The SAT Essay: What to Expect

The SAT Essay is the fifth and final section of the new SAT.  It is optional, however.

Numerous elite institutions–including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and Brown–do not require prospective students to submit the SAT Essay with their applications.

That being said, there may be some merit to taking the SAT Essay, especially for students seeking that competitive edge in college admissions.

Students who elect to take the SAT Essay have quite a task in front of them. The new SAT essay prompt is starkly different from its predecessor.

Rather than analyzing a social issue, students must scrutinize an author’s argument. The prompt itself has very specific guidelines students must follow closely in order to achieve a high score.

What is the SAT Essay all about? What can you expect on Test Day?

In this post, we address the following:


The SAT Essay: The Basics

The SAT Essay requires students to read a source text and then analyze how the author uses various techniques to build his/her argument.   

Students have 50 minutes to analyze the text and formulate their response.  The SAT Essay includes 3 main parts: 

SAT Essay Parts

Part 1: The Reading Prompt 

Every single SAT Essay reading prompt has the same structure. 

The general format looks like this:

SAT Essay Reading Prompt

 

 

 

 

 

The only thing that changes on each reading prompt is the author name.  Below are two examples of reading prompts from Official SAT Practice Test Essays (author names bolded for emphasis).    

SAT Practice Test 1 Essay Prompt

SAT Practice Test 2 Essay Reading Prompt

Part 2: Reading Selection

The source text (650-750 words long) always contains a key argument. The writing prompt will actually specify this argument.

Source texts for the SAT Essay will be similar to passages on the Evidence-Based Reading test of the SAT, with the exception that Essay passages are often far more opinionated.

It’s not uncommon, for example, for speeches to appear in this section. The same goes for editorials, opinion pieces, and the like. These selections can be from any time period, so be prepared to navigate both contemporary and non-contemporary language.

Here is an excerpt from the source text for the essay portion of SAT Official Practice Test 1: 

SAT Essay Reading Task 1
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

[Here’s the full passage and prompt.

Part 3: Essay Instructions 

Every SAT Essay writing prompt has the same format. The general format looks like this:  

SAT Essay Instructions

The only thing in the prompt that changes from test to test is the author’s name and the main argument.   

Here are the writing prompts from the first two official practice SATs from the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide.

Example: Official SAT Practice Test 1 Essay Writing Prompt

SAT Essay Instructions - Practice Test 1

Example: Official SAT Practice Test 2 Essay Writing Prompt 

SAT Essay Instructions - Practice Test 2

While Part 2, the reading selection, will change on every test, the prompt and writing instructions (Part 1 and Part 3) will remain the same.

Your Essay’s Objective 

Your objective is always to write an essay in which you analyze how an author builds his/her argument.  Students should not state their personal opinions about the argument.

Essays should strictly concern the argument itself and its specific building blocks.

As you can see in the sample writing prompts provided in this article, the SAT does provide some examples of these “argument building blocks:” word choice, style, and tone.

Yet these are not the only building blocks or rhetorical devices students should be on the lookout for. There are countless others, including imagery, figurative language, emotional appeals, statistics, and repetition. (The list goes on!)


Common Challenges 

Writing the SAT essay is an extremely specific task.  Many students struggle with the SAT essay because they have limited experience identifying and analyzing argumentative strategies. 

Some may not have studied rhetorical devices in high school. This is especially the case for students who have not yet taken an AP-level English course.

What’s more, the SAT essay is the final section of the exam. Students must first wade through three hours of intense Verbal and Math work before getting to the Essay itself. Fatigue alone can make this section challenging!

The good news is that a training program can help you dramatically improve your SAT Essay scores. With guided mentorship, students can hone their abilities to analyze arguments and write persuasively about rhetorical strategies.

But first, it’s essential to understand the components of SAT Essay scoring–namely, what those essay readers are looking for in high scoring essays.


Scoring Components

Essays are scored by two readers.  Each reader gives a score ranging from 1 to 4 in three major areas: 

  • Reading 
  • Analysis
  • Writing 

The final score sums both reader’s scores for each category. There is no composite (total) score for the SAT Essay.  The best possible score you can receive is:  

  • Reading: 8 
  • Analysis: 8 
  • Writing: 8 

Scoring Standards 

In school, teachers use their own standards to grade student writing. 

While one teacher may factor grammar mistakes heavily into grading, another teacher may base grades mostly on logic and structure. Others may even give students large boosts based on effort. 

The SAT Essay is scored by readers who are trained to score your essay in a very specific (standardized!) way.

The College Board contracts an outside company (Pearson) to provide extensive training to SAT Essay readers to make sure all the readers are consistent in the scoring.  They even make the readers take a test to make sure they understand the scoring guideline!

The College Board even supports the usage of an “SAT Essay-bot” to help students prepare for the essay.  Through Khan Academy, which has partnered with the College Board, students can draft essay responses, which are then assessed by computer systems. 

SAT Essay Bot

Think about this. The College Board thinks a well-programmed computer can do a decent job of grading student essays.   

All of this is good news!

If we can understand how SAT readers are trained to score the test and if we can understand how the SAT Essay-bot is programmed to grade essays, we can write an essay that satisfies all their guidelines for a high scoring essay.  

So, how is the essay scored?  

It’s all about the rubric. 

SAT readers rely on the SAT Essay rubric as their main guide to score student essays.  An artfully crafted, insightful essay that doesn’t satisfy the regimented scoring rubric guidelines will not score as well as a bland essay that checks off all the boxes for a high scoring essay on the essay reader’s scoring rubric.    


The SAT Essay Rubric

You can find the full SAT Essay rubric here

For now, we’ll focus on the rubric’s specifications for the highest score (4) of each section: Reading, Writing, and Analysis.

Reading

Here are the full guidelines for a score of 4 on the Reading section: 

SAT Essay: Reading Score of 4
Source: The College Board

The source text will always have a main argument and a series of supporting arguments. These arguments will have supporting examples or evidence. 

In order to achieve thorough comprehension of the source text, you’ll have to do the following:

  • Identify the main argument
  • Identify the supporting arguments
  • Identify the evidence for the arguments and understand how they work to advance the argument

Remember: the ultimate focus of your essay is about analyzing the author’s argumentative techniques, NOT analyzing the author’s argument itself.    

Focus solely on the facts and points explicitly stated in the text. Avoid making any assumptions related to the text or its argument.  

Students must also include short, direct quotes from the text to prove thorough comprehension of the source text. 

A good strategy is to use direct quotes from the text that demonstrate that author’s use of a specific argumentative technique. Then, explain the meaning and argumentative purpose of the quote.  

Analysis

The analytical task for the SAT Essay is to 

  • Explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his audience of his/her argument.
  • Analyze how the author uses specific writing techniques to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his/her argument.  

To achieve a 4 in this category, students must accomplish the following:

SAT Essay: Analysis Score of 4
Source: The College Board

Make sure to explicitly identify analytical techniques (ideally the most impactful ones) and their purpose/effect on the reader’s audience.

We recommend that students study common argumentative techniques and their purposes before going into the essay.  

The “claims” and “points” that you make in your essay will be the argumentative techniques used by the authors. This means that the “strategically chosen support” will be evidence of those points being made. 

Ideally, the evidence will include key quotes and paraphrases demonstrating the argumentative technique. 

Note the overlap with the reading score rubric point:  Makes skillful use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating a complete understanding of the source text.” If you can use relevant textual evidence to:

  • support your claim about the author’s effective use of a specific argumentative technique 
  • explain how this argument technique helps build the author’s overall point and purpose

you can achieve both a high reading and writing score.

Many students score a 3 instead of a 4 on this section because the SAT readers feel that their analysis of the persuasive technique is not sufficiently thorough. 

We recommend you use one sentence to identify the technique and provide evidence of the technique in action. To get a 4 on the essay, you should use 2 or 3 sentences to analyze the technique.

As you write your essay, you should mostly focus on the main argument of the passage, the argumentative techniques used by the authors, and evidence to show the techniques in action.  

Writing

An SAT essay with a Writing score of 4 accomplishes all of the following:

SAT Essay: Writing Score of 4
Source: The College Board

A ‘cohesive’ essay is organized in such a way that the individual parts of the essay all work together to support the big-picture purpose of the essay.

If you use a well-constructed four or five paragraph structure, you can satisfy all of the above points.

  • An introductory paragraph to ‘hook’ the reader and state your main claim
  • 2-3 body paragraphs with topic sentences, supporting examples, and conclusion sentences 
  • A conclusion paragraph that restates your main claim

Students must use proper grammar when writing their essays. They should also prioritize using advanced vocabulary when possible. Incorporate a wide variety of sentence structures by varying shorter sentences and longer sentences.  


Next Steps

By now, you should have a strong understanding of what to expect on the SAT essay and know how to analyze the rubric in order to maximize subscores in reading, analysis, and writing. 

What happens next?

Practice, Practice, Practice.

The best way to inch closer to that high SAT essay score is to practice writing timed essays! 

Visit Khan Academy’s SAT Practice section. Try a practice essay there and use their “essay-bot” to see a score. 

Remember: the SAT Essay is the fifth section of the SAT. Test fatigue alone can be standing between you and a high score. Practice writing essays at the end of full-length practice tests to truly build stamina.

Read examples of essay responses.

In this post, we’ve thoroughly discussed the SAT essay rubric’s requirements for high-scoring essays.

To get a further glimpse at stellar (and not so stellar) essay responses, visit the College Board’s website.

Study argument techniques and rhetorical devices. 

The SAT Essay primarily tests students’ abilities to identify and analyze argumentative techniques and rhetorical devices.

If these are unfamiliar to you in any way, it’s vital to start building your knowledge now.

Know what it takes to get a high score.

Lastly, there are plenty of other tips out there for getting that high score on your SAT Essay. 

One of these includes working with an SAT Essay instructor. With guided mentorship, students can boost their essay fluency in a short amount of time.

Learn more about our SAT programs here!


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.