SAT Essay Writing and Language
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The new SAT essay (in a nutshell)

English essay persuasive devices SAT writing

Introducing the new SAT essay, in a nutshell.

The 2016 SAT went through some changes. One of the changes made the essay portion optional, but some colleges still recommend or require it. To write, or not to write? It’s best to check directly with your college of interest to determine their position on the essay.  

SO, HOW DO YOU WRITE THE ESSAY?

Let’s start with the prompt. Here’s the great thing - the prompt is the same every time. So, once you understand it, you have one less thing to worry about on the day of the SAT. Here’s the prompt, taken directly from the College Board’s website:

“The prompt (question) shown below, or a nearly identical one, is used every time the new SAT is given.

As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.

  • 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.

Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (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.” (https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/inside-the-test/essay)

Basically, you are being asked to (1) read a passage, (2) write an essay discussing how the author makes his/her argument, and (3) use your best English language writing skills in this essay.

No problem.

Here are some more details.

SCORING

Your essay will be read by two readers who score it based on (1) your reading comprehension of the passage, (2) your analysis of the persuasive devices that the author used, and (3) your writing skills.

Each reader will score 1-4 points in each of the three categories (Reading, Analysis, and Writing), then the individual scores for each category are added. So, the highest score an essay can receive is 8-8-8 or 24 points.

Let’s talk about the three categories.

Reading- (score range 2-8) Use your essay to show that you understood the passage, especially the author’s central idea and details that relate to the central idea. Don’t write a summary. Instead, use your analysis to convey your comprehension.

Analysis - (score range 2-8) Use your essay to explain how the author of the passage builds his/her argument.

  1. Identify a persuasive device used in the passage. For example, let’s pretend the passage you were asked to read was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. One of the persuasive devices that Dr. King uses is repetition.
  2. Link the persuasive device to the passage. This can be a quote from the passage or a reference to the device being used in the passage. For example, Dr. King repeats the phrases “we cannot be satisfied” and “I have a dream” in his speech.
  3. Explain why this persuasive device was used in the passage. Dr. King repeats the phrases “we cannot be satisfied” and “I have a dream” to emphasize the importance of these words. Both phrases highlight the terrible state of civil rights. “We cannot be satisfied” is followed by an example of being denied access to a hotel because of the color of one’s skin. Similarly, “I have a dream” is followed by multiple examples of Dr. King’s dreams, such as former slaves and former slave owners sitting at the same table and his own children being judged by their character, not their skin color. Repeating these strong words stresses the reality of the civil rights struggle and the changes Dr. King hopes to see.
  4. Explain how the persuasive device is used. This is a generic sentence or two about the persuasive device. Here is a blurb about repetition. Repetition is used to evoke an emotional response in the reader by emphasizing certain words or phrases. This builds anticipation and increases the reader’s participation in the experience. The reader has a sense of what’s coming and feels more involved, so he or she is more likely to commit to the author’s claim or argument.

Writing - (score range 2-8) Think about the basic writing skills of a strong essay. Organize ideas so that the ideas flow logically. Keep the essay focused on answering the prompt. Also, remember to keep your style and tone appropriate for the readers of academic essays. Use long and short sentences. Finally, use your best spelling, grammar, and punctuation skills.  

WHAT DOES AN ESSAY LOOK LIKE?

Seeing examples of strong essays can be very helpful for knowing what is expected. Fortunately, the College Board provided actual student essays, their scores, and a discussion about the scoring. (https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sample-questions/essay) This is extremely valuable for understanding what they’re looking for and how the sample essay did or did not meet those expectations. They’ve provided of examples of strong and not-so-strong essays, so you can see what to do (and what not to do).

So, I looked at the higher scoring essays and here’s what I think. If you’ve been paying attention during English class and writing the essays that your teacher has been assigning, then you have a great foundation and will do well. A successful SAT essay can take the form of your basic 5 paragraph essay.

Paragraph 1 - Introduction (state the author’s claim, along with the persuasive devices that you plan to analyze)

Paragraph 2 - Analysis of persuasive device #1

Paragraph 3 - Analysis of persuasive device #2

Paragraph 4 - Analysis of persuasive device #3

Paragraph 5 - Conclusion (restate the author’s claim, along with the persuasive devices that you analyzed)

So, let's go back to the MLK example. I’m just going to cut and paste, along with a little bit editing, the sentences from our scoring discussion. One of your body paragraphs (2, 3, or 4) could look something like this:

“One of the persuasive devices that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uses is repetition. He (edited) repeats the phrases “we cannot be satisfied” and “I have a dream” in his speech. Dr. King repeats these phrases (edited) to emphasize the importance of these words. Both phrases highlight the terrible state of civil rights. “We cannot be satisfied” is followed by an example of being denied access to a hotel because of the color of one’s skin. Similarly, “I have a dream” is followed by multiple examples of Dr. King’s dreams, such as former slaves and former slave owners sitting at the same table and his own children being judged by their character, not their skin color. Repeating these strong words stresses the reality of the civil rights struggle and the changes Dr. King hopes to see. Repetition is used to evoke an emotional response in the reader by emphasizing certain words or phrases. This builds anticipation and increases the reader’s participation in the experience. The reader has a sense of what’s coming and feels more involved, so he or she is more likely to commit to the author’s claim or argument.”

Now, just do this two more times and include a strong introduction and conclusion and you will be all set!

A few final nuggets of guidance:

  • The author’s claim (or argument) is given to you at the end of the passage. Read this first and you will have a better understanding of the passage and what to expect. You don’t need to rack your brain trying to figure out the argument - it’s part of the prompt.
  • The essay portion of the SAT is at the end of testing. This means your brain will have been working for 3 hours before you start the essay and you might be tired. It doesn’t mean you won’t do well, but preparation is key here. Start practicing for the essay well before the test, so that at least part of the writing process will be automatic.
  • Pay attention in your 9th and 10th-grade English classes. Believe it or not, your teachers are preparing you for this essay. Your ears should perk up when you hear ethos, logos, and pathos!
  • Books have been written about the endless number of persuasive devices. You don’t need to know them all. As you read through some of the practice passages and essays, pay attention to the devices that are used frequently. For these frequently used devices, you should have a good understanding of how they are used to persuade a reader.

I hope this nutshell has been helpful. The new SAT Essay can be an intimidating endeavor, but don’t shy away from it. Think of it as a chance to show your analytical and writing skills. It’s do-able and you’ve been preparing for this opportunity for a long time. With a little extra preparation and practice, you’ll feel more confident on test day.

I’d love to hear your feedback, so please leave your comments in the section below. Thanks for reading and cheers to SAT preparation!





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  • Elizabeth on

    Jung, Thanks so much! Glad I was able to help.

  • Elizabeth on

    Reema, Thanks for your feedback. It is sincerely appreciated and I hope you find this information helpful.

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