Tips to Excel at SAT Essay Test

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Effective methods to increase SAT Essay scores are of interest to students who are planning to take the test and to those who have already tested their writing and analytical skills. If you belong to the former category, you will benefit from these simple tips because they will help you to raise your chances of excelling in college and professional life.

Stay on top of your writing game by using the following tips. If you apply them to your SAT writing assignment, you will surely increase your chances to perform way above average.

The Challenge

The challenge you are about to face is difficult. Fortunately, it is extremely fleeting. You will have only 50 minutes to read a short passage and analyze literary and rhetoric devices used by its author to structure their arguments. And of course, you will have to use the allocated time to craft a beautiful essay. If you don’t have a strategy for tackling the assignment, the time will fly faster than Superman.

An SAT Essay is markedly different from writing assignments you’ve been given by an English teacher in high school. The following tips will help you to get the most out of 50 minutes you have to ace the essay.

For your convenience, the tips have been divided into three groups. The first group includes practical advice provided by the College Board. The second group features useful suggestions for mastering the essay that are withheld by the Board. Use the final group of tips to properly structure your SAT Essay.

College Board Tips

Here are the tips compiled by the College Board:

#1 Provide a Clear Thesis

SAT graders expect you to write a clear thesis. According to SAT Essay Scoring Rubric, a high score will be assigned to an essay having a "precise central claim."

It follows that your writing should have an overarching argument the wording of which facilitates the understanding of readers. To this end, point to the main idea of the source text and identify methods employed by its author to support it. Fortunately, this can be easily done by looking closely at an essay prompt. A central idea in the following prompt has been bolded to exemplify the point:

Write an essay in which you explain how Noam Chomsky builds an argument to persuade his audience that children have an inborn ability to interpret syntactic structures.

Keep in mind that your response shouldn't focus on whether or not you agree with Chomsky's claim, but rather on the way the scholar builds his argument.

You can open an essay by responding to the above prompt with the following thesis statement:

In the article “The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory”, Noam Chomsky uses logos and pathos to persuade his audience that children have an inborn ability to interpret syntactic structures.

Don't be afraid to use the author's central claim verbatim in your thesis statement. By doing so, you will make it easier for the SAT graders to understand the relevancy of your thesis.

#2 Write an Introduction and Conclusion

The SAT Scoring Rubric requires a “skillful introduction and conclusion.”

Don’t expect to score above 4 if you don’t pay heed to this College Board advice. The introductory paragraph presents the reader with the subject matter of the essay and allows you to set out the structure of the ensuing paragraphs. Use the essay’s opening to impress the graders and indicate that the remaining text is equally interesting.

You definitely aim for the win if you include both an introduction and conclusion in your essay. However, if the time constraints make you choose only one, better stick with the introduction. The rationale behind this suggestion is that a proper introduction contains a thesis statement, which is a necessary precondition for a good grade. When writing an introduction don’t forget to offer your take on literary and rhetoric devices employed by an author of the source text.

It is not an easy task to write an introduction because it informs the reader about the rationale behind the essay. If you cannot come up with a decent opening for your writing, just delve further into the work and leave 10 blank lines to finish the introduction later. Just make sure to return to it later.

#3 Aim for Effective Language and Precise Word Choice

The SAT Essay Rubric emphasizes that a student essay will be graded based on the aspects such as style and command of language. Only a cohesive response that “demonstrates a highly effective use and command of language” will score highly.

The development of a good command of language requires a holistic effort and takes a long time. Therefore, unless you’ve started preparing for the exam at least a year ahead of time, you’ll be more occupied with other components of your writing.

Essays will also be scored based on the consistency and precision of word choice and variety of sentence structures. Students are advised to maintain a “formal style and objective tone” throughout their writing.

These scoring requirements basically come down to: avoid being repetitive and making grammar errors. Also abstain from using first-person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, our, ours, us), colloquialisms (ain’t, gonna, y’all, etc.), contractions (don’t, can’t, won’t, etc.), and filler words (basically, just, well, etc.) in your essay. You should strive for maximum clarity and formality. Consider the following examples:

Bad (Informal)

I believe that Chomsky does a good job of getting people on his side ‘cause he uses lots of arguments. He basically says that children are wired to learn languages ‘cause they do it so quickly.

Good (Formal)

The convincing proposition underpinning Chomsky’s argument against the developmental model of language acquisition is that there is a wide gap between the rich linguistic knowledge attained by children and their language exposure.

Stay away from repetition in your writing. The graders won’t enjoy stumbling upon the same word for the tenth time, which will leave them uninterested in your ideas. Show off your vocabulary. However, be consistent and aim for quality instead of quantity. Using advanced vocabulary is important but what’s more important is streamlining your paper. Don’t forget to revisit your writing before the submission to ensure that the word choice is just right.

#4 Use Information Only from the Source Text

The passage you’ll be given is the only source of information you should use in your essay. Don’t rely on the outside knowledge when answering to the prompt.

In school essays, it is okay to draw on different sources to support a thesis. An SAT Essay is another matter altogether. Here, you are required to support your thesis with specific examples from the passage. We’ll elaborate on this point later.

#5 Focus on Relevant Information

You don’t have the time to focus on every single element of an author’s argument. Actually, your essay will score more points if you restrict your analysis to the discussion of key points. It is more important to show your ability to focus on the most relevant details instead of trying to make your essay as inclusive as possible. Concentrate on the most persuasive devices used by the author.

One way to think about this task is by imagining an essay on the human face and its functions. What would you include in such an essay if you had only 50 minutes? Surely, you would focus on the major features of the facial anatomy – eyes, nose, and mouth. A less effective approach would be to describe dimples, cheekbones, chin clefts, etc. Undeniably, those features of the human face are important; however, you won’t have a chance to discuss them in detail in such a short period of time.

Five Secret Tips Omitted by the College Board

Admittedly, the publicly available guidelines issued by the Board are a powerful weapon in a battle for the higher SAT Essay score. However, there are also a few secrets that you need to know to ace the test.

#1 Read the Prompt Carefully

Why? Because the prompt before the passage has a distillation of an author’s central claim. The careful examination of the prompt will let you maintain your focus on the author’s key point instead of getting bogged down in the passage’s details. The task will be much easier if you are genuinely interested in the topic.

#2 The Factual Accuracy Takes Precedence Over Your Interpretations

The Analysis score of the SAT essay is assigned holistically. It means that you have to both list the devices and explain their effect on the reader. However, having your facts straight is more important than interpreting the effect of the source text on the reader. Just as there is no one reader, there is no one correct answer. You’ll be good as long as you reinforce your arguments with factual evidence from the passage.

Here’s an example of a response to a prompt backed by evidence from the text:

Orwell uses the emotional mode of persuasion in the passage. He appeals to emotions of the readers by alluding to the inescapable pull of authority exuded by O’Brien. He also wakes emotions in the audience by pointing toward the father-child relationship dynamic of Winston and O’Brien. To further evoke sympathy from the readers, the author structures his rhetorical discourse around a detailed description of the brainwashing process and explains how it disempowers the protagonist to the point of complete docility. Orwell convincingly concludes that both intellect and spirituality are “prisoners of Big Brother,” thereby strengthening the emotional appeal of his argument.

It is impossible to assert with great certainty that sympathy from readers is what Orwell was aiming for in his passage. Nonetheless, as long as you support your claims with the solid evidence from the source text, you’ll be good.

#3 Write More Than One Page

The SAT graders do not explicitly state that an essay must be longer than one page. However, they imply it in The Official SAT Study Guide. When discussing their rationale behind assigning a score of 1 to a 120-word-long essay, they state that “the brief nature of the response” prevented them from grading it higher. They go so far as to call the essay an example of “inadequate writing.”

You will have four blank pages for your essay. Try to submit at least two pages.

#4 Read the Passage Objectively

Keep an objective frame of mind when reading the given passage. It is not a simple task, which calls for some practice. There is no better way to detach yourself from personal biases than to engage in the extensive reading of persuasive essays. This will allow you to focus on the structural elements of an argument rather than on its merit.

To practice withholding value judgments, read news articles and op-eds penned by people you disagree with. For example, if you are passionate about sports, try reading articles on the harms and perils of the youth obsession with sports. Then, record the central points and relevant details of the piece and try explaining their relationships while staying objective and impersonal.

Being able to express your understanding of a passage without showing your vehement disagreement with its thesis is key to crafting an effective SAT essay.

#5 Learn Persuasive Techniques

Once you know how to remove your personal feelings and biases from your writing, you should learn how to disassemble an argument. This can be successfully done by studying persuasive techniques commonly used to build arguments.

Some persuasive techniques are mentioned in an SAT prompt. For example:

As you read the passage below, consider how Orwell uses:

You can try your luck and write the test without knowing exact terms for persuasive devices. It is certainly possible to base your reasoning on specific details and examples garnered from the source text. However, it is much wiser to equip yourself with a solid knowledge of rhetorical tools.

After identifying an author’s key argument, I scan the text for hints and clues that can be used for deconstructing the supporting structure of the point. The following questions help me to progress toward this end:

Does the author bring statistics in their article? Do they rely on the use of personal anecdotes? Do they try to evoke emotions in their readers?

5 Strategies to Complete the Essay in 50 Minutes

You will have only 50 minutes to complete your essay, which means that you should have a smart strategy in place. Use this step-by-step guide to successfully finish the SAT essay.

#1 Answer the Prompt

Abstain from summarizing the provided passage. Nor should you simply list the persuasive devices you’ve managed to identify in the source text. Instead, analyze how an argument is made. According to The Official SAT Study Guide, your response should address “what the author does, why he or she does it, and what effect this is likely to have on readers.”

College graders also state that an essay that “merely asserts, rather than explains” importance of persuasive devices will be assigned a score of 2 or less. If you aim for at least 3 in Analysis, you should bring your own argument to the discussion.

#2 Back Your Claims with Evidence from the Text

To score highly on the Reading scale, make sure to provide a relevant quote from the text. Thus, you will show your comprehension of the text, without summarizing it. This will also indicate to the graders that you understand how the author’s argument is constructed.

Another approach to getting a high score in Reading is to paraphrase relevant parts of the author’s argument. If you opt for this strategy, be careful to properly relay the author’s language in your own words. Unlike the old SAT Essay, the new one has been designed to account for and penalize factual inaccuracies. This is why it is essential to stay faithful to the original text when paraphrasing it.

#3 Organize Your Essay

The SAT Essay grading rubric demands that a response shows a “deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay.”

The take-home point is that your essay should follow the standard structure, that is introduction, body, body, and conclusion. Four to five paragraph essay will look better organized, which will make it easier for the graders to follow the progression of your reasoning.

Don’t forget about transitions between sentences in your essay. They will improve the logical connections between sentences, thereby making the essay simpler to read.

Furthermore, you should also use transitions within paragraphs. This will emphasize the contrast or connection between different ideas and make it easier for the readers to understand your arguments.

#4 Allocate Your Time Properly

Control the pace of your work and allocate your time properly to finish the essay in 50 minutes. There are several steps you’ll need to take to write the essay:

When taking the test, time flies by awfully quick. If you linger on one step for too long, you won’t have a chance to go through other phases of the process. Therefore, plan ahead.

#5 Practice

Regular practice can considerably improve your writing and analytical skills.

Also, make sure to schedule regular practice sessions to hone your reading skills. It might take some time; however, the more you read, the better you get at reading, which helps to keep you motivated.

Being able to read quickly will provide you with extra time for comprehending the material and writing the essay. Plus, you will have the additional reward of being a fast reader in the future. What’s not to like about it?

Keep in mind that while it is okay to break down the reading and writing tasks during the initial practice sessions, eventually, you should learn to do the whole task in one sitting.

What is Next?

Put these tips into practice, and you will be surprised with your SAT scores!