How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the SAT Essay
Let’s face it, the SAT essay can seem like a chore. You’ve spent three hours navigating the SAT Reading, Writing & Language, and Math sections. Maybe you’re feeling good about your performance. Maybe your brain is completely fried. At this point, some of you will pack up your things and leave. However, many of you will remain where you are with just a two-minute break to prepare for the final section of the SAT: the Essay.
“Wait, isn’t the SAT Essay optional?”
Yes, but that’s not stopping thousands of students from taking it. In the competitive landscape of college admissions, every “option” should be exercised to give yourself as much of an edge as possible. So it’s time to learn how to stop worrying and start loving the SAT Essay.
The essay presents you with a brief passage in which the author tries to make a point about a certain topic or issue. 50 minutes are allotted to read the passage, analyze it rhetorically, and write a response to the prompt. It’s not a ton of time, but 50 minutes should be more than enough if you are adequately prepared. As with any academic exercise, the name of the game is preparation. To prepare for the essay, practice developing a plan of attack that you can replicate no matter the passage.
Your main task for the SAT Essay is to analyze the rhetorical elements that the author uses to make his or her point. You shouldn’t concern yourself too much with what the author is saying but how he or she is saying it. Focus on the structure of the passage and consider how each part works within the overall development. Authors are strategic about how they use language to reach readers, and it is your job to explore specific authorial techniques and convey how those techniques build an argument. Examples of rhetorical devices include anecdotes, diction, imagery, statistics, repetition, irony, alliteration and more. If you are unfamiliar with rhetorical devices, a quick Google search can help you familiarize yourself with the most common of them.
As part of your preparation, you should determine how much time you need to read, outline, and write. The SAT Essay passage will be about the same length as a passage from the Reading section, so you should be able to read it in under five minutes. However, you will likely have to read the passage (or at least certain sections) more than once. As you read, it is important to annotate the passage to help you create an outline. Outlining your essay before writing it will provide you with a roadmap so that you don’t get stuck or lost. I suggest spending a total of 15 minutes reading and outlining, giving you 35 minutes to write. The introduction and conclusion should take you no more than 5 minutes; therefore, you can dedicate about 30 minutes on your body paragraphs.
As you read the passage, take targeted notes to help you create a clear outline. You should particularly look out for evidence, reasoning, and style. Use a marking system to help you keep track of these elements as you spot them in the passage. For example, E=example, R=reasoning, S=style. You can use numbers, symbols or whatever system will help you annotate the passage properly. Once you’re finished, review your markings and choose among the ones you feel most strongly help the author make his or her argument. Your choices should form the basis of your body paragraphs. Jot them down as part of your outline and then move on to your thesis. Each of your body paragraphs needs to support your thesis, so look for common threads between the elements you have chosen to write about. Once you come up with a thesis statement, add it to your outline and get ready to begin writing.
If you have developed a clear outline, writing the essay is just a matter of fleshing out your ideas in a coherent fashion. Organization is the key to a well-written essay. Briefly introduce the topic at hand before stating your thesis. Make sure each body paragraph ties back to the thesis so that the essay never loses focus. As you incorporate evidence from the passage (aim to include at least two pieces of evidence per body paragraph), add in your own insight to demonstrate your rhetorical analysis prowess. Also, make sure to smoothly transition from paragraph to paragraph. In the conclusion, restate your thesis using new language, and try end with a final remark about the overall implications of the author’s primary point. If you have any time remaining, quickly proofread your essay for any repetitive language, misspellings or grammatical errors. Turning in a cleanly written essay will make an impression.
Breaking down the SAT Essay into manageable parts will simplify the task ahead of you. Essentially, you can use the same approach for each essay, but you must put in the work to perfect your own plan of attack. What works for one student may not work for you, so look up sample SAT Essay passages to begin the work of developing your specific strategy. While practicing, remember to read for how the author makes certain points and why he or she does so in that particular way. My hope is that the ideas here will demystify the SAT Essay and instill in you a sense of how to tackle it with positivity and confidence.
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Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."