2 Ways to Structure Your SAT Essay


One of the most important components of a successful SAT essay–one that scores a perfect 8 on all three areas (Reading, Writing, and Analysis)–is organization. Yet students often take organization for granted and don’t put much thought into how they’re going to communicate their ideas. There’s no right or wrong organizing principle for an SAT essay, but the two structures I’ll discuss here are easy to master have produced tried-and-true results for students on their quest to a perfect SAT essay score.


Do I Have Time to Plan My Essay’s Structure?


The SAT essay task is 50 minutes long, during which time you’ll be responsible for reading an article or essay by an author, combing through that artlcle or essay with an eye toward the rhetorical devices and persuasive techniques the author employs, and writing a well-structured, thoughtful essay analyzing how the author builds his or her argument. Though 50 minutes may seem like a generous time limit in comparison to the ACT’s 40-minute time limit, most students who hope to score a perfect 8 on the SAT essay will likely find themselves needing every second of that precious 50 minutes. In order to free up the greatest possible amount of time to actually write your essay, you shouldn’t spend 30 minutes planning your essay. The goal behind this article is to review two common and useful SAT essay structures that, once memorized, should feel intuitive to you, and consequently will make structuring your essay second nature.


SAT Essay Structure 1: 3 Types of Persuasion


The first way to structure your SAT essay goes like this:

Your first paragraph should contain an introduction in which we learn 1) the author of the piece you’re analyzing, 2) what his or her argument is, and 3) the three types of rhetorical devices and persuasive techniques you’ll be analyzing. Be sure to list the rhetorical devices and persuasive techniques you select in the order that you’ll be discussing them. If you write your introductory paragraph correctly, the effect will be that you’ll essentially be previewing your essay structure for the reader.

Your second paragraph will begin with a topic sentence that establishes which rhetorical device or persuasive technique you’ve selected to analyze first. In subsequent sentences within the second paragraph, you can quote specific examples of the rhetorical device or persuasive technique. You’ll then analyze and unpack the example you’ll chosen, explaining its effect on the reader. It isn’t good enough to say it’s persuasive, that is. You need to make explicit how and why it’s persuasive. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. What might the reader think, feel, assume, or conclude, either consciously or unconsciously, as a consequence of this persuasive technique or rhetorical device? Be certain to have a healthy balance of quotation and analysis. No one wants to read an essay that’s 99% quotations. A good rule of thumb might be that for every sentence that contains a quote, you’ll want twice the amount of your own material to follow. Students’ biggest weakness on the SAT essay is failing to push their analysis far enough. Simply recognizing persuasion isn’t enough. You must, must, must offer compelling and incisive analysis, the more sophisticated the better.

Your third paragraph will do the same as your second paragraph, except it will discuss examples of the second rhetorical device or persuasive technique you’ve chosen. It’s important to mention that rhetorical devices and persuasive techniques can come from anywhere in the source text. You can organize your examples for Devices 1, 2, and 3 chronologically or in order of importance if you choose. Remember that the governing principle for this organizational structure, however, is to limit your focus to one type of device per paragraph at a time.

Your fourth paragraph will do the same as your previous two paragraphs, only it will incorporate and analyzes examples of the third rhetorical device or persuasive technique you’ve chosen to analyze.

Finally, your fifth paragraph will be dedicated to your conclusion. In your conclusion, briefly recap the three kinds of rhetorical devices and persuasive techniques you’ve analyzed, and end by reasserting how compelling (or not) the author’s argument is. If there are other persuasive techniques, rhetorical devices, or stylistic elements you noticed but did not analyze, you could also mention that fact in your conclusion. Doing so will indicate that you were aware of other elements that were ripe for analysis but instead limited your discussion to the most salient or most prevalent devices, techniques, and strategies.


SAT Essay Structure 2: Offering a Close Reading


The second SAT essay structure involves offering a “reading” of the text. To use this structure, you’ll want to identify three or so dominant types of rhetorical devices, persuasive techniques, and stylistic elements to mention in your introduction, but you’ll also want to make clear in your introduction that you’re going to give a moment by moment, paragraph by paragraph, chronological reading of the piece. Structuring your essay in this manner takes even less work than the previous method, but (paradoxically) it’s best suited for more advanced readers and writers, because it involves making moment by moment judgments on what to analyze and what to say about it and requires greater skill at connecting ideas with transitions. Even the best critics can’t completely exhaust all of the possibilities for analysis in a text, so it’s important not to try to cover everything. Instead, offer your best commentary on the author’s best persuasive moments.

Structuring your essay in this way might look something like this:

In your first paragraph, identify the author’s name and the title of his or her piece and paraphrase his or her argument. Then state that you’ll be offering a reading of the essay focused on (but not limited to) X, Y, and Z.

In your second paragraph, discuss the author’s first paragraph or first few paragraphs. Imagine that you’re a commentator, telling the audience what the author is saying and doing and WHY it’s clever and effective. “So and so begins by establishing a strong formal tone, taking on a solemn register with words like A, B, and C. The effect of this tone is such-and-such, making the reader feel such-and-such. Next, the author appeals to logos, citing D, allowing the reader to conclude such-and-such. Doing so is a particularly brilliant move on the part of the author because of such-and-such” And so on.

In your third paragraph, offer a moment by moment recap and commentary on the persuasive tactics the author uses in the second paragraph or set of paragraphs, again focusing on the author’s best and most persuasive moments. Be sure you’re connecting your ideas with transition words and phrases. Since you’re offering a chronological reading, words like “next,” “then,” “after which,” “having established x,” “follows up with,” “juxtaposes,” and so on will help orient the reader of your essay and convince him or her that you’ve got a good sense of how the author’s argument unfolds.

In your fourth paragraph, analyze the author’s third paragraph or set of paragraphs.

Let your fifth paragraph be your conclusion, in which you restate the main persuasive elements you analyzed and assert how and why the author has crafted a compelling argument.


Which Structure is Right for You?


Either structure, when done well, will lay the groundwork for a successful SAT essay–perhaps even one that gets you the highest score of 8. In general, though, I recommend most students use the first structure, as it’s easier to avoid rambling with a narrowed focus. Students who are talented writers and enjoy diving right into analysis will probably excel at the second structure as well.


* * *


That’s it! For more SAT essay advice, as well as a wealth of SAT and ACT prep tips, check out the rest of our blog. Looking for 1-on-1 ACT or SAT prep tutoring? Want to join an SAT or ACT group class? Contact us today!


Share This