How to Tackle the New SAT Essay Question

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

The new SAT features only one question that requires you to place words on paper — the essay — and that question is optional. You can add 50 minutes to the end of your SAT morning by writing the essay, which is the last section of the exam, or you can go home. By the way, most likely the words really will go on paper.

The College Board is slowly — very slowly! — implementing computer-based testing, but the vast majority of test-takers will work without a screen or keyboard.

If you generally do well on in-class writing assignments, you should probably take a crack at the SAT essay. If you freeze when you’re given a timed essay, consider opting out. Check with your English teacher, if you have one who knows you fairly well, for advice. Also check with colleges that are your top choices. Will they look at your essay score?

Many admissions officers saw the old SAT essay as a waste of time because it asked test-takers simply to take a position on a random topic. Some SAT-takers wrote and memorized essays in advance, filled with “evidence” they’d made up to fit their views, and then transcribed the previously written work onto the answer sheet. The graders weren’t permitted to downgrade the essay score because of obvious factual errors.

The new essay section may be more popular with admissions offices because it’s passage-based.

Every essay on the redesigned SAT has the same prompt, or question, which you can study in advance. The only variable is the passage, 650 to 750 words that make an argument for a particular point of view. In this section, you take a close look at the standard prompt and then find guidelines for the best approach to analyzing the passage. This section also explains an efficient and effective process for writing an essay expressing your ideas.

The prompt you see when you take the SAT will resemble the following, with the real name of the writer taking the place of “Author” and briefly summarizing the author’s point in the blank:

As you read the passage, consider how Author uses the following:

  • Evidence such as facts or examples to support Author’s ideas

  • Logic to develop the argument and link claims and supporting evidence

  • Style choices — appeals to emotion, figurative language, word choice, and so forth — to add to the persuasive power of the argument

Write an essay in which you explain how Author constructs an argument to persuade the reader that ____________________. In your essay, discuss how Author uses one or more of the elements of style listed above, or other elements, to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of Author’s argument. Focus on the most important features of the passage. Do not explain whether you agree or disagree with Author’s ideas. Instead, concentrate on how Author builds a persuasive case.

To summarize: The prompt tells you that your job is to analyze the author’s argument and, most important, to discuss the writing techniques the author employs to convince readers of his or her point of view.