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Tips for Writing the SAT Essay

You’re here, no doubt, so you can ace the SAT essay. Your mind is made up; you’ll do literally anything to earn that perfect score. You’ll denounce the adorable Betty White. You’ll write a defense of that really bad Independence Day sequel. You’ll happily write whatever drivel they want. All you need to know is what they’re looking for.

So what is that, exactly?

To answer this question, it’s helpful to think like the test-maker. And that requires a quick history lesson.

The SAT essay used to be a persuasive essay. They gave you a prompt, and you had to write an impassioned essay taking a side. To help make your case, you had to cite evidence and reasoning to support your answer, all in 25 minutes.

What was wrong with this approach, you ask? The problem is that students did one of two things: 1) they panicked, because they needed outside knowledge or experience; or 2) they simply made up their evidence. “Studies have shown that 96% of kindergartners hate lemurs.” Or, “I know about nuclear proliferation because I survived the a-bomb.” Since the SAT readers couldn’t fact check the essays, such “facts” were perfectly admissible. Over the years, it got a little silly.

So the SAT did a total 180. Now, the SAT essay is 100% analytical. You’re given a text, and you have 50 minutes to analyze how the author built his or her argument. They want to see your critical thinking, even if it’s the sort of critical thinking that only exists in school and has no real-world application.

Basically, they want to know if you have the skills to write a college-level paper.

So, the bad news is the essay got even more boring.

But the good news is you don’t have to worry about pulling evidence (real or fake) out of thin air. Everything you need is right there on the page. When I used to teach the old essay, coming up with good evidence was almost always the hardest part for students. If you’ve been paying attention in English class, this will be a breeze.

(Here’s an official video from the College Board explaining the Redesigned SAT essay. Warning: it’s about as exciting as a root canal.)

Understanding the Scoring

The SAT Essay isn’t factored into your score out of 1600. It’s a totally separate score. Once you decide to take the SAT Essay, it will always be reported with your test score, meaning you can’t opt to withhold your Essay score from the rest of the score report. And did you know? For every score you report, colleges can actually view your essay online. The College Board gives admissions officers institutional access codes. Welcome to the 21st century.

So while it’s hard to imagine every overworked admissions officer logging in to read every applicant’s essay, your SAT Essay is more visible to colleges than it was in my day…back when we had to chisel our essays on clay tablets.

So how is your essay scored? You’re going to be given scores in three categories: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Each reader will give you between 1 and 4 points in each category, and two readers will read your essay. So that’s a total of 8 points you can earn for each area. It’s probably smart to check out the specific language in the rubric for yourself.

Truthfully, these sorts of rubrics make my eyes roll because there’s so much crossover. Can you imagine an essay that “makes skillful use of textual evidence” (that’s the Reading score) but fails to offer “insightful analysis of the source text” (that’s the Analysis score)? Somewhere, a trained SAT reader is screaming, “No, they’re totally different.”

Whatever. But we should probably take a closer look at these categories anyway.

Reading

How do they evaluate your reading abilities? Obviously, they’re not going to plant a camera in the test room and watch you read the passage (at least, I hope not). Rather, it’s your job to show that you’ve read the passage. SAT graders want to see “an understanding of the text’s central idea,” which means you should talk about the author’s main point. They also want to hear about “the most important details and how they interrelate.” That means you need to talk about the flow of the ideas. There are good ways and bad ways to do this, and we’ll talk about them in a bit. And it goes without saying that you need to cite “textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both).”

Analysis

It isn’t enough to show you understood what you read. You need to offer an “evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements.” In other words, talk about how the author makes their point. This is probably the most tedious part of the essay, but it must be done. You’ll make it easier on yourself (and you’ll get a better score) if you can use the language of analysis, which we’ll talk about below.

Writing

You know the standard intro-body-conclusion format you’ve been taught for years? That’s exactly what they want to see: “a skillful introduction and conclusion.” And you’d better have “a precise central claim,” which is code for thesis. And your body paragraphs can’t be random; they need to show “a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay.” So that’s at the structural level, but your prose matter, too: “wide variety in sentence structures,” “precise word choice,” “formal style and objective tone,” “virtually free of errors.” There’s nothing fancy here. You’ve been practicing your whole school career for this.

So what can you do to ace the Redesigned SAT essay?

Read the Passage Twice

Obviously, you need to read the passage. But before you start breaking it down and analyzing it, just read it through. Let it form an impression. Maybe it makes you feel patriotic. Or sad, or angry, or scared. Maybe you believe what the speaker is telling you. Maybe you’re suspicious.

Once you’ve finished, ask yourself some basic questions. Did you like it? Did you hate it? What was your favorite part? What was your least favorite part? Were you moved or touched? Were you persuaded?

Once you have an impression, then go back and read it a second time. Now you’re ready to analyze. Break it down and figure out the tools the author used.

Pay Attention to Beginnings and Endings

The framing of a story has a huge effect on how we remember it. The Wizard of Oz is really different when told from the perspective of the witch or the tinman. So look carefully at how the text begins and ends.

Does the speaker establish a tone at the start? Are any themes introduced? Is the beginning energetic and bombastic, or is it a slow approach? Is this a story with heroes and villains?

Does the ending issue a call to action? Does it return to any previously-established themes? Does it try to unite the audience, or does it create an us-versus-them distinction?

Arm Yourself with Literary Buzzwords

Literary buzzwords add some serious wow-factor to your essays. They show the reader you’re smart, you care, and you’re thinking analytically. So on your second read-through, start marking up the text. Make annotations in the margins, using the words below. Do you see the words “like” or “as” anywhere? Maybe those are similes. Spot any unusual words? Those might be imagery, or symbols, or figurative language. Does any phrase appear more than once? That’s repetition! Get it?

Bottom line, these words are like weapons. Using them correctly will give you major street cred with SAT graders.

Allusion
Anecdote
Ambiguity
Catharsis
Characterization
Conflict
Context
Dichotomy
Diction
Double Meaning
Ethos/Pathos/Logos
Evidence
Imagery
Juxtaposition
Logic
Metaphor
Motif
Repetition
Simile
Structure
Subtext
Symbolism
Theme
Tone

Eventually, you’ll be able to construct smart-sounding sentences like this:

“When Churchill characterizes America as ‘the New World’ and juxtaposes her to the European ‘old’ world, he alludes to the common heritage of both.”

Again, it all starts with marking up the text, just like you would for a passage analysis assignment in school. Here’s how this might look…

Plan Your Essay

When the clock starts, you’re going to feel the urge to start writing.

Don’t.

Make an outline first.

Or at least something resembling it. It doesn’t have to be something you’d show your teacher. Just make a list of points you want to make. Let that list serve as a rough guide for the topic sentences of each of your paragraphs. Come up with a thesis statement to pull it all together. Doing so now will save you much erasing and gnashing of teeth.

Remember, good structure counts. Your topic sentences, generally speaking, should hearken back to your thesis. It’s easy to forget the whole if you don’t have a basic blueprint. If you plan your essay, you won’t run off the rails.

Don’t Go Paragraph By Paragraph!

Some students analyze the passage paragraph-by-paragraph, moving through the passage from top to bottom. “Paragraph One says…Paragraph Two says…”

This is a sure way to get a low score.

You need to make an argument. An argument is more than a series of observations. An argument actually builds toward something. Analyze and synthesize, young grasshopper.

Making an argument is sort of like telling a story. You have to combine all these different elements into one, unified narrative. Imagine that the speaker is the hero of a story. They have a goal, and everything they do is about accomplishing that goal. Your argument is basically a statement about a) what they do; and b) why they do it.

Take a look at all your observations about the text. Then think about the speaker, the audience, the occasion. Why did the speaker make these choices? What’s the intent? If you can fit that succinctly into one sentence, that’s your thesis.

Crafting a unified argument is all about the thesis.

For the SAT essay, your thesis should be a global claim that helps to illuminate the whole passage. It may seem unnatural. It may be awkward to write. If it feels weird or forced, you’re not alone. As guru Erica Meltzer has said, the SAT Essay is weird: “almost never will [students] spend an entire assignment focusing exclusively on the manner in which someone else presents an argument.” But that’s exactly what they’re asking you to do. So, with that said, just take the plunge.

“Citing historical events and using language of continuity, Churchill appeals to the listener’s sense of duty in defending England from invasion.”

It may not be creative, but it gets the job done, and it’s a great way to launch into your body paragraphs.

Without a unifying idea, the paragraph-by-paragraph method will leave you with a bunch of loose strands, leading nowhere. Instead, think of your paragraphs as a series of branches all growing out of your thesis. Every paragraph you write should be about growing the thesis, exploring it, explaining it, and—most especially—demonstrating it.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying it’s bad to pull evidence from every paragraph; drawing evidence from throughout the essay is a great idea. It shows you’re taking the whole into account, and it will keep your scope from getting too narrow. Just make sure the ideas (device, theme, purpose) come first.

Write a Solid Intro

A solid intro needs a solid thesis. And really, that’s the main event.

But wait! Your intro needs more than just a thesis. You need to provide some context first. You might tell us who the author is and what she or he is trying to do. Above all, you need to convince the reader you actually care (even though you don’t).

“In his speech dated 4 June 1940, Winston Churchill spells out England’s preparations for the coming invasion of the German military during World War II. Apart from these practical matters, however, the speech is also meant to inspire the British Parliament to do everything possible to aid the effort. [NOW the thesis!] Citing historical events and using language of continuity, Churchill appeals to the listener’s sense of duty in defending England from invasion.”

You needn’t know anything about the text beyond what they give you. But if you do know something, feel free to throw it in.

“It is considered one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century.”

This draws in the reader, and it shows you care.

Get Specific in your Supporting Paragraphs

So now you’re into the body paragraphs, which are all about finding supporting evidence and offering your analysis. Good analysis requires specific details. Don’t just say, “Churchill uses repetition.” So what? Get specific! Tell your reader what is repeated, and why.

“Churchill repeats the phrase ‘We shall fight’ to affirm his country’s resolve to resist the Nazi invasion.”

Notice how that was more specific? Notice how we’ve also inferred a why—a purpose? The purpose—the effect on the reader—is the entire point.

Take Your Conclusion A Step Beyond

Lots of conclusions simply restate the ideas already discussed. Restating is fine to do, but it misses an opportunity. The conclusion is your closing argument; it’s your chance to appeal to the reader’s emotions.

“Churchill, facing the onslaught of war, utilizes pathos to evoke a love of country, steeling his people for the task ahead.”

Mixing good observation with vivid language will take your conclusion to the next level.

Embrace the BS

Sometimes, you’ll find yourself making claims that seem a bit far-fetched. You can’t really know for sure what the author was thinking. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; calling it something else might seem like BS. But cast your doubts aside. Embrace the BS. As Harry Bauld has said, when BS reaches a certain (very high) level, it is called thinking, and when it finds a voice, it is called literature.

With regard to Adolf Hitler’s plans for conquering English, Winston Churchill remarked:

“We are told Herr Hitler has a plan for the invasion of England. This has often been thought of before.”

These sentences makes use of the passive voice. “This has…been thought of.” It’s dismissive, like Churchill doesn’t think much of Hitler and his great plan, or anyone else’s plans to overtake his country. Now, did Churchill really make a conscious decision to use the passive voice here? Maybe. Maybe not. But go for it. It’s a cool insight, and it shows you’re thinking.

“Churchill uses the passive voice to show his contempt for Hitler’s invasion plan, dismissing it as unoriginal and, perhaps, subject to the same fate as other English enemies from history.”

Nice!

(But don’t get silly. “Poe puts a space between his words to symbolize the abyss in his heart.” Come on, brah.)

Know Your Audience

Each reader will spend approximately 1 minute reading your essay. That’s it. So for goodness sake, don’t labor over every word. You may very well be destined for a life of literary greatness, and future scholars may someday fight to the death over the hidden meanings of your mysterious prose. But for this essay, keep it simple. Use plain language that’s easy to understand at a read speed of 500 words a minute.

But that doesn’t give you license to write poorly, either! Too many short, choppy sentences will break the reader’s flow. Even worse, if your run-on sentences are so convoluted the reader can’t remember what you were trying to say, you’ll definitely lose points. Good writing still counts, so think about the purpose of each sentence before you put pen to paper.

I’m an Advice Junkie. Give me more!

Definitely read some sample essays. The College Board has some on their website (link below). And I’m not the first to write about the SAT Essay, so I’ve posted links to some other advice articles.

And of course, North Avenue is a great test-prep resource for Portland-area families. So drop us a line. We’d love to help.

Resources
College Board: Sample SAT Essays
US News & World Report: 3 Steps for Writing a Strong SAT Essay
Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005.
Erica Meltzer on the SAT Essay

Archive

(Not so) Big Changes Ahead for ACT this Fall

Those of us in the test prep world have been tracking proposed changes to the ACT – set to release this fall of 2015 – for over a year now. ACT has been somewhat close-handed about these changes, aside from the occasional marketing-driven burst of info around the migration to online ACT testing or the reinvention of the ACT Writing component (otherwise known as the Essay).

It’s important to contextualize these changes amidst the SAT overhaul (announced March 2014). In fact, judging by the copy on ACT’s website, the fall 2015 ACT mini-redesign looks like a direct response to the new SAT. See for yourself:

ACT test modifications website screenshot.

Now, when the ACT says “clients,” it means colleges and universities – not students and their families, despite the fact that this latter group are the ACT’s direct customers (because they pay ACT directly for the test). ACT’s primary concern is to stay relevant in the world of college-readiness assessment in the eyes of major institutions with entire departments (called “admissions”) organized around the task of assessing college readiness in potential students.

Thus, it should be no surprise that students have been the last to discover the changes to the ACT. Most of our ACT students learned about the upcoming changes either from us or from an email to Sept. 12th ACT test-takers sent by ACT just two weeks ago.

So what should ACT students know about these changes?

In addition to the gradual rollout of online testing, there are three important alterations to ALL upcoming ACT test dates that students should be aware of:

1. ENHANCED ACT WRITING PROMPT

The ACT Writing essay, its optional status already disposing it to higher-scoring students only, will now be 40 minutes (versus 30 minutes, as in the past) and will require the student to articulate his or her position on an issue vis-a-vis three other perspectives. What’s interesting about these perspectives is not only that they represent authentic positions individuals in the public sphere might actually hold; they also occupy overlapping positions in the sample “debate space,” often talking past each other in noncompeting terms. The idea is to simulate realistic dialogue on issues of general social import (versus teenager-only import, as in past ACT Writing prompts), the kind of dialogue students are likely to have on a college campus – either in a university seminar or simply at the dining hall.

Here’s a look at the official sample prompt ACT has released on their website:

New ACT Writing Essay prompt - and the best tips and tricks for scoring high!

Furthermore, the new-and-improved ACT Writing prompts will be scored in four (newish) subcategories:

  • Ideas and Analysis (in brief, does the student articulate his or her position clearly and effectively?)
  • Development and Support (does the student provide evidence to back up their claims?)
  • Organization (do the ideas flow logically and naturally?); and
  • Language Use and Conventions (are there any major grammatical or spelling errors to distract the reader?)

Each grader will give the student a score out of 6, to be averaged into a composite score and added to the other grader’s composite score. (Read more about the new scoring rubric here and a sample perfect score essay response here.)

So the new prompts will have nearly the same scoring system, and the Writing component remains separate from the overall Composite score (average of four test scores). But the tactics needed to excel on the ACT Writing have now gotten a little more sophisticated – and exciting!

2. INCLUSION OF PAIRED READING PASSAGES

The ACT Reading also seems to be incorporating the “paired passage” format of SAT and PSAT fame more consistently. We’ve observed the Passage A // Passage B format in both Humanities and Social Studies genres – equipped with question groups that ask about one perspective, the other, or common themes.

The test makers prize this format because it simulates a task college students frequently perform: reading intertextually. Perhaps you’re an English major comparing Shakespeare commentaries, or a biology major navigating multiple perspectives on the evolution of predatory eels. In both scenarios, students need to read critically and make inferences about what one author might say about another.

The best preparation for this passage format is multi-layered independent reading. To this end, we’ve frequently craft reading lists for our students on topics they are passionate about and invested in – whether that be computer games or global politics.

Lean into the reading process independently or with a tutor and you’ll be ready to encounter this activity on test day!

3. REDISTRIBUTED SCIENCE PASSAGE FORMATS

The ACT Science section is mediated by three fundamentally distinct passage formats – each intended to assess a discrete skill associated with science coursework in college or performing research in science careers. Until this fall, it has been relatively straightforward to assess which passage format a given passage fits into, thereby unlocking the “hidden” assessment features of the passage and allowing the student to quickly navigate those features.

However, it seems the ACT has reconsidered the breakdown of passage formats: ACT has released revised percentage breakdowns on their website, indicating they see the formats as more fluid than they had previously indicated in their Real ACT Prep Guide (2nd Ed., released 2011).

What does this change mean for students?

Some students might not have even noticed that these passages were governed by such strict guidelines; but this is standardized testing, and learning the standardizations is a large part of beating the test. If anything, this change means that students will need to learn the new standards governing these ACT Science passages – or develop the hard skills those standardizations are designed to assess.

MISCELLANEOUS CHANGES TO SCORE REPORTS

There are a few additional changes that will minimally affect students taking the ACT. These consist mainly of added subscores to the ACT Score Report, including:

  • a combined English/Language Arts (ELA) subscore;
  • a Science, Engineering, Technology, and Mathematics (STEM) subscore;
  • a Text Complexity Progress subscore; and
  • a Progress Toward Career Readiness subscore.

Here’s a sneak peek at these subscores a sample new ACT Score Report:

New ACT Score Report – this will help facilitate more effective test prep by Portland tutors

In our view, the ACT has done an insufficient job explaining precisely how they calculate these subscores as well as if they actually provide any additional information – let alone any additional predictability of future performance – than the current scores.

That said, they might help tutors and test prep professionals direct students to either ACT or SAT prep, given the rollout of similarly “rich” score reporting by the redesigned SAT in Spring 2016.

The takeaway: both ACT and SAT are in constant cycles of change, both in order to compete with each other and to keep abreast of the latest consensus around career and college readiness. That doesn’t mean they are going away anytime soon, but it does mean that your average high schooler will need to be aware of the ways in which their coursework and/or independent study life could be disposing them toward one test or the other.

The good news? We’re on it.

If you’re interested in discussing either the ACT prep process test or discovering which test is ideal for you, contact us to schedule a free consultation. For more college prep tips and techniques, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletter.