The New SAT’s Essay Pt. 2 : How to Ace It

What ho, ye seekers after wisdom!

Last time we covered all the big changes you can expect when you write the new SAT’s essay, and we promised that we’d get into the details very soon. As we’re humans of our word, here’s the skinny on how to make the most of the expanded timeframe and new rules.

Some of you have taken the SAT before and you’ll remember the essay portion covering a truly enormous range of topics. Because of the argumentative nature of the essay, it could very easily trap you into becoming disorganized and veering off topic. The new, much more refined prompt has the advantage of focusing your thoughts by virtue of its restrictions, i.e., no extraneous information, discuss only the passage given, critically and analytically.

Nevertheless, these new restrictions are a bit of a mixed blessing: the upside is that all the information you need is right there in front of you, so you won’t find yourself grasping for all the random information floating around in your brain to turn it into something relevant to the topic, but the new essay does tend to rely much more heavily on the fluidity and proficiency of your prose. You’re also being scored on your ability to judge a good argument and being able to write knowledgeably about what makes it good: it helps to remember that you will now be scored out of 4 on 3 things—reading, writing, and analysis. While that may sound daunting, it’s possible to practice for this effectively. We recommend reading all the persuasive and rhetorical texts you can get your hands on because, as we said earlier, the passages will most often be adapted from speeches and editorials. Take advantage of this circus of an election cycle and read transcripts of the candidates’ debates!

Don’t overestimate the increased time—these 50 minutes will likely fly by quicker than any other chunk of time during the test, so when you’re practicing, time yourself.

For those of you who feel a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s an image of what your essay’s ideal layout is:

  1. Brainstorm (5-7 mins)
    1. highlight/underline
    2. look for examples, stats, etc.
    3. pay attention to author’s style
  2. Writing (35-40 mins)
    1. Introduction
      1. hook
      2. thesis—what’s your essay going to do?
      3. preview
    2. Body
      1. transitions
      2. details & specifics
      3. reinforce thesis as often as you can
    3. Conclusion
      1. restate thesis
      2. concluding examples
      3. concluding thoughts
  3. Proofread (2-3 mins)
    1. perfect your diction; swap vocab with better vocab
    2. fix any untidiness

We get into the details of all these points below—they’re yours if you want ’em.

Spend your first 5-7 minutes brainstorming—we know it sounds lame and there’s a lot to be said for fresh and enthusiastic spontaneity, but you’re given a nice blank page for just that reason, in addition to the 4 for the actual essay. Use well the tools at your disposal, squire, and ye shall not want for success.

As you’re taking your first skim over the passage, highlight the sections that seem relevant to your essay. Remember that you’re starting out with advance knowledge of what you’re looking for: quickly figure out what the author is aiming to convince you of and take the time to mark the examples, facts, statistics, and imagery he or she uses and why those examples are helpful to the argument.

Beforehand, do your best to know your rhetorical devices backwards and forwards: understand what metaphors (e.g. “all the world’s a stage”), similes (e.g. “fight like a tiger”), and analogies (e.g. “your voice is like nails on a blackboard”) etc. are; know what pathos, ethos, and logos mean. I’ll tell you: Aristotle broke down successful rhetoric into parts: logos, i.e. the appeal to logic or reasoning; pathos, the appeal to the audience’s sensibilities or emotions; and ethos, relating to the credibility or trustworthiness of the speaker. Aristotle also mentions telos (purpose) and kairos (setting) but never mind those for now. Now that we all know what they are, we also need to realize that every student will be aiming to fill her essay with Greek terms. It’s always much more impressive to paraphrase technical terminology, including literary jargon, and show that you get it rather than regurgitate it indiscriminately. Plus, the examiners reading your essay will be wading through floods of the things and you want yours to stand out. So—explain what part of the passage appeals to the reader’s reason, what appeals to her emotions, and what proves the speaker’s credibility. There, that’s not so hard, yeah?

Don’t forget that the prompt will never ask you to give your opinion or your own position on the issue being discussed. All the examiners require of you is what makes the argument convincing, regardless of whether or not you are convinced. If it helps you keep your personal feelings out of the essay, try to avoid using “I” and “you”.

Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, you’ll actually have to write the thing.

Start with your introduction (duh), but not just any old introduction. Again, yours is one of thousands of essays and you want to put a bit of the individual in it. Get your reader’s attention with a good hook—a powerful image, a hypothetical question, an illuminating analogy. This is where reading as much critical literature as possible will help you. We cannot stress this enough: you can’t write well without reading well, meaning reading the work of writers who know their stuff (because they also read a lot).

State your thesis (and we know you’ve heard this one before). Promptly let your readers know that you’re going to be showing why so-and-so’s article/speech is rhetorically effective and then give them a little sneak peek of what you’ll be getting into in the body of your essay, without getting into details.

The body—yet another term you’ll likely be painfully familiar with, but this basic essay template will work anywhere, which is why we’re using it. Quickly then, so we don’t bore you: the body will usually be from 3 to 5 paragraphs, wherein you’ll be getting into the specifics of the rhetorical methods and strategies being used in the prompt passage; always remember to reinforce your thesis as often as you can by deftly relating each example you give back to the thrust of your essay. Be certain to make the most of your resources—all the material is right there in the prompt (remember when you highlighted!), so there’s no excuse for not using it well—you already know what you’re writing about! Again, you want to make your essay as fresh and engaging as possible, so don’t just transpose big sections of the prompt into your essay. Paraphrase information where you can, manipulate your direct quotations—scatter the elements of the prompt article throughout your own essay so you strike a nice, even balance. In essence, use as many methods as possible to refer to the article. Names and dates and statistics are only so interesting and need all the help they can get. And don’t wander off into giving your opinion—resist the urge! Don’t use quotations to plump up your essay because trust us, after the 200 essays before yours she just read, the examiner can tell when your essay is packed with information and when it’s packed with fluff. Your ploys won’t work here!

Another thing worth mentioning is how you transition between paragraphs. Try and keep things fluid as you move between one paragraph and the next so your reader isn’t jarred by the shift. As always, keep things interesting: there are obvious ways to start new paragraphs—the usual suspects: firstly, secondly, lastly, yawn. Don’t use them—they’re not only dull, they’re reductive. Once again, read as much as you can so you can learn graceful, elegant ways to effect segues in your own work. In fact, go back to the essay prompt we referenced in our last post and see how Jimmy Carter does it. Even though he’s making a point-by-point argument, it doesn’t read like a list.

Now all that’s left is the almighty conclusion: do try to avoid treating it as a pale shadow of your introduction. Remember that the ending is at least as important as the beginning because that’s the last thing the reader is left with and you want it to linger deliciously, not fall down like a lump. You absolutely want to reinforce all you’ve said and give the reader a neat recap, but you must guard against reproducing earlier parts of the essay. Remember your hook from the introduction and re-apply the method here, but with finesse and panache. Okay? Okay.

Et voilà—a stellar SAT essay in no more than 50 minutes. But we’re not done yet, friends. Next up, we’ll let you in on the tricks and plots perpetrated by test makers, so you’re nobody’s fool.

Till then, scholars!