When it comes to the SAT essay, the College Board is very helpful—they always use exactly the same format for the SAT essay, give you exactly the same directions, and ask you to include exactly the same kind of information in your essay. Because this never changes, you’ll know the directions ahead of time and save yourself time on the test. Here’s what you’ll see on the essay portion of the SAT.
SAT Essay: The Passage
First there’s a passage for you to read and analyze. According to The College Board, all passages are written for general audiences, focus on a reasoned argument, and are taken from published works in the general areas of arts, sciences, civics, politics, or culture. They all require analysis of complex, subtle subject matter. Let’s see exactly what this means.
- Written for general audiences. Understanding the passage doesn’t require any special knowledge of content or vocabulary. They are the kinds of passages any high school student should be able to understand and analyze.
- Focused on a reasoned argument. On the SAT, arguments have nothing to do with conflicts, disagreements or fights. A reasoned argument is simply an author’s topic with their conclusion and the evidence they use to back it up. Your job is to analyze how they build their argument to persuade their readers of their point of view.
- Published works. All passages are taken from existing works; none are made up specifically for the SAT. Topics can include excerpts from political speeches, historical documents, personal calls for action, and the like. The essay prompts for the four tests in the current SAT Official Guide are a call for conservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., an essay on the pros and cons of students using digital media, and a first-person essay on the benefits of natural darkness
- Analysis of subtle subject matter. You’ll have to do some real thinking to understand the important points in the essay. Writers rarely state ideas in simple sentences such as “I think everyone should vote.” More likely the idea will be conveyed in a more subtle form, such as “The right to vote freely and without intimidation is a fundamental hallmark of a democracy and a way to make one’s political choices heard.” Making connections and inferences will be important in analyzing the passage’s subject matter.
SAT Essay: The Directions
That’s what you need to know about the passage. Now what about the directions for your essay? As we’ve already said, they’re always the same. The prompt (question) shown below, or a nearly identical one, is used for every essay question.
|As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
|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.|
So what does all of that mean? We broke it down into 5 essential components:
- Your task is to analyze the argument, so you’ll need to focus on the author’s conclusion, and to consider how the author builds that argument. Note that the testmaker gives you a head start here, suggesting that you include analysis of evidence, reasoning, and stylistic elements.
- How nice that they included more guidance in the second set of directions! The testmaker pretty much tells you what the essay is about. Use these directions to pinpoint the author’s argument.
- Even nicer—the testmaker encourages you to use the features in the first set of directions, but note that you can develop your own.
- Focus on relevant features. The passage author may add some tangential information which is not important to their primary argument. Don’t spend any time on these. You may not have enough time to write everything that you think of, so prioritize your points and include those which are most pertinent to the argument and how the author develops it.
- Your essay won’t include a personal point of view. As the instructions say, “Your essay should not explain whether or not you agree with (author’s) claims.” “Claims,” by the way, is another word for argument, which is another way of saying what the author thinks and why. Be very careful here. Don’t analyze the essay for your own opinion, but only for the argument itself and how the author supports it. If you write about your own opinion, you’ll get a low score on the essay.
You’ll have 50 minutes to write the essay, which will come at the end of the SAT. You’re given two double-sided, lined pages to write on, so be sure you can include everything you want to say in that space, but don’t feel you need to fill up all the pages. Writing just for the sake of taking up space is a bad idea, and one the readers will recognize and penalize you for.
Because the format and directions for the SAT essay are always the same (but the passage changes), you can memorize them and practice writing essays. Pay close attention to doing exactly what the instructions say, spend some time thinking before writing, prioritize your points, and write clearly and well (more about that in yet another blog), and you’ll score well on this optional, but important part of the SAT.
[NEXT: SAT Essay Scoring Rubric]