All About the Redesigned SAT: The New Essay

When the new SAT is rolled out in 2016, the essay will be dramatically different. The format for the essay from 2005 to 2015 has been fairly simple. Students have been presented with a question (like “Should young people focus their efforts on developing just one talent?”) and asked to develop an argument in response to the question. Starting with the March exam in 2016, the approach will change dramatically. Among the changes:

  • The essay will be optional.
  • Students will be able to take the test without the essay, but they should check with the colleges to which they apply to see whether those colleges require an essay score.
  • The essay will be longer: 50 minutes as opposed to 25 minutes.
  • The essay will no longer ask students to take an opinion on an issue but will instead ask them to analyze a passage that has been provided.
  • The prompt will be essentially the same from test to test (with minor adjustments to name the author of the passage and so forth).

The new prompt, according to the College Board, is:

As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses

  • 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.

Notice that students should not spend time agreeing with or disagreeing with the point the author makes in the passage. Rather, they should analyze how the author makes his or her points.

To prepare for the new SAT essay, you should do two things. The first is pay attention. When you read, pay attention to the techniques the author uses. Things like person (does the writer use the first person, second person, or third person?), diction (word choice), and structure are important parts of persuasive writing. Pay attention also to your teachers when they go over authors' approaches.

The second thing you should do is practice. Pick a passage that is about one to two pages long, read it, and write an essay analyzing the author's choices. Once you have your essay, put it aside for a few days and then reread it to see whether you merely identified techniques or explained why they are (or are not) effective. Saying that the author uses the second person is not enough. You must say why that choice works or does not work. For example, you might write, "The author's use of the second person is particularly effective since most readers will have experienced the situation the passage describes, and the use of 'you' addresses them directly and makes the passage feel more directly relevant to them. Using 'one' or 'he or she' would create more distance between the author and the reader."

This type of practice may not seem like great fun, but, as with almost anything, practice with the essay leads to improvement. You will feel far more comfortable when you sit for the actual exam if you have practiced.

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