The SAT Essay

Dear students,

 

Below I have laid out everything you need to know about the SAT essay, step by step.

 

At the bottom there are instructions for an activity/assignment. Unless I sent you here to do that activity, you don't have to do it. But it can't hurt! If you do it, try to complete it all in one sitting if possible. Read everything carefully and don't skip any steps. There's a reason why I want you to do it this exact order.

If you're not here to do the activity, I probably sent you here to view the outline. You should still carefully read the whole page. Lots of useful information here.

-Alex

 

Know what to expect of the prompt.

  • You will be given a passage related to history or literature (American most likely). You will not need any special background knowledge, but a general/vague idea of US history certainly won't hurt.

  • The passage will be argumentative (meaning the speaker/author is trying to persuade the audience of something, as opposed to inform or tell a story).

  • You will be asked to analyze and explain how the author/speaker builds an effective argument.

  • Your own opinion on the issue at hand will not be relevant.

  • You will have 50 minutes to read the passage, plan the essay, and write the essay. There's no separate reading/prep time.

  • The essay will not affect your verbal score (and thus most colleges aren't gonna care much about it). It will be a separate score from 3 to 12 and it breaks down like this:

  • 4 points - Reading (did you understand what you read, or were you in outer space?)

  • 4 points - Analysis (did you interpret the passage and prompt correctly?)

  • 4 points - Writing (grammar and style)

It's useful to know some terminology here.

 

Specifically, you'll want to know your rhetorical strategies -- elements the speaker uses to make his point. You should already be aware of a lot of this stuff. You do not need to memorize this verbatim. However, you should know the five red ones because they are very useful. Those can be applied to pretty much anything. 

  • Allegory

    • A story that represents an idea ("Boy Who Cried Wolf" isn't really about a boy and a wolf - it's an allegory meant to teach the reader a lesson).

  • Allusion

    • A reference to literature, film, art, etc.

  • Analogy

    • A comparison used to prove a point​

  • Anecdote

    • A short personal story

  • Appeal to emotion

    • Using language meant to make the reader emotional (think Donald Trump: "America doesn't win anymore. We're going to make America great again!")

  • Appeal to authority

    • Stating that someone famous/well-respected/important agrees with me. ("None other than Abraham Lincoln believed that....")​

  • Comparison

    • This one is kind of self-explanatory

  • Diction 

    • This just means word choice. It can be used for literally any prompt.

  • Imagery

    • Language that appeals to the five senses, most commonly vision ("For purple mountain majesties, for amber waves of grain"). Can be used for pretty much any prompt.​

  • Hard facts

    • Irrefutably true statements ("the North American Buffalo is extinct") or data from a credible source ("According to the National Center for Healthcare Policy, 11% of Americans didn't have health insurance for all of part of the year 2015.")

  • Hyperbole

    • Exaggeration

  • Logic/reason

    • Making an argument by appealing to reason ("If countries with higher literacy rates tend to be wealthier, it stands to reason that education is correlated with prosperity.")​

  • Metaphor

    • A comparison that doesn't use "like" or "as" ("Romeo is the East and Juliet is the sun!")

  • Repetition

    • Self-explanatory

  • Symbolism

    • Using a symbol to represent an idea (white dove = peace; rose = love; etc.)

  • Many, many more options​​

 

Now that you know all that, let's look at a real prompt.

 

Read this.

 

Know how to structure any SAT essay.

 

Below is the five-paragraph structure that I believe will give you the best chance of getting a good score. This is not officially required and no structure will be given to you as part of the prompt.

  • Paragraph 1. Introduction

    • Introduce the speaker/author and the topic he/she is talking about

    • State what the speaker is arguing for

    • Thesis statement: state three strategies the speaker uses to build his/her argument.

  • Paragraph 2. Strategy one

    • State one of the rhetorical strategies used by the speaker.

    • Give an example from the passage, preferably by using a direct quote.

    • Explain what the author is trying to say.

    • Explain how this example strengthens the author's argument.

    • Repeat the above three steps with an additional quote, if you can find one.

  • Paragraph 3. Strategy two

    • Repeat above with another rhetorical strategy used by the author.

  • Paragraph 4. Strategy three

    • Repeat again.

  • Paragraph 5. Conclusion

    • Restate what the speaker is arguing for.

    • Restate thesis statement from introduction in a slightly different way.

Here's the College Board's official example of a perfect essay for the prompt you just read.

 

     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.

     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.” 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. 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. 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.” This anecdote provides a baseline of sorts for readers to find credence with the author’s claims.

     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”. 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. 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. This urges the readers to weigh the disadvantages of our world consumed by unnatural, vapid lighting. Furthermore, Bogard’s alludes to Paris as “the famed ‘city of light’”. He then goes on to state how Paris has taken steps to exercise more sustainable lighting practices. 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 moreso “the city of light…before 2 AM”. This furthers his line of argumentation because it shows how steps can be and are being taken to preserve natural darkness. 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.

     Finally, Bogard makes subtle yet efficient use of rhetorical questioning to persuade his audience that natural darkness preservation is essential. 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. 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. 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. By doing this, Bogard develops his argument, adding gutthral power to the idea that the issue of maintaining natural darkness is relevant and multifaceted.​

     Writing as a reaction to his disappointment that artificial light has largely permeated the prescence 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.

Note that the above essay really isn't that great and even has some spelling and grammar errors. So don't be scared! It is, however, important to be aware that in reality, a College Board grader may regard this essay as too short. They won't admit it, but studies have consistently shown that standardized test essay scores depend much more on length and neatness than they do on quality of content. More on that later.​

 

Now, let's put that essay in the context of our cookie-cutter structure. It fits fairly well.

  • Paragraph 1. Introduction

    • Introduce the speaker/author and the topic he/she is talking about

    • In response to our world’s growing reliance on artificial light, writer Paul Bogard...

    • State what the speaker is arguing for

      • ...argues that natural darkness should be preserved...

    • Thesis statement: give three strategies the speaker uses to build an effective argument.

      • He effectively builds his argument by using a personal anecdote, allusions to art and history, and rhetorical questions.

  • Paragraph 2. Strategy one: personal anecdote

    • State one of the rhetorical strategies used by the speaker.

      • Bogard starts his article off by recounting a personal story...

    • Give an example from the passage, preferably by using a direct quote.

      • ... a summer spent on a Minnesota lake where there was “woods so dark that [his] hands disappeared before [his] eyes.” 

    • Explain what the author is trying to say.

      • 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.

    • Explain how the example strengthens the author's argument.

      • By drawing in his readers with a personal encounter about night darkness... 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.” This anecdote provides a baseline of sorts for readers to find credence with the author’s claims.

    • Repeat the above three steps with an additional quote, if you can find one and only if you think you have enough time.

      • no additional example given

  • Paragraph 3. Strategy two: allusions to art and history

    • State another of the rhetorical strategies used by the speaker.

      • Bogard’s argument is also furthered by his use of allusion to art...

    • Give an example from the passage, preferably by using a direct quote.

      • ...Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” ... 

    • Explain what the author is trying to say.

      • ...a painting generally considered to be undoubtedly beautiful, Bogard establishes that the natural magnificence of stars in a dark sky is definite. 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.

    • Explain how the example strengthens the author's argument.

      •  This urges the readers to weigh the disadvantages of our world consumed by unnatural, vapid lighting. 

    • Repeat the above three steps with an additional example, if you can find one and only if you think you have enough time.

      • Furthermore, Bogard’s alludes to Paris as “the famed ‘city of light’”. He then goes on to state how Paris has taken steps to exercise more sustainable lighting practices. 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 moreso “the city of light…before 2 AM”. This furthers his line of argumentation because it shows how steps can be and are being taken to preserve natural darkness. 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.

  • Paragraph 4. Strategy three: rhetorical questions

    • State the third rhetorical strategy used by the speaker.

      • Finally, Bogard makes subtle yet efficient use of rhetorical questioning to persuade his audience that natural darkness preservation is essential.

    • Give an example from the passage, preferably by using a direct quote.

      • 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.

    • Explain what the author is trying to say.

      • By asking this question, Bogard draws out heartfelt ponderance from his readers about the affecting power of an untainted night sky. 

    • Explain how the example strengthens the author's argument.

      • 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. 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. By doing this, Bogard develops his argument, adding gutthral power to the idea that the issue of maintaining natural darkness is relevant and multifaceted.

    • Repeat the above three steps with an additional example, if you can find one and only if you think you have enough time.

      • no additional example given

  • Paragraph 5. Conclusion

    • Restate what the speaker is arguing for.

      • 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. 

    • Restate thesis statement from introduction in a slightly different way.

      • He builds this claim by making use of a personal anecdote, allusions, and rhetorical questioning.

 

Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. It's simpler.

The outline is the substantive part of my advice. It would be the only advice you would need if the College Board actually judged these essays by their own rules and examples.

 

Unfortunately, they don't. We consistently find that students' scores are less dependent on having a good, substantive essay, and more dependent on length and neatness. This is bad real-world writing advice. But for this purpose, it works well. So...

 

Five cardinal rules of standardized test essays:

1. Finish your essay.​

2. Write as much as you can ​

3. Split your essay into five organized, discernible paragraphs

    (as per the suggested structure above).​

4. Write neatly.​

5. Demonstrate that you understood the prompt.

An organized, structured, and sufficiently long essay should score at least an 8, which is what you need to avoid sending any red flags to your colleges. Scores above that are too subjective to systematically guarantee, but what you've read here will help you increase your likelihood of achieving a 10 or even a 12.​

Now practice.

Okay, so now you know everything you need to write your own essay. We're going to use a different prompt, and you'll see that you will be able to apply the exact same structure. Here is the prompt. Don't read it just yet. Print it if you can, or keep it open in your browser.

 

Get a piece of lined paper and a pencil. This is what you're gonna have to do on the real thing, so might as well do it now too. (By the way, if you write this in pen on the SAT, you'll get a zero. Don't even bring a pen to the SAT!)

 

Keep the above outline open as a guide. Start a timer for 50 minutes. Plan your essay for about 5-10 minutes (you will be given paper for planning on the real thing), then write it. If you cannot finish in the 50 minutes, mark the point where you ran out of time and finish the essay anyway.

 

And when you're done, don't forget that what you just had to do is formulaic, boring writing! Don't write essays like this in real life - this is just for standardized tests.

Good luck!

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