How to Write the SAT Essay

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Understanding how to write the SAT essay can be a little intimidating.  

There’s no multiple choice to fall back on with the SAT essay. It’s just you, some paper, and a Number 2 pencil, writing an essay out of thin air.

When it feels so open-ended, how do you know exactly what to write for your SAT essay, an essay possibly unlike anything else you’ve written in school?  

Lucky for us, the SAT drastically changed its content a few years ago, and the essay is completely different now–and totally formulaic. You can go into any SAT test totally ready to write the essay, no matter what passage the test offers you.

You can be that much more confident about how to write the SAT essay now if you understand a little bit about the old essay and why it’s gone.

Why They Had to Change the Old SAT Essay

Ultimately, the old SAT essay was universally acknowledged as a pretty pointless exercise. It asked students to crank out shoddy, sometimes vapid essays that didn’t resemble anything they’d need to write in college and didn’t give them much room to show off their analytical skills. Basically, kids would read a couple quick prompts, pick a side of a silly argument, and crank an essay out in 25 minutes.

The College Board decided this just wasn’t working for them and dumped that whole approach.

By noticing exactly what the College Board changed, we can uncover the inside track on how to write an SAT essay.

SAT Essay Basics and What They Tell Us

You’re given 50 minutes to write the SAT essay.

The days of turning in a glorified rough draft are gone: you have just short of an hour to write the SAT essay, which tells us that the College Board wants an essay that’s extremely organized, thoughtful, and, if you’re going for a top score, even polished.

Look out, though: since some students take the essay section and others don’t, the essay comes after the rest of the test so that kids who aren’t writing an essay can go home. Point being, you might be tired by the time it’s time to write.

Fifty minutes can fly by when you’re mentally wiped out, so it’s important to be prepared.

How to write the sat essay

No more surprise topics: the SAT essay is always the same assignment.

It’s easier to be prepared when the essay assignment itself is more predictable. The SAT essay section uses an almost identical prompt on every single test; the only thing that differs is the source material, the passage you’ll read and write from.

Straight from the College Board, here’s what the prompt will say:

“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.”

The SAT essay is ONLY an analysis of someone else’s work and ideas.

You’ll find specific tips on how to write the SAT essay below, but did you catch that last sentence in the official prompt?

They aren’t kidding: do not go into whether you agree with the author.

Think about it this way: the SAT evolves to serve its real customers–colleges–and respond to growing trends they observe in American high schools. They certainly aren’t concerned with teen trends like denim cuts and hairstyles, but they absolutely worry about school trends like widespread grade inflation.

You may think it’s wonderful that you can earn extra credit to cover a poor test score, but the College Board is adjusting its tests based on how much grade adjustment is becoming available. Moreover, they wonder if you have strong grades based solely on writing tasks in which you pontificate about your own opinions.

Colleges that require the essay for admission want to be sure that you can prepare a solid, academic analysis based entirely on someone else’s ideas. In that case, show them what they want to see and leave your own opinion out of it.

Writing the SAT Essay is Relevant To College Work

While it might take some practice, the SAT essay is very similar to the sort of writing you’ll do in college: say, analyzing why an artist or politician made the choices he made at a particular time. It’s genuinely worthwhile to learn how to write the SAT essay well.

After all, doing well in college is the whole point of the SAT, anyway.

Let’s look at how you’ll do that.

How To Write an SAT Essay

First, writing an essay is a game of strategy, and–just like in any other game–you’ll build your strategy based on the way you’ll earn points.

Two different readers read your essay and grade it independent of each other. You’ll be scored in three different areas, each on a scale of 1 to 4. Those two scores are added together and your official essay score will be reported as three subscores, each out of 8 possible points.

I always tell my students that the absolute hardest part of learning to write anything is figuring out what exactly is important enough to include in your work (so we’re clear on what you’re saying) and what to leave out (because you’ll sound like you think your reader is an idiot if you spell out everything).

The art of writing strikes that balance, and it takes practice.

The College Board offers examples of real essays with all sorts of combinations of scoring for the three scored dimensions, which you can learn from here, but here’re the basics:

Scoring Dimension One: Reading

The reading dimension of the essay rates how well you show that you understand what the author of the passage is saying; you’re showing off your reading comprehension in real time, just like in the multiple choice reading section of the SAT.

In other words, your essay reader wants to see that you can correctly identify the author’s argument and the specific supporting details she uses to make that case.

How To Improve Your SAT Essay Reading Score

  • Get out of the gate quickly: in your introduction say that [the author] argues that [what the author wants her audience to believe]. Remember: they want to know that you get it.
  • Use direct quotes from the passage, just like you would in a paper in school. Don’t extract big chunks, though. Just like your English teacher doesn’t want you to copy down two hundred words from A Tale of Two Cities to stretch the word length of a school assignment, the SAT essay readers want you to extract only snippets and phrases to incorporate into your own writing.

Here’s an example sentence to show you how to work a small quote into your own work:

When the College Board website says SAT essays must be “free of… errors of interpretation,” it means that we can’t say the author meant A when she clearly meant B.

Scoring Dimension Two: Analysis

You earn a strong analysis score by explaining how the author builds her argument and appeals to her audience to get them to agree with her. If you want to know how to write an SAT essay, you have to know how other people make their arguments persuasive.

How To Improve Your SAT Essay Analysis Score

  • Be able to identify logos, ethos, and pathos, also known as the three rhetorical appeals. People in academia have been thinking about the usefulness of these rhetorical appeals for literally thousands of years, so knowing and identifying them can go a long way.

Your SAT essay reader will reward you when you notice

  • Ethos: the mechanisms that an author uses to build a sense of authority or credibility, thereby earning an audience’s trust. Here an author will go into detail about her own experience, education, or background.
  • Pathos: these are appeals to audience emotion. When someone arguing to protect the Arctic says, “Think of the poor polar bears,” that’s an appeal to emotion. It’s incredibly effective. Anything an author uses that evokes emotion is part of persuasion and qualifies as part of the argument.
  • Logos: the facts and sense of rationality an author brings to the table. Yes, you should actually spell out that it strengthens an argument when an author cites facts, figures, and historical situations.

In fact, feel free to use these three ideas as the framework for the body paragraphs of your own SAT essay; if they were good enough for Aristotle, they’re good enough for you.

Scoring Dimension Three: Writing

Finally, remember this is a writing sample, so the mechanics and style of your writing matter, too.

  • Structure: You need to write a well organized essay that includes a clear introduction, a thesis, and a conclusion. Don’t waste time: give us an intro and a thesis within two or three sentences. When you notice yourself running out of time at the end, make sure you wrap your essay up with a conclusion, even if it’s only a sentence.
  • Make sure your body paragraphs are concise, independent arguments. Every time you write a sentence, ask yourself, “So what?” It’ll help you know what to say next. If you catch yourself going off the rails, at least be sure the last sentence in each paragraph relates specifically back to your thesis up top.
  • Vary your sentence structure for sizzle.
    • Study how to correctly use a colon, semicolon, and dash, since you’ll be tested on them in the multiple choice writing section, anyway.
    • Start sentences with words like although and while. These words automatically change your sentence structure, which makes it sound more lively.
  • While the SAT essay is not a spelling test, the people who read SAT essays for their jobs are the same sorts of people who spell well and are likely to be distracted by goofy mistakes. Don’t give them any reason to doubt you: whenever you can, write with advanced vocabulary words you know–and know how to spell.

Remember, while it may take you time to write the best SAT essay you can, it’ll pay off, both for your score and where it matters most: college. For additional resources on preparing for the SAT test, check out our article on the best SAT prep courses and SAT practice books.