The SAT Writing Section (Essay): Here’s What You Need to Know
The SAT recently revamped itself to more accurately test what students learn in school. The new version is less deliberately tricky and confusing, but it’s still a challenging, exhausting test. Let’s say you’ve taken both the ACT and the SAT and you perform better on the SAT. Now that you’ve chosen it as your go-to test, how do you get through the essay portion, especially if you hate writing?
Fun fact: the SAT has plenty of new practice tests, which include essays. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be working from this practice essay, so it might be useful to have it open as you read. We’ll go through what’s expected, what scoring looks like, and how to go about writing the best essay you can.
Understand What You’re Being Asked to Do
The new SAT no longer asks you to make up ideas and references from scratch (which, honestly, is probably for the best). Instead, it provides you with an essay and asks you to analyze it, much in the same vein as an in-class analytical or an AP English Language essay.
The assignment reads as follows. At the top you’ll see a generic introduction for what to look for as you read:
As you read the passage below, consider how (the author of the passage) 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.
Then, at the bottom, the instructions get specific. For this essay, they read like this:
Write an essay in which you explain how Bobby Braun builds an argument to persuade his audience that the US government must continue to invest in NASA. In your essay, analyze how Braun 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. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Braun’s claims, but rather explain how Braun builds an argument to persuade his audience.
What to Do
What does this mean? Essentially, as you read, pick out the techniques the author uses to make his or her point, then write a detailed essay that covers a couple of the main ones. Brush up on your knowledge of literary terms and devices well in advance of writing the SAT essay. You don’t have to know them all, but know the most commonly used ones really well (tone, diction, imagery, simile/metaphor, allusion, rhetorical question, anecdote, and symbolism, to name a few) so you can rely on those. In an argumentative essay, like this one, an author will always use tone, diction (choice of words), and some kind of persuasion technique (Logos? Pathos? Ethos? Anecdote? etc.).
How is the essay scored? Two testers will read your essay and will provide a score of 1-4 on three different benchmarks: reading, analysis, and writing.
Did the writer understand the content? Did they quickly summarize the argument/point and then move quickly into their interpretation of it? Did they paraphrase and directly quote?
Did the writer not only identify the right literary terms/devices but assess their uses effectively? In other words, did the writer understand why the author used those devices and say so? Did the analysis integrate into the rest of the essay?
Is there a strong thesis, body paragraphs for each device, and a quick conclusion? (More on organization below.) Is the writing “strong,” i.e., sentence variety, no unnecessary words or repetition, strong words, and sophisticated reasoning?
The testers’ scores are then added together for an aggregate final score. So, a top score would be 8/8/8.
Unless you’re being given extra time, you have exactly 50 minutes to complete the essay. This sounds like a lot (and it’s more than it used to be), but don’t be fooled. You’ll use the time.
Students with special accommodations might be able to take the test on a computer, but otherwise it’s a written test. Your test booklet will be scanned into a computer. If you make a mistake, don’t erase your work, because it causes smudges and can make it hard for the tester to read. Simply cross out and rewrite. The testers are trained not to read crossed-out material. If you’ve been told your handwriting is impossible to read, write a little more slowly than you might otherwise. Choose the style that’s more legible for you: print or cursive. When you write practice tests, give it to someone and ask if they can read it.
You’ll take the SAT essay last, after every other section has been completed. So you’ll be exhausted. There’s no way around that, unfortunately, beyond bringing snacks and water on test day and walking around during breaks to take the focus off your brain for a couple minutes. Practice is key; you’ll want to be able to read an essay quickly, pull out devices, and write a straightforward essay with a minimum of confusion and anxiety. Only practice and memorization of the right information will get you there.
As you prepare to take the SAT, take a look at some example essays that scored highly. It won’t be the same subject matter, but the structure and language will be aspects you can emulate.
Read with the Assignment in Mind
Imagine that your proctor has told you to turn to the essay section. You already know the basic assignment, so you can actually skip the top introduction and dive right in to the essay. Don’t get bogged down with unfamiliar words or the most complex sentences. You don’t need to absorb every single word of the essay. Read to find devices you can use. Circle them and ID them as you go. Don’t be picky right away—just observe and note what you see.
Go ahead and skim the bottom instructions, but even then the first sentence is the only really important one. In this case, the gist is: how does Braun persuade his audience to invest in NASA? Then, go back to the devices you found, and pick out the three strongest and/or most used devices to structure your essay. Can’t find three? Remember, an author always uses tone (point of view) and diction (word choice) so those are two easy ones if you’re stuck.
The process of reading and pulling out devices should take no more than eight minutes.
Make a Quick Outline
I know this one sound counterintuitive, given what I said about time limits, but bear with me. Just starting to write without a clear path is hugely problematic for timed essays. Even the best writers make a mental note of their general direction. Without planning, you might change directions mid-essay, forget your thesis and end up arguing something else, or wander off completely without realizing it.
The outline can be short and sweet. For example, with this practice essay, it could look like this:
Intro: Braun argues that continuing to invest in space tech and research keeps us competitive in the world economy. Devices: logos, imagery, allusion
Body 1: Logos (logic): paragraph 3, 5, 7
Body 2: Imagery: paragraph 4, 6
Body 3: Allusion: paragraph 8
Don’t even bother to include your conclusion in your outline. It’s pretty much the same content as your intro. Also, remember that you don’t need to tackle every aspect or device in the essay. Highlight where your devices are, then focus your analysis to those sections. In the outline above, I’ve structured the devices so that you’re going through the essay in almost chronological fashion. You don’t have to do this, but it makes the essay-writing a bit easier.
The process of outlining should take no more than two minutes.
Write Quickly but Methodically
Don’t waste a lot of breath with a big, drawn out introduction. State the argument of the author in one sentence, then your thesis, which should be a list of the three devices you plan to use. Keep it simple and easy, then move on.
For each body paragraph, make a quick topic sentence explaining which device you’re analyzing. Spend one sentence (ONLY one) summarizing how the author is using the device. Begin to use quotes or paraphrase; after each example, analyze why the author uses the device and the effect it has. About three quotes or examples are usually standard. Then, at the end of the paragraph, use one sentence to sum up the effect the device has on the whole essay. Use sample essays for examples of this structure.
See the numbers at the side of each paragraph? When you quote directly or summarize directly, put the number of the paragraph in parenthesis afterwards to cite where you’re getting the information from.
For your conclusion, simply restate what you’ve said before. If you’re feeling extra-confident, feel free to add a key takeaway from the analysis, but it’s not necessary. So, your conclusion can be two sentences just like your intro.
What if your writing style isn’t advanced or similar to the example essays? Work with a teacher or tutor who can help you develop your skills if you have the time. If not, just write simply and clearly. Don’t use overly technical words. Don’t make really long sentences just for the sake of doing so. Even simple, forceful language can be effective so long as your argument is good. So focus your attention on ensuring that you know what good analysis is and how to replicate it.
You’ll have 35 minutes to write. Keep an eye on the clock, but mostly just focus on writing quickly and clearly.
Leave a Few Minutes for Proofreading
Again, I know you’ll be flying through this essay at lightning speed to get everything done effectively. But this one’s important too. When you write quickly, grammar and spelling can fall by the wayside. That’s totally normal, so don’t freak out. But you will be graded on such aspects in your final score, so leave 5 minutes max at the end to skim through your essay, pinpoint where you made mistakes, cross out the word or phrase, and write the correct word or phrase above it. Try to make corrections clearly so that the tester knows which version to read.
And that’s it! Easy, right? (Totally kidding.) As with everything else, practice will help. If you’re not already doing this kind of essay in class, do a few practice essays at home. Make sure you do the EXACT process start to finish: time yourself, write an outline, and so on. Part of success is building the muscle memory to go into the essay with a solid base of experience and confidence that you’ll succeed.
Luckily, CollegeVine has resources if you’re stumped. They provide an individualized, one-on-one Online SAT Tutoring Program. For more general application and college-prep assistance, the Near Peer Mentorship Program will pair you with high-performing college students who can take you through the steps to attain success.
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