Get That High SAT Essay Score With These Tips

You’ve decided to take the optional SAT Essay. You’re familiar with the essay’s format and instructions.

Now what does it take to get that high SAT Essay score?

The SAT Essay presents test-takers with a challenging task. Students must analyze an author’s argument and write a response that discusses the components of that argument.

AP English and SAT test prep students are at an advantage here. But keep in mind that the SAT Essay comes last, when students’ brains are already pretty tired! 

The good news? It is possible to achieve that amazing SAT essay score.

In this post, we’ll teach you how to use those 50 minutes to get closer to that perfect score.

Here’s what we cover:


The Anatomy of a Perfect SAT Essay

As a reminder, the SAT Essay requires students to read an argumentative essay and then analyze how the author uses various techniques to build his/her argument.  

It includes three parts:  SAT Essay Parts In our post The SAT Essay: What to Expect, we emphasize what SAT essay readers look for when grading student essays. You can find a detailed SAT essay rubric here.

What does a perfect SAT essay look like? 

Here’s a simple and effective skeleton structure that addresses all the key areas of the rubric.   SAT Essay Response Skeleton Structure

Notice how this skeleton structure looks a lot like a standard five-paragraph essay structure, commonly taught in high school.

Keep in mind, however, that on the SAT Essay, most students will likely only have time to compose two body paragraphs.  Plus, the introduction and conclusion paragraphs can consist of as few as two sentences.


Breakdown of a Perfect SAT Essay Response

Now, take a look at this SAT essay response that scored a 4 in each of the three categories: Analysis, Reading, and Writing. 

Notice how this response follows the skeleton structure we have just outlined.

The Prompt

Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved. In your essay, analyze how Bogard uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (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.

[Find the full reading selection for this task here.]

Introduction 

  • Sentence 1: Restates the argument
  • Sentence 2: Thesis statement with three argument techniques
In response to our world’s growing reliance on artificial light, writer Paul Bogard argues that natural darkness should be preserved in his article “Let There be dark”. He effectively builds his argument by using a personal anecdote, allusions to art and history, and rhetorical questions.

Body Paragraph 1

  • Sentence 1: Topic statement including argument technique and quote evidence of the technique
  • Sentence 2: Paraphrases quote and explain the effect on the audience
  • Sentence 3, 4: Continues to explain the effect of argument technique on the audience, the persuasive value of technique, and includes an additional quote reference
  • Sentence 5: Conclusion sentence
[1] Bogard starts his article off by recounting a personal story – a summer spent on a Minnesota lake where there was “woods so dark that [his] hands disappeared before [his] eyes.” [2] In telling this brief anecdote, Bogard challenges the audience to remember a time where they could fully amass themselves in natural darkness void of artificial light. [3] By drawing in his readers with a personal encounter about night darkness, the author means to establish the potential for beauty, glamour, and awe-inspiring mystery that genuine darkness can possess. [4] He builds his argument for the preservation of natural darkness by reminiscing for his readers a first-hand encounter that proves the “irreplaceable value of darkness.” [5] This anecdote provides a baseline of sorts for readers to find credence with the author’s claims.

Body Paragraph 2

  • Sentence 1: Topic statement includes argument type and includes two examples of the argument
  • Sentence 2,3,4: Explains the persuasive value of example 1 and effect on the audience
  • Sentence 5: Discusses example 2 and restates quote evidence
  • Sentence 6, 7, 8, 9: Paraphrases content relevant to example, explains the persuasive value of example 2, explains how the technique and example build the argument
[1] Bogard’s argument is also furthered by his use of allusion to art – Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” – and modern history – Paris’ reputation as “The City of Light”. [2] By first referencing “Starry Night”, a painting generally considered to be undoubtedly beautiful, Bogard establishes that the natural magnificence of stars in a dark sky is definite. [3] A world absent of excess artificial light could potentially hold the key to a grand, glorious night sky like Van Gogh’s according to the writer. [4] This urges the readers to weigh the disadvantages of our world consumed by unnatural, vapid lighting. [5] Furthermore, Bogard’s alludes to Paris as “the famed ‘city of light’”. [6] He then goes on to state how Paris has taken steps to exercise more sustainable lighting practices. [7] By doing this, Bogard creates a dichotomy between Paris’ traditionally alluded-to name and the reality of what Paris is becoming – no longer “the city of light”, but more so “the city of light…before 2 AM”. [8] This furthers his line of argumentation because it shows how steps can be and are being taken to preserve natural darkness. [9] It shows that even a city that is literally famous for being constantly lit can practically address light pollution in a manner that preserves the beauty of both the city itself and the universe as a whole.

Body Paragraph 3

  • Sentence 1: Topic statement includes an argument technique
  • Sentence 2: Includes quote that includes evidence of the technique in action
  • Sentence 3,4: Explains the persuasive value of example 1 and effect on the audience
  • Sentence 5: Emphasizes how technique builds the argument
[1] Finally, Bogard makes subtle yet efficient use of rhetorical questioning to persuade his audience that natural darkness preservation is essential. [2] He asks the readers to consider “what the vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?” in a way that brutally plays to each of our emotions. [3] By asking this question, Bogard draws out heartfelt ponderance from his readers about the affecting power of an untainted night sky. This rhetorical question tugs at the readers’ heartstrings; while the reader may have seen an unobscured night skyline before, the possibility that their child or grandchild will never get the chance sways them to see as Bogard sees. [4] This strategy is definitively an appeal to pathos, forcing the audience to directly face an emotionally-charged inquiry that will surely spur some kind of response. [5] By doing this, Bogard develops his argument, adding guttural power to the idea that the issue of maintaining natural darkness is relevant and multifaceted.

Conclusion

  • Sentence 1: Restates the argument
  • Sentence 2: Restates thesis statement with three argument techniques
Writing as a reaction to his disappointment that artificial light has largely permeated the presence of natural darkness, Paul Bogard argues that we must preserve true, unaffected darkness. He builds this claim by making use of a personal anecdote, allusions, and rhetorical questioning.

The College Board also has other sample responses to this prompt. We recommend viewing these as well.


Your Game Plan for Writing a Stellar SAT Essay

What steps can you take to get that perfect SAT essay score? Here’s your game plan!

Step 1: Read and Annotate (~ 3-5 minutes)

Read carefully and mark up your text before diving into your response. Underline the author’s central claim.  

Pay particular attention to the author’s argument techniques and make sure to underline evidence of these in action.

Step 2:  Make an Outline and Thesis Statement (~ 3-5 minutes)

Consider 2 or more key argument techniques, and connect these techniques to 

  • Specific examples from the text (IMPORTANT!)
  • The purpose and effect of these techniques on the audience (IMPORTANT!)

If you have done this step properly, your essay will almost write itself. You must also study and prepare argument strategies and purposes of these strategies before the test.  

In the next section, we will show you common argument strategies and their purposes.

Backup Thesis: If you are completely lost, you can almost always use this emergency thesis statement format:

In [essay], [author] uses a combination of evidence and emotional appeals to build his/her argument.

Step 3:  Write! (~ 35 minutes)

Follow a standard Intro + Body Paragraph + Conclusion model, using tips from our skeleton structure. 

We also recommend integrating advanced vocabulary and transition words (discussed later on in this post).

Step 4:  Revise! (~2-3 minutes)

Make sure to take a couple of minutes at the end to revise your essay for spelling, grammar, and, if possible, content.

You won’t be marked off for individual grammatical errors. However, if these errors impede the reader’s understanding of your response, you will lose points!


10 Argument Techniques to Use in Your Essay

The SAT Essay prompt ultimately tests students’ knowledge of argument techniques. These are the “building blocks” that make an argument compelling and persuasive.

We highly recommend you study commonly used argumentative /persuasive techniques and their purposes before you take the SAT Essay. 

Remember: a successful essay states the techniques used in the text and analyzes these techniques. It also thoroughly explains their impact on the reader.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a great start! Whenever you’re reading an article/essay with a main claim of any kind, see if you can detect these techniques in action.   

Strategy Purpose/Effect
Data / Evidence
  • Facts
  • Statistics
  • Quotations
  • experimental data
  • Examples
  • Lends credibility to an argument
  • Adds evidence to support a claim
  • Allows the audience to make conclusions on their own

Vivid language / Compelling Word Choice

  • Precisely chosen, powerful words
  • Evocative adjectives
  • Strong verbs
  • Emphasizes claim 
  • Appeals to the audience’s emotion(s)
  • Heightens the impact of words on the audience
  • Puts the reader in the author’s shoes and draws them into the passage
  • Makes the topic more interesting and engaging for the reader

Figurative language 

  • Metaphors
  • Similes
  • Personification
  • Anaphora
  • Hyperbole
  • Allusion
  • Engages the reader’s attention
  • Establishes connections between words and images in new and distinct ways
  • Engages the reader by making the topic more interesting
Appeal to emotion  (fear/pride/etc…)
  • Serves as an emotional call to action
  • Raises stakes of the argument
  • Effective persuasion often involves tapping into the emotions of those reading/listening!
Allusion (referring to a well-known story, event, person, object)
  • Makes a comparison in readers’ minds 
  • Can very efficiently and effectively connect the author’s idea to other familiar powerful ideas
Juxtaposition (contrast)
  • Uses contrast to heighten a claim’s emphasis
Anecdote/Story/Narrative
  • Appeals to emotion 
  • Engages the audience’s imagination and senses
  • Makes claim more relatable and interesting to the audience
  • Engages the audience’s empathy and understanding
Counterargument
  • Lends further credibility to the author
  • Addresses audience doubts using the author’s own reasoning
  • Makes the author seem more objective and trustworthy
Direct Address
  • Appeals to the reader
  • Perhaps offers a call to action
  • Heightens the impact of content through direct engagement
Explanation of Evidence
  • Walks readers through the reasoning process to help arrive at the author’s conclusion

Quick Tips to Improve Writing Quality

What are some other ways you can improve your SAT essay score?

We recommend using advanced vocabulary and transition words.

Transition Words 

Transition words show the relationship between ideas. They can improve the flow and organization of your essay. 

This chart shows transition words that connect similar, contrasting, and cause-and-effect ideas.  

Similar Contrast Cause and Effect

Also

And

Furthermore

In addition

Moreover

For example/instance

Essentially

In other words

Likewise 

Similarly

Previously

Subsequently

Finally

Although

Even so 

However

Instead

Meanwhile

Nevertheless

Nonetheless

Rather

Regardless

Still

Whereas

While

Yet

Alternately

Alternatively

By/In Contrast

On the contrary

On the other hand

Accordingly

As a result

Because

Consequently

So

Therefore


Doing so will impress your SAT essay reader and influence your writing score.

Advanced Word Choice

Another way to quickly improve your writing score is to arm yourself with a very specific set of strong vocabulary words and phrases before the essay.  

You should certainly keep working on building your overall vocabulary. A shortcut for the SAT Essay, however, is to build a strong vocabulary that is related to the specific writing task (analyzing an argument and its effectiveness) and prepare to use strong words and phrases on the essay.  

Here’s a sample set of effective essay words.

Vivid Cogent Synthesis Narrative
Evidence Meticulous Juxtapose Contrast
Credibility Precision Deliberate Pathos
Central Claim Subsequent Claim Cite Appeal
Call to Action Build Argument / Further Argument Refer Convey
Evince Manifest Communicate Exhibit
Rhetorical Efficacy Analytic Power Argumentative Technique Emotional Resonance
Motivates Inspires Emphasizes Support

Other writing tips that can improve your score:

  • Write legibly.
  • Write more than one page! Quality is always better than quantity, but your analysis should be substantial. 

Next Steps

The SAT Essay task may feel daunting, but now you have a range of strategies for improving your score. 

In addition to these strategies, we strongly recommend that students regularly practice SAT essay responses. Doing so with the help of a professional instructor can be particularly beneficial.

At Princeton Tutoring, our SAT tutors are at the ready to help students become more fluent in the SAT essay and raise their scores. 

Book your free consultation now!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. She is a Master tutor at Princeton Tutoring.