New SAT Essay Tips: Understanding the Test

These SAT essay tips help teens understand the brand-new SAT essay so they can write clear, well-developed analytical essays

For many students, the SAT exam is a rite of passage on the road to college. The newest version of the test, with a redesigned essay portion, debuted in March 2016. This article offers new SAT essay tips to help students prepare.

The essay portion is now optional, which may come as a delight to some high schoolers. Before deciding whether to opt out, though, be sure to see which of your prospective colleges recommend or require the SAT essay. (A partial list of college and university policies can be found here.)

What is the SAT?

Offered seven times per year, the SAT is the college entrance exam of choice for over a million students annually. Many high schoolers take the test once in the spring of their junior year and again in the fall of their senior year. At the official website, you will find online registration (including helpful registration hints for homeschoolers) and a policy guide with test-day checklist. (For instance, no cell phones or smartwatches are allowed.)

To familiarize yourself with the SAT format, take a practice test well in advance. The Princeton Review suggests taking these practice tests seriously: time yourself, take short breaks between sections, and don’t even think about stopping for lunch!

How the SAT Essay is Scored 

The essay portion of the SAT is scored on a scale of 1-4 in each of three areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Two readers will assign independent scores to your essay for a combined score of 2 to 8 for each of the three elements. The essay will not contribute to your overall SAT score; instead, it will be reported separately. Familiarize yourself with the official scoring guidelines and sample essays.

All the directions and strategies boil down to one thing: the new SAT essay is an analytical essay. You must carefully read the text provided and craft an argument based on evidence in the passage using solid reasoning skills. The best scores will reflect several essay components:

  • understanding of English grammar
  • variety of sentence structures
  • well-rounded vocabulary (no weak words)
  • focused and coherent main thought
  • organized progression of ideas (the 5-paragraph essay format usually works best)

Use Your Time Well

If you do register for the essay portion, plan on a 50- minute writing segment in addition to the three-hour core exam. The test materials include one page of blank space to “plan” your essay. Don’t get bogged down with full sentences while brainstorming. Just outline your thesis, along with two or three main points (body paragraphs) in a logical order.

You will be instructed to analyze the author’s use of facts, examples, and stylistic or persuasive elements, so construct your outline around a combination of these three. Jot down a few key words for the conclusion, then quickly move on to the actual essay writing. (By the way, this is also excellent practice for essay exams in college!)

Length alone will not guarantee a good score; however, a quick perusal of sample essays confirms that high-scoring SAT essays are long. Fill the space in your answer booklet, and flesh out each paragraph with plenty of analysis in your own words—painfully long quotations from the source text will not impress your test graders.

Know Your Audience

The SAT is prepared by an organization called the College Board. Here’s what you need to know about them:

  • They are predictable. The essay prompt will always be the same—only the source material you read and analyze will change.
  • They want the SAT essay to mimic a typical college writing assignment. They expect you to prove yourself as a skilled reader and mature writer; thus, avoidable errors of fact or interpretation will be counted against you.
  • They are looking for “formal style” and “objective tone.” This is not a persuasive or argumentative essay, so don’t write about how you agree or disagree with the passage in question. The Princeton Review wisely advises skipping the words “I” and “you” altogether.

Collectively, the individuals who grade SAT essays must read an estimated 2 million essays per year. Write with these readers in mind.

  • They are paid to read your entire essay, so you’re not obligated to “hook” or entertain them. This isn’t the time to be cute or witty.
  • They read quickly and assign scores based on a first general impression. Write a simple and direct thesis statement so your essay will be easy to follow.
  • They are probably tired, so make sure your essay is clear and highly readable. Keep the flow of ideas clean, and make paragraph indentations obvious.

When it comes to preparing for timed essay tests, the best advice is to start early. WriteShop II teaches many essential skills for timed essays in 9th and 10th grade. In addition, other extra-curricular activities and habits can encourage college-level vocabulary, speed writing, and persuasive arguments. Next week, I’ll share SAT essay tips and ideas for developing these abilities at home.

Read Part 2 here: SAT Essay Tips | Ways to Practice SAT Prompts at Home

Looking for a great roundup of resources to help high school students plan and prepare for the SAT? Check out SmartScholar’s comprehensive SAT Prep Resource Guide.

Daniella Dautrich is a daydreaming writer, occasional blogger, and confirmed bibliophile. As a WriteShop alumna, she looks forward to using the WriteShop program with her own little ones.

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