Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Essay
The essay portion of the SAT has a somewhat lengthy and tumultuous history. After all, the very first College Board standardized tests delivered in 1900 were entirely essay-based, but the SAT had dropped all essays from its format by the 1920s and did not reappear again until 2005.
When another redesign of the SAT was announced in 2014, many wondered if the essay, as the most recent addition, would make the cut. The College Board, considering whether to keep it or not, reportedly sought feedback from hundreds of members in admissions and enrollment. Advocates of the essay felt it gave candidates more dimension. Critics believed that the essay was not indicative of college readiness. A review of assessment validity confirmed that the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT “is deeply predictive of college success,” whereas the essay is much less so.
Ultimately, the decision was made to make the essay an optional part of the SAT. This was an innovative move, signaling the first time that the College Board had made any component of the SAT optional.
Furthermore, the essay format has changed as well. Instead of arguing a specific side of a debate or topic presented in the prompt, you will now be asked to analyze a passage for writing style. This prompt is more aligned with the types of critical writing pieces that you can expect to be assigned in college.
As with all things new, the new SAT has taken some getting used to. Students, parents, teachers, and tutors alike have had to adjust to some significant changes in format and content. But the good news is that the new SAT is no longer an unknown variable. The essay in particular is now a well-known and understood piece of the puzzle, with the prompt remaining the same on each administration of the test. The only thing that has changed is the passage to be analyzed.
Do I have to take the SAT with Essay?
As mentioned above, the essay is technically an optional section on the SAT — so no, you are not required to take it. That being said, some colleges or universities do require applicants to submit SAT with Essay scores. If you choose not to take the essay portion of the test, you will not be an eligible applicant for any of these schools. To find the essay policy at schools you’re interested in, use the College Board’s College Essay Policies search feature.
Should I take the optional SAT Essay?
If you are at all unsure of which colleges you’ll be applying to, or you know that at least one of the schools you’re interested in requires the SAT with Essay, you should go ahead and take the essay portion of the test. If you don’t register for the SAT with Essay at first, you can add it later through your online College Board account. Registration for the SAT with Essay costs $57 as opposed to the $45 for the SAT without the optional essay section.
What is the format of the new SAT Essay?
The new SAT Essay is a lot like a typical college or upper-level high school writing assignment in which you’re asked to analyze a text. You’ll be provided a passage between 650 and 750 words, and you will be asked to explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his or her audience. You will need to use evidence from the text to support your explanation. Unlike on past SATs, you will not be asked to agree or disagree with a position on a topic, and you will not be asked to write about your personal experiences.
You will have 50 minutes to read the passage, plan your work, and write your essay. Although this seems like an extremely limited amount of time, it is actually double the time allowed on the SAT Essay prior to March 2016.
The instructions and prompt on the SAT Essay, beginning in March 2016, are always the same. They read:
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
These instructions will be followed by the passage that you’re intended to analyze. After the passage, you will see the prompt:
Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience of [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.
Although you can expect the passages to be different, they will all share some common characteristics. You can expect the SAT Essay to be based on passages that are written for a broad audience, argue a point, express subtle views on complex subjects, and use logical reasoning and evidence to support claims. These passages examine ideas, debates, or trends in the arts and sciences; or civic, cultural, or political life; and they are always taken from published works.
How will my essay be assessed?
Your essay will be assessed in three scoring categories, each of which will be included on your score report. Two people will read your essay and score it independently. These scorers will each award between one and four points in each scoring category. If the scores you receive in a single category vary by more than one point, an SAT expert scorer will review your essay.
The scoring categories are:
A successful essay shows that you understood the passage, including the interplay of central ideas and important details. It also shows an effective use of textual evidence.
A successful essay shows your understanding of how the author builds an argument by:
- Examining the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and other stylistic and persuasive techniques
- Supporting and developing claims with well-chosen evidence from the passage
A successful essay is focused, organized, and precise, with an appropriate style and tone that varies sentence structure and follows the conventions of standard written English.
Scores on the SAT Essay range from six to 24. To review a more specific breakdown for each scoring category, see the College Board SAT Essay Scoring Rubric.
Is my essay score always included on my score report sent to colleges?
Yes, your essay scores will always be reported with your other test scores from that day. There is no option to report only specific sections of your score. Even if you use Score Choice to choose which day’s scores you send to colleges, you can never send only some scores from a certain test day. For example, you cannot select to send Math scores but not Writing and Language or Essay scores.
What are the key strategies for the new SAT Essay test?
Remember The Prompt
On test day you will have only 50 minutes to read the passage, plan your analysis, and write your essay. Every minute will count. Because the prompt is the same on each SAT, you can save yourself some very valuable time by remembering exactly what the prompt asks you to do. That way, you won’t have to bother reading it on the day of your test.
Also remember that the prompt is asking only for your analysis. It is not asking you to summarize the passage or state your own opinion of it. Instead, while reading and creating a rough outline, you should focus on restating the main point that the author is arguing and analyzing how that point is made. Use only evidence taken directly from the passage and focus on how the author uses this evidence, reasoning, and other rhetorical techniques to build a convincing argument.
In short, when you begin your essay on test day, you should be able to skip reading the actual prompt and get straight to examining the author’s choices in presenting the argument. You should not waste any time summarizing the content of the passage or stating your own opinion of it.
Create a Rough Outline
When you’re under pressure to create a well-written essay in a limited amount of time, it can be tempting to skip the outline. Don’t fall into this thinking. While an outline may take some time to create, it will ultimately save you time and effort during the actual writing process.
The bulk of the outline you create should focus on the body paragraphs of your essay. You should have three main points you want to highlight, each being a specific method that the author uses to argue his or her point. These could include the use of logic, an appeal to emotions, or the style of diction or tone. As you read, identify the primary ways in which the author supports his or her argument. List the three most relevant methods in your outline, and then briefly cite examples of each underneath.
This very rough outline will shape the bulk of your essay and can ultimately save you the time it would take to remember these details during the actual writing process.
Stick to the Standard 5-Paragraph Essay Format
By this point in your high school career, you should have some experience writing a five-paragraph essay. The format is probably already familiar to you. As a refresher, a five-paragraph essay is generally structured like this:
I. Introductory Paragraph
- Give some very basic background about the topic (for example, why the author is writing this piece)
- Restate the author’s argument clearly
- Write a concise thesis statement summarizing three ways in which the author proves his or her point
II. Body Paragraphs
- One body paragraph per method used by the author
- Include two to three specific examples directly from the passage
- Analyze how effective these are
- Restate your thesis
- Briefly summarize the effectiveness of the author’s argument
While you may feel that 50 minutes is not enough time to plan and write an entire five-paragraph essay, you are best off keeping each paragraph brief and to the point rather than writing a more detailed essay in a shorter format. Each body paragraph should be only five or six sentences, while your introduction and conclusion can be even shorter if you write them effectively.
Practice Reading and Critiquing Opinion Pieces
The best way to prepare for the type of thinking and analysis required by the SAT Essay is to immerse yourself in reading and critiquing similar opinion pieces. The passage for the SAT Essay will always argue one side of a debate or topic, so other opinion pieces, editorials, and persuasive essays are all similar in content.
Read lots of these to become familiar with the style of writing. As you read, make mental notes of the methods that the authors use to make their points. Recognize patterns in these methods across pieces. For example, you might notice that casual diction is used to create a feeling of communal cause. These are points that you could also use in your analysis on the SAT Essay if they apply to the particular passage you receive.
Be An Active Reader
This will take you right back to your early high school and even junior high years. To be efficient on the SAT Essay, you will need to read closely and carefully in a limited amount of time. Staying engaged in the passage and making effective notations that will aid your analysis are critical.
You are probably familiar with some active reading strategies, and if that’s the case, stick with whatever notation you usually use. There’s no right way to do it, as long as your markings keep you actively engaged in the text and make your writing process easier.
This could include circling or bracketing off the thesis statement as you read. You might underline supporting details or come up with a system to mark for different literary devices (for example, a heart in the margin to denote an emotional appeal). If part of the argument seems unclear, put a question mark in the margin so that you can review it later.
Keep These Key Questions in Mind
It’s easy to get off track when you’re under pressure and rushing to complete a task. These are some good questions to keep in mind to ensure your essay stays on track:
Does the author use facts or logic to support claims? How does he or she do so? Is this effective? Could it be more effective? How so?
Discussing the author’s use of logic — often called an appeal to logos — speaks directly to an audience’s sense of reason. This is a very effective method of persuasion since it will just “make sense” to most readers.
What stylistic rhetorical devices does the author use to support claims?
Another common strategy used by authors involves the style and flow of their words. Does he or she make use of analogies, word repetition, or alliteration? These are all rhetorical devices about which you could write.
How does specific word choice contribute to the overall effectiveness of the piece?
Words are powerful. They can elicit emotions; they can create a sense of common cause; and they can use precision to draw pictures in your mind. What word choices are particularly powerful in the passage? Are there any patterns worth mentioning?
Of course, these are just a few of the many ideas you can use to get started with shaping and organizing your analysis. It’s a good idea to have a handful of possible questions to consider while reading. This will guide your thinking and can definitely help you out if you suddenly draw a blank.
Study the Glossary
This is the most straightforward way to guide you as you prepare for the SAT Essay. Khan Academy has compiled an official Essay Glossary of key terms for the essay, and having a solid grasp of this vocabulary will allow you to use the correct words to describe the literary devices you discuss. And beyond that, the glossary can help give you some ideas for possible features in analyzing in your writing.
Where can I find free study materials for the SAT Essay?
Because the new SAT Essay was just rolled out in March 2016, there are not tons of resources yet for preparation. Many of the SAT Essay resources were designed before the new test, rendering them obsolete now. As you look for study materials, make sure that anything you use was created after March 2016 to ensure you are getting relevant information.
Some great resources are:
Sample passages and scored essays from the College Board are available for your review. These will give you an accurate idea of the types of passages you can expect to read and how your response will be assessed. These include examples of high-, medium-, and low-scoring student responses to help you gauge the quality of work that is expected.
Khan Academy tutorials are also available to help you prepare specifically for the SAT Essay. These include video overviews and a message board where students share and discuss strategies.
Finally, don’t skip the Khan Academy Essay Glossary as discussed above. Memorizing key terms from this resource will legitimize your response and help shape your thinking.
If you still have questions about the new SAT Writing and Language Test or you are interested in our full-service, customized SAT tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.
To learn more about the SAT, check out these CollegeVine posts:
Want insider tips for the SAT?
With our free SAT guide, you'll get CollegeVine’s top tips for mastering the SAT. Enter your name and email below to download the checklist.