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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Your SAT essay reader will reward you when you notice
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.
Finally, remember this is a writing sample, so the mechanics and style of your writing matter, too.
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.