How to Approach the SAT Essay

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In the old days, before the latest SAT redesign in 2015, the SAT essay assignment consisted of short, cryptic prompts, inspiring the creative student to heights of rhetorical and literary rococo. Nowadays, though, the SAT essay is all business: students are presented with a long, persuasive essay on a contemporary controversy and are then tasked with analyzing the author’s persuasiveness. In short, the student’s task is to grade the essay! But the student’s essay will in turn be graded in three areas: Reading / Analysis / Writing. At fifty minutes, the new essay assignment is twice as long as the old one, and students need every minute to score high on this challenging task.

Reading the Passage Carefully

The first and most important step is to read the passage carefully, identifying the author’s key persuasive techniques and the examples of each. The College Board has published two sets of scored sample essays on its website, and two more in The Official SAT Study Guide. These samples are indispensable resources — the only official scored essays that most students will see and the only ones that offer insight into the scoring rubric for each score. Comparing an essay that scored 3/3/3 to one that earned 4/4/4, students learn the subtle differences between a good essay and a top-scoring one.

Clarity in Organization

One eternal quality of top-scoring essays is clarity in organization. The SAT essay scorer won’t spend more than two minutes reading each 2-4 page essay, so expect him or her to skim. If the points aren’t clear and bold, don’t expect the reader to catch them. Indent paragraphs obviously and write as legibly as possible. Have you ever heard of someone’s essay being returned for bad handwriting? Never! Does that mean that readers can always decipher the writing? Certainly not, so they must just guess and assign a score. If you have something smart to say, it probably is best if your reader can read your writing, so write neatly. Remember, too, that anything written outside the marked margin of the page will not be scanned, so keep your essay inside the text box.

Vocabulary and Persuasiveness

What about big words? In short: yes! Sift through top-scoring essays for descriptive words and transition phrases that impress and use them in your own essays. Read persuasive essays in publications such as “The New York Times” (in opinion page articles and movie reviews, especially) to learn style and rhetorical techniques to use in your own. Keep a list of key words and phrases that you might recycle. If it works once, use it again and again. Remember: your reader is engaged in the brain-numbing task of reading essay after essay on the exact same topic. For a top score, make your essay stand out with emphasis, rich language, and sleek organization.

Get feedback from your SAT tutor on every practice essay you write and work to incorporate those tips in the next one. Improving your essay is a process, but with steady practice and the right tutoring, you’ll see those SAT essay scores climb. If you’re interested in Ivy Coach’s SAT tutoring, fill out our free consultation form and we’ll be in touch.


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