The Value and Purpose of the New SAT Essay

One of the most significant changes on the new SAT is the essay assignment

The essay used to be mandatory. Now it’s optional (sort of). 

The timeframe for the essay ballooned from 25 to 50 minutes, in order to make time for students to read the assigned passage. 

And the assignment no longer asks you to take a position on a broad topic. In fact, the College Board explicitly states that “[y]our 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.” 

Confused yet?

For some students, this requirement—that you focus on how the author builds a persuasive argument rather than on what you think about that argument—seems unclear. What does it mean that an author “builds an argument”? How do I begin to explain how an author builds an argument? Most importantly, what’s the point?

Arguments are like Buildings (or Built-Things)

Imagine you’re asked to build a house. First, you’ll need a plan. How many rooms? How will they be arranged? What kinds of materials will you use? Architects, engineers, and construction workers need to make countless decisions while planning and building a house. 

Writers are no different. 

Their wood, nails, and insulation are the words they choose. Their foundations are the concrete evidence they cite. Their arguments are the sum of all the parts that make up the house. 

Take, for instance, the opening paragraphs of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech (1963):

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregations and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

MLK is remembered today as one of the great orators of the twentieth century. But to truly grasp King’s brilliance, we can’t just take for granted that this is a genius piece of oratory. In order to understand the meaning of this passage, we need to ask some questions about the decisions he made in writing these paragraphs:

Why does he open with an allusion to Abraham Lincoln? How does his reference to the Emancipation Proclamation set up the ideas that follow?

Why does he employ the image of “flames” to describe the injustices that slaves endured?

Why does he compare the emancipation of slaves to “a joyous daybreak after the long night”? What does the sun rising have to do with justice?

Why does he repeat “One hundred years later” throughout the second paragraph? Why would he choose to repeat himself?

In asking such questions, we are beginning to consider how this piece of writing was made. In asking you to explain how the author builds an argument, the SAT is asking you to explain how the house was built, to show what choices went into its construction, to explain the deliberate choices a writer made in constructing this piece of writing.

So, What’s the Point?

We are surrounded by arguments, and not just on the SAT or in your English classes. Every time you run into an ad on YouTube, a text message from your best friend, or even a street sign, you’re confronted with an argument. 

The YouTube ad tells you to BUY THIS. 

Your friend tells you to MEET ME HERE. 

The street sign demands that you STOP.

All of these are arguments. They attempt to persuade you to act, think, or behave a certain way and for a certain purpose. 

They are attempts, in short, to get you to stop thinking.    

The SAT essay is a test of your critical reasoning capacities. It tests just how well equipped you are to interpret this world of arguments. And it gauges your ability to see an argument for what it is: a sequence of deliberate, individual choices.

In short, it asks you to see the world around you as something that was made. For if you can begin to decipher how your world was built, you just might be able to someday build it better.

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities, and has taught writing and critical reading at Elite of Los Angeles since 2010.