Preparing for the SAT Essay

The SAT, or the Scholastic Assessment Test, is a significant factor in college admissions decisions. It consists of Math, Reading and Writing sections, and an optional 50-minute essay. To learn more about the SAT, click here. For the essay, you will be given a source text or passage about a page long and be told to consider how the author uses evidence, reasoning and stylistic or persuasive elements. At the end of the passage, you will be asked to write an essay that explains how the author builds their argument to persuade their audience of their purpose. It will also ask you to analyze how one or more of the elements in the directions are used to strengthen the author’s argument. The essay booklet is separate from the rest of the SAT test booklet and will include space to plan your essay, but your essay should be written on the lined pages in your answer sheet. Your answer sheet will provide you with about four pages on which to write your essay.


Taking the SAT with the essay adds about $15 to your testing fee. Not all colleges require the essay, but if you’re not completely sure whether or not you will be applying to one that requires it, you should take the essay. It can’t be taken separately from the SAT, so if you realize you need it, you would have to take the entire test over again. To avoid this, it is important that you adequately prepare for the essay, and there are many ways you can do that.


The Scoring

To prepare for the SAT with Essay, you first have to be familiar with how your essay will be scored. There are three scoring categories in which you will receive a score out of 8, based on your subscores of reading, analysis, and writing. Your reading score determines how well you understood the source material’s main argument and literal meaning. The SAT readers are measuring your ability to comprehend the text and reiterate the author’s main argument. To score well in this category you also have to be able to effectively use quotes from the text or paraphrase the text, and you can not make many mistakes in these references. These quotes and paraphrases should be used to demonstrate that you have a full understanding of the text.


Your analysis score determines how well you answered the prompt. To score well in this category you have to be able to understand and communicate how the author’s rhetorical choices supported their argument and which rhetorical choices were the most important. The quotes and paraphrases you choose to use in your essay will show that you can recognize specific instances where the author used these rhetorical elements effectively. Your writing must have direction and remain focused in order to convey these ideas well.


Your Writing score determines how well you develop your argument as well as your writing skills. To score well in this category you need to organize your essay with a direct thesis and line of reasoning. You also must have a strong grip on a wide-ranging vocabulary, varying syntax, an appropriate tone, and be almost free of error.


Interacting with the source

Interacting with the source text is essential to a well-written essay, and it is important to practice this in addition to the writing. Before starting your essay, read the source text once for a surface-level understanding. On your second time reading, annotate for two things: SOAPS (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, and Subject) and rhetorical strategies.


As you are reading, use the text to answer each part of SOAPSs. At the same time, mark the most important rhetorical strategies the author uses to create an outline of your own essay. Underline or bracket changes in tone, evidence that appeals to logic, repetition of words that appeal to a certain emotion, analogies or extended metaphors, organizational strategies and other patterns throughout the text.


Reading, annotating, and planning should only take a maximum of ten minutes. This should be a part of your practice for the SAT Essay. Use practice essays or sample texts in the Princeton Review, Khan Academy, or other test prep sites or books to practice reading and annotating with a time limit. You can also use these sites to do SOAPS drills or other annotating practices that will help increase your Reading and Analysis scores.


The Writing

CollegeBoard includes a “skillful introduction and conclusion” as part of their criteria for the Writing Score. Your introduction should not only contain your thesis but should include some context about the text as a whole to boost your Reading score. This is where you will use your SOAPS annotation. A good rule of thumb is to include the title of the source, the author’s name, and the genre (essay, article or speech). Your introduction should also assert what the author’s thesis is, showing that you understand the purpose of the text, and the ways in which the author supports their thesis. This can serve as the thesis for your argument. It can also mention who the intended audience is and why the author is trying to persuade this audience towards their argument, showing that you understand the audience and the occasion of the text.


Your body paragraphs should be organized by the main rhetorical strategies that you annotated for, and each one should have two or three quotes or paraphrases that serve as examples of these strategies. Your job in your body paragraphs is to explain why that reference is an example of the strategy, what its effect on the audience is, and a connection to how it supports the author’s argument. Your attention should mainly be on your body paragraphs, then your introduction, and finally your conclusion. In a setting where you are under time pressure, it is important to prioritize certain parts of your essay that will have more of an influence on your score. Spend around five minutes on your introduction, and then aim the center of your focus on the body paragraphs. An effective conclusion that restates the central ideas of your essay is necessary for a high score on the essay.


Practicing for the essay


The best way to practice for the essay, beyond annotating drills, is to do practice essays. These can be broken up to focus on certain skills, such as practicing your introduction or reading quickly, but it is essential that you become comfortable with writing full length essays before test day. Aim for three to five full essays before test day. The more comfortable you become with your time limit, the more you will be able to incorporate more technique into your writing.


Practicing writing skills is more complicated than practicing reading or analyzing skills. Reading is crucial to having a good command of a wide-ranging vocabulary. The scorers of your essay don’t want to know that you can use a thesaurus, they want to see that you are using words correctly in context and going further than simply repeating surface-level phrases like “this shows” or “the reason this is an example of”. Ultimately, choose words that correctly represent your ideas, and simple is often better.


As you study for the SAT Writing Section, you will be studying grammar and other rules of the English language. This can serve as a way to also prepare for the SAT Essay and ensure you don’t make any grammatical errors in your essay. Your essay should also be formal in tone and should not include first-person statements. Your essay should not represent your opinion in any way, it is strictly an analysis of the relationship between an author’s central claim and the supporting details in the text.




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