Update on the new SAT: Navigating the Essay

Part IV of our series on the Redesigned SAT, this post clarifies how the now optional Essay section is changing on the upcoming Redesigned SAT. For a broad picture of general changes to the test, see Part I here.

Every year the landscape of college admissions continues to morph, mostly ascending with spikes of competition, and thus standardized testing continues to adapt. With great excitement and anxiety regarding the release of the newly redesigned SAT also comes the grain of faith that this test will do a better job than ever before at gauging a student’s readiness for college and his/her caliber of creative thought. And of all the overhauls to the redesigned SAT, which will take effect as soon as fall of 2016, the essay has changed the most. Students who are taking the redesigned test will not only be met with a differently formatted essay, but also have the option, for the first time, of sitting for the essay or not.

This rather fundamental change — the mandatory nature of the essay — is the most significant. The optional status of the essay now allows for a greater implementation in test-taking strategy: those who have suffered previously, anchored by less-than-satisfactory scores on the essay, will now have the option of alleviating themselves of this burden. Those test-takers who have used the essay to the benefit of their overall score can continue to take advantage of this (somewhat bolstered) component of the test. Still, it is a favorable option to many top-tier schools to see that a test-taker decides to rise to the challenge of the essay, and is able to demonstrate his/her advanced competency of analytic thinking.

The Details

What was once a simple subjectively-calibrated assignment has evolved into a more technical grappling partner. Preparation for the SAT essay in the past seemed to necessitate knowledge of a canon of literature and social motifs in American history. And appropriately so: essay prompts tended to explicitly ask test-takers to draw from knowledge of outside sources and past readings, which could all help color in the impression of the writer’s mastery of a high school curriculum. But, from here on out, students will be met with an essay designed to measure analytic thinking ability and tactful writing, one which has moved away from a heavy reliance on outside texts. See page 80 of this PDF for more by the College Board on the importance of argumentation versus summary.

At its core, the new essay is an analysis. The source material of the essay — which was once just an excerpt and prompt — is now comprised of a long (six or seven paragraph) passage that presents nuanced views on a complex subject, and is meant to engage in contemporary ideas, debates and trends.

This beta-type test is meant to gauge students’ ability to comprehend an appropriately challenging source text and craft an effective analysis — one which not only engages with the author’s point of view, but also demonstrates the student’s ability to be an evaluator, rather than a simple commentator. The workload of this essay has increased, but with the intention of allowing a student to demonstrate a greater bandwidth of creative thought.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes to the essay format, therefore, is the added time. The time limit has actually been doubled — from 25 to 50 minutes. With these amount of time, therefore, the College Board is expecting to read responses to essay prompts that are well-organized, thorough, artful in composure, and most importantly, demonstrate a “thorough comprehension” of the source text (you can find the exact rubric for scoring here).

The fodder for the new SAT is didactic, complex, and written by authorities — one can expect to read excerpts from sources such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and scholarly sources. Thus, students are expected to read not only with an eye for superficial elements — dialogue, imagery, irony — but also with an eye for finer elements of craft, especially point of view and tone. It is critical that a test-taker can parse out information from these complex passages, passages of a caliber of difficulty that may be beyond what they are accustomed to on the Reading portion of the test. Students might be met with a first paragraph such as:

A Strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously, the interest young Americans showed in the arts—and especially literature—actually diminished.

These prompts are driven by the chosen “source text,” which the College Board specifies will be drawn from pieces “written for a broad audience.” The set of instructions will be formulated in the exact same manner — only the source text will change from test to test. More sample essay prompts can be found here, and see below for the stock instructions.

Sample Instructions for new SAT Writing prompt.

Indeed, this newly redesigned SAT, rather than simply analyzing a student’s capacity to act as a reservoir of vocabulary, gauges his/her readiness for college, and his/her rhetorical competencies — which, arguably, will be of infinitely more use than knowing the word lugubrious as a college freshman. The College Board states that students should center their discussion on elements that are most “salient” to the passages being presented. The passage’s saliency (a solid College Board vocab word in itself!) refers to the fact that certain components of the passage — and all writing — are weighted more heavily than others, and thus, as a competent thinker, a test taker should be able fluidly write about the elements of the passage closest to the central claim and give attention to supporting details, but without getting lost in the minutiae of less relevant, or less salient, information.

Thus, preparing for this new SAT essay requires a great deal more active practice with scholarly sources. In many ways, it is more difficult to bolster one’s ability to write analytically, a task that will be somewhat improvisatory on test day, but just like all the other elements of test-prep, writing is only made better through practice!

A test-taker should continue to read the same scholarly sources he/she might already be reading for class, homework, and test-prep, but now with a greater focus on some of the rubric elements provided by the College Board (see above link). As an exercise, try to read a long article from a recent edition of a reputable paper. Quickly outline the author’s MAIN argument. Then outline which details support the argument (salient), and which are ineffective at doing that. Furthermore, some good questions to answer after reading:

  • What is the author’s tone (scientific, cynical, pensive, passionate, etc.)?
  • What is the author’s motive and/or background?
  • Does the author use language that matches his/her tone?
  • Which parts of the passage are most salient to the author’s argument?
  • Does the author present sufficient evidence to make a sound argument?
  • What is the blend of hard evidence versus commentary within the piece?

A test-taker’s essay should not explain whether or not he/she agrees with the author’s claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument for his/ her audience. Keep in mind, a test-taker’s opinion of the passage and whether or not he/she agrees with the author is NOT relevant. When practicing with scholarly sources, a it may be useful to sift through material that is as far away from your area of interest as possible! That means, if you are a staunch democrat, choose an editorial by a staunch conservative, and see how well you can handle analyzing the author’s argument without letting personal bias interfere.

It may be a relief to many test-takers that the essay of the new SAT is now optional, and for many others, this thicker, more argumentative prompt might just be a more enjoyable hurdle to clear. Now, college-caliber essay writing is being prompted by a clearly simulated challenge, and it is up to the test-taker to rise to the occasion — to demonstrate that great writing is not always inextricably tied to one’s bias or point of view!

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