember, be specific! Vague generalities won’t cut it. It can be very helpful to make notes in the margins while you read the prompt essay. Rewrite their thesis in your own words. What was the authors motivation? Why did they write this piece? What did they hope to accomplish? If you can answer these questions, you can write an SAT essay that scores highly in the reading category.
The analysis category is all about supporting your analysis. If you used the modes of persuasion to build your body paragraphs, did each paragraph include examples of pathos, logos, and ethos respectively? Try to include more than one example if you can. Don’t let these examples be self-evident. Explain to the grader why this example is effective and how it might persuade a reader. Don’t use examples from your own life or experiences. Rely heavily on the source text. What was the author’s intention? Why did she tell this story? Why did she include this statistic? Why did she establish credibility?
Writing is the third pillar of the overall SAT essay score. The writing score is more than just proper grammar and spelling (although these are important too!). The writing score looks at your central claim, the flow of your essay, and the variation of your sentence structure. If you can use impressive vocabulary you should go for it! This is your opportunity to show off your writing skills. Use clear and precise language. There should be no ambiguity. A longer sentence is not always a better sentence! Try to get to the point as directly as possible.
Bad example: Although some people in the world may sometimes think that maybe the new tax code could be good, maybe it might not be. The author of the passage argues that the new tax code could be a problem. The story of Vivian not being able to get braces is quite compelling. The compelling story engages the reader enticingly.
Good example: The author uses an anecdote about Vivian’s struggle. Despite working hard, she is still not able to afford braces for her son. This story is used to show, not tell, the negative impact that the new tax code has had on the everyday person.
The good example is clear, concise, and draws a direct relationship between the example used by the author and the effectiveness of that persuasive example. The bad example liberally uses filler words and incorporates circular reasoning.
Try to save a few minutes at the end of your SAT essay for proofreading. Go back through your essay and fix basic grammar and punctuation. You can use this time to spice up your language use, vary your sentence structure, and make your transitions clearer.
You can find official examples of the SAT essay prompts here: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sample-questions/essay/1
Read through sample student SAT essays. What do these students do well? What can they improve? Try writing your own essay within the time limit. Practice reading, brainstorming, outlining, writing, and proofreading your essay in the 50 minute time limit. Practice makes perfect!
By Aidan Calvelli.