The SAT essay may seem daunting at first, but fortunately you can do a lot to prepare. On every test, the prompt will be the same: “Write an essay in which you explain how [author’s name] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s main argument].” All arguments are built with some combination of persuasive elements within the categories of ethos, pathos, and logos. If you familiarize yourself with these common elements and how they aid in persuasion, you will only need to adapt your discussion to fit the particular passage given.
As you craft your essay, always keep in mind the keystone of effective essay-writing: CLARITY. Here are a few ways to fine-tune your work:
1. Mention persuasive elements in the same order in intro, body, and conclusion.
After you have introduced your essay’s topic, including the author’s full name* and title of the passage, practice clarity and organization by listing the persuasive elements you are about to discuss.
Once you’ve established an order, be consistent. If your intro states the author uses statistics, anecdotal evidence, and humor, then discuss statistics in your first body paragraph, anecdotes in your second, and humor in your third. Then, list these elements in the same order again when you reference them in your conclusion. As the writer, you’re mapping out ideas in a way that gracefully and logically leads your readers through your thought progression.
*If the author’s name is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you should state this full name the first time you mention it in your intro. In all subsequent references, use only the last name “King.” Or, in this case, “Dr. King” works too. Referring to the author as Martin or Luther is not standard in a more formal setting or when you don’t personally know the person on a “first-name basis.”
2. Include transitions between paragraphs to connect their ideas.
Good, you’ve mapped out your ideas, and now your readers are journeying pleasantly through your essay. While each of your paragraphs should focus on one controlling idea, all the paragraphs should also fit together logically to convey an overall main idea (your thesis). Readers will likely enjoy themselves more if they can glide, rather than jump, from one idea to the next. Pay special attention when moving between paragraphs. Basic transitions such as “In addition…” or “another persuasive technique is…” are better than no transition at all, but they are only generically connecting your paragraphs. Well-thought-out transitions will establish clear connections between each paragraph’s idea. Try thinking of a way the main ideas of two successive paragraphs are either similar, different or in some way related. Referring to the previous idea and introducing the next one keeps confusion out and readers engaged.
3. Use appropriate diction.
Think about your audience and the purpose of this task. Your goal is to demonstrate your academic writing ability while sounding intelligent; therefore, the style of your essay should fall somewhere between formal and informal. Symbols, abbreviations, and the like are more appropriate for casual notetaking or texting. Instead, write out the full words:
- “/” = “and” or “or”
- “&” = “and”
- “1” = “one” (Write out numbers “zero” through “nine.”)
At the same time, too many big vocabulary words can sound awkward or confusing if used incorrectly, which will only do the opposite of help you express yourself clearly.
4. Write legibly.
I know that you’re probably much more practiced at writing with a mobile device, and I know the essay has a time limit, but this essay depends on legible handwriting. Just as you would rather listen to someone speak clearly and audibly, the people reading your essay will have a much easier time if they aren’t struggling to read scribbled words, especially when they only have a couple minutes to evaluate everything. Also, if they misread or can’t decode your insightful ideas and can’t experience your refined writing skills, you will have neglected your duties as the leader of your readers and sabotaged all your hard work.
Try being aware of how each word is visually unfolding on the page, and if you need to, practice. Sometimes writing a little larger will remind you to slow down and form each letter.
5. Make sure all quotes make logical sense as written in your essay.
When you write quotations or paraphrases, assume the readers will not refer back to the passage. This means you must include enough context to make your evidence clear. If you use an ellipsis (…), make sure the sentence makes sense as written. For example, writing “Most people assume…ever before” is not enough to clearly present an author’s idea. Your readers may get lost or distracted as they try to figure out where your thoughts are taking them. Again, you’d be neglecting your reader leader duty. Not to mention, when you give up this opportunity to show you understand the author’s main points, you also give up your high reading score.
6. Connect your analysis to the author’s central claim.
Part of your reading score is based on your understanding of the author’s central claim. The good news is this central claim is always stated in the box that contains the prompt (located after the given article).
When writing a persuasive piece, authors likely brainstorm the best way to get their points across to their audience. They may think something like, “Hm… if I use a personal anecdote, I can show my audience members I’m like them, and we can connect. They’ll also see what I’ve experienced so they’ll believe more that I know what I’m talking about.” Whatever the persuasive element, be it statistics, appeal to emotion, or epexegesis (adding words to clarify meaning), the authors are purposefully using techniques they think will better convince their audience.
Part of your job is to notice the main persuasive elements the authors have chosen and evaluate how these help make their central claims more convincing. Try mentioning their central claim in each of your body paragraphs as a way for you, and thus your reader, to stay on track.
7. Avoid starting your conclusion with “in conclusion.”
Now that you’ve taken your readers on a suave ride through your thoughts, you want to send them on their way feeling good about the experience. Writing “in conclusion” is a somewhat elementary transition that only states that you are beginning your conclusion, which is usually obvious since it’s the last paragraph of your essay. The words themselves don’t specifically connect to anything you have mentioned or will mention.
If anything, simply try saying “in conclusion” in your head, and then write down the rest of the sentence. At least this way you won’t draw attention to your choppy transition as this reading ride comes to an end.
Okay my fellow leaders of readers, you are equipped and ready to go! Make sure your next essay is a clear one!
Kiley A. teaches SAT/ACT Writing and leads College Application Workshops at Elite Prep Rowland Heights. As the Elite Community Scholars Coordinator, he also works to spread this college preparation guidance to low-income, first-generation students who may not otherwise have access to such support. Above all, he wants his students to know the far-reaching power of their own self-assurance.