3 Essential Steps to Breaking Down the New SAT Essay

Posted by James Z. on 7/20/16 7:00 PM

There are many differences between the old and the new SAT. One of Cambridge Coaching's seasoned SAT tutors will walk you through the updates (and how they impact your test taking strategies!), while giving you step-by-step instructions on how to prepare for the new version of the test.


I. Getting your bearings: The timing and task of the new SAT Essay section

The task of the old SAT essay was to respond to a question: after picking a side (affirmation or negation) and developing a thesis, test-takers would need to come up with as much real or fictional evidence in support of their argument as they could in order to compose an essay supporting their position. Things are very different on the new SAT, but in a good way. Here are some of the basic changes:

Timing: The new SAT essay has a time limit of fifty minutes (up from twenty-five on the old exam). Owing to the additional time, students have four pages (up from two) on which to write their essay. But the increased time is not just for so that you can write more; it also reflects the updated task of the essay, which now includes a large reading component:

Task: Instead of asking students to adopt a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ position in response to a broad question, the new SAT offers a substantial reading passage with a clear argument. Students are asked to evaluate how the author of the passage uses a variety of resources (facts and evidence, reasoning, style) to make his or her argument more effective.

An important note: It is worth emphasizing that the essay on the SAT does not ask you to evaluate whether an author’s argument is right or wrong, or how it could have been argued better, or whether everybody would agree with it, or … you get the picture. What it asks instead is how the argument is made. You are tasked with analyzing the reasoning, the use of evidence, and the language in order to explain in your essay how the author uses writing to advocate for a particular position.

II. Strategies for starting off

Now let’s take a look at how to approach the SAT essay.

The first thing you’ll notice when you open the essay packet is the instructional box at the top of the first page. It always contains the same instructions:

“As you read the passage below, consider how [author name] uses:

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.”

These are all clear and helpful reminders, and will help guide you as you read through the passage. That brings us to the first step:

1) Read and annotate the passage

It’s very important that you not only read the passage closely, but also in an active and engaged way. Your goal is collect as many tidbits here and there that fit into one of the three categories above: 1) evidence, 2) reasoning, 3) stylistic or persuasive elements. These observations will form the basis of your essay.

As you annotate the passage, you should: underline; circle key words or concepts; write notes in the margins; label what kind of information you are marking (for example, ‘E’ for evidence, ‘R’ for reasoning, and so on); and anything else that will help you quickly find what you need to when you are later looking for quotations or sections to paraphrase.

Here are some tips on how to spot things that belong to those all-important “evidence,” “reasoning,” and “stylistic or persuasive elements” categories:

  • Evidence can include: facts, historical examples, personal anecdotes, scientific studies, literature, political circumstances, current events, and so on.
  • Reasoning can often be spotted by: logical connectors (for example, ‘therefore,’ ‘then,’ ‘as a consequence,’ ‘nevertheless,’ ‘in spite of,’ etc.), summarizing statements, rebuttals or replies to objections, and so on.
  • Stylistic or persuasive elements is a very broad category, but includes: word choice (common? uncommon? colloquial? scientific? etc.), sentence length and structure (long? short? what kind of punctuation? rhetorical question?), usage of metaphor and simile, repetition, and so on. Make a note of whatever kind of stylistic habits you see recurring.

2) Develop an outline

So now you’ve read the passage and are at the end of the passage. The box you see now (below the end of the passage) contains the prompt, and will always ask you to do the same thing:

“Write an essay in which you explain how [author name] builds an argument to persuade his audience that [author’s argument here]. In your essay, analyze how [author name] uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.”

But before you dive right into the essay, you will want to sketch an outline and use it to help you sort the evidence that you’ve gathered into a coherent framework. As you will have noticed, each paragraph or section of the passage is labeled with a number in the left-hand margin. You can begin to use these now to organize what kind of evidence you’ll pull from where. Later on, you can use these numbers when quoting or citing passages in the essay itself.

Although you are not responding directly to the author’s argument, you must still keep it in mind when addressing the prompt. It will help you to structure your essay if you briefly restate what the author is arguing for and what kind of objections could be raised against the issue. This can happen even before you start writing the outline—think of it as the brainstorming phase. Review the annotations you have made to the essay and try to reconstruct with simple notes for yourself its structure, its development, its strengths, and any of its distinctive elements. This ‘reconstruction’ will be the pattern for your essay, in which you will break down and explain to the reader how the argument is built and what kind of devices the author uses for that purpose.

Once you’ve reconstructed the author’s argument with shorthand notes or paraphrase, it needs to be broken into smaller, logically related chunks. These will become your paragraphs. You can think of your outline as a way of mentally and visually organizing these chunks. As you make the outline, you should also begin to be more precise about what evidence you will use at which stages in support of your essay. Flesh out the simple reconstruction you’ve come up with by looking again at your annotations and trying to assign whatever you’ve marked as important to different ‘stages’ or ‘aspects’ of the argument.

3) Write the essay

If you’ve successfully reconstructed the author’s argument to yourself and drawn up an outline that assigns the evidence to different parts, all you need to do now is execute. Turn each of the sub-divisions of your outline into a paragraph. Remember to quote specific examples and paraphrase abundantly from the passage to support your argument. In other words, intersperse your own ideas with examples and references to the passage that illustrate what you are trying to say.

There’s a lot to say about writing, but here are just a few things to strive for in your sentences and paragraphs:

  • Make sure that one sentence or paragraph always follows naturally from what comes before;
  • Aim for brevity, clarity, and concreteness in your writing;
  • Vary sentence length, structure, and vocabulary in order to make your writing more exciting and lively.

III. Next steps in preparing for the essay

I hope this brief introduction to the new SAT essay will get you oriented and give you some ideas about how to start. But it can be a big jump from general advice to actually picking out evidence, structuring the essay in an outline, and executing effectively. This is where your tutor will be able to help translate strategy into reality. And don’t forget the rule for everything test-prep-related: practice, practice, and more practice!

Are you interested in learning more test taking strategies for the SAT in a one-on-one setting?  

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Want to read more of our previous blog posts on SAT test preparation?  Be sure read the blogs below:

Score Choice, Superscore, and All Scores: Why You Should Care About the Difference

How to Score Perfectly on the SAT Essay

3 Tips For Cracking the SAT Essay Section

Tags: SAT