The SAT: What about the Essay?


In March of 2016, the new SAT made its debut. It’s major change was to the essay portion, which is now optional. The essay section of the exam assesses your ability to write clearly and argumentatively. While the SAT section of previous years required students to write about debatable topics in, say, public policy, the new one asks for something quite different. According to the College Board, it is supposed to resemble the kinds of assignments students receive as undergraduates. Instead of asking for your perspective on a question or some kind ethical issue, the new SAT presents students with an excerpt from a widely read newspaper or magazine and asks them to analyze an author’s argument. For the most part, these passages range between 650-800 words and are taken from well-known publications like the New York Times or the LA Times. 

First, let’s talk about the essay’s structure. You will have 50 minutes to write an essay of around five paragraphs. Remember, the goal is no longer to explain what you think about an issue, but rather to demonstrate your capacity to read and analyze a text critically, engage with an argument, and explain how the author uses a variety of rhetorical techniques. To be successful, focus on explaining how the author uses evidence, how they develop their reasoning, and how they appeal to persuasive elements such as logos, pathos, or ethos. While practicing for the essay, be sure to read the passage strategically to address the components for which the section is testing on time. Aim to complete reading the passage and extracting the most valuable parts in about 10-15 minutes. This will leave you approximately 40 minutes to think about what to say, create an outline for your essay, and then to actually write it. Of course, we are all different and may want to divide our time according to our strengths and weaknesses, but this is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind. As you practice, you will be better able to determine a strategy that works. 

Next, let’s discuss how the essay is scored. For this section, the students will receive three scores. One for reading, the other for writing and the third for analysis. Each is on a scale of 2-8. These scores are not composite in the sense that they combine your points on all three parts and then find an average. Instead, you will receive three separate scores. This is helpful to know because it will allow you to identify which parts you need more practice on when you are training for the test. 

It is important to reiterate that the goal is not to summarize what the passage tells you. Students are supposed to carefully assess its content and unpack the author’s logic. In the “Reading” section you must demonstrate competence of the material and understanding of the main idea. Also, make sure to show that you have picked up on significant detail to the extent that it contributes to the big concept the passage discusses. Then, for “Analysis” you must show that you have engaged with the author’s argument—its strong points, weaknesses, and persuasive power. That means that for the first two scores, Reading and Analysis, you will be assessed based on how well you’ve understood and broken down the main parts of the passage. For the “Writing” score, readers will judge how well you’ve explained and how clearly you’ve expressed yourself in your own essay. To excel in this part you must have shown that you are capable of writing concisely and using the conventions of the English language with mastery. It is here that you will also have to show that you can assemble your thoughts on the subject matter of the passage coherently. Be convincing and use evidence. 

Those three dimensions will be the core of your writing score. To ensure you do well, practice weekly. At least once a week, try to write a practice essay. The CollegeBoard website offers sample essay prompts, which is always a good starting place for students to practice. Also, try to apply the skills you’ve learned to articles of your interest in your every day. This way, you can really feel the way that the skills sharpened for this section have real world utility. Don’t be intimidated, simply give yourself the time to prepare and develop effective reading habits. Also, be patient with yourself and ask for help from others during the process!

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