Annotating the SAT Essay Prompt


As an SAT prep tutor, I’m often asked how students can maximize their chances of getting a good essay score, and one of the top tips I give is for students to make efficient use of the 50 minutes allotted to them to complete the essay. Perhaps the most important work is done when reading the prompt. If you read with your pencil ready to annotate examples of rhetorical devices and persuasive techniques, you’ll have a ready-to-use list of examples and quotes to analyze when you actually write the essay.


Many students don’t exactly know what to look for when they’re annotating, however. That’s why I’ve prepared a sample SAT Essay Prompt with my own annotations to give you some inspiration!


Example of SAT Essay Prompt Annotation


The following excerpt is from the official SAT practice test #1 by the College Board. You’ll notice, by the end of this example, that pretty much every sentence contains an analytical goldmine that’s yours for the taking! Annotations are my own:


Adapted from former US President Jimmy Carter, Foreword to
Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, A Photographic Journey
Subhankar Banerjee. ©2003 by Subhankar Banerjee.


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stands alone as America’s last truly great
wilderness. This magnificent area is as vast as it is wild, from the windswept coastal
plain where polar bears and caribou give birth, to the towering Brooks Range where
Dall sheep cling to cliffs and wolves howl in the midnight sun.


“America’s last” — sense of urgency
“great,” “magnificent,” “vast” — superlative adjectives building up the status of the Refuge
“polar bears and caribou give birth” — introduction of animal life, introduction of the theme of birth/creation/futurity
“towering Brooks Range” — imagery
“Dall sheep cling to cliffs” — alliteration, imagery
“wolve howl” — imagery
“midnight sun” — almost a paradox, establishing the Refuge as an otherworldly/magical place


More than a decade ago, [my wife] Rosalynn and I had the fortunate opportunity to
camp and hike in these regions of the Arctic Refuge. During bright July days, we
walked along ancient caribou trails and studied the brilliant mosaic of wildflowers,
mosses, and lichens that hugged the tundra. There was a timeless quality about this
great land. As the never-setting sun circled above the horizon, we watched muskox,
those shaggy survivors of the Ice Age, lumber along braided rivers that meander
toward the Beaufort Sea.


“Rosalynn and I” — introducing a personal anecdote, giving credence to Carter’s claims
“ancient caribou trails” — establishes the idea that the Refuge is ancient (and therefore should endure)
“brilliant mosaic of wildflowers” — bright imagery, visionary beauty
“hugged the tundra” — personification, almost as though the plant life is alive and capable of love and affection for the land
“a timeless quality” — again the idea of infinity and timelessness. Soon we will learn this “timeless” land is under threat
“never-setting sun” — another image of infinity
“shaggy survivors of the Ice Age” — another image of endurance through the years. Will the Refuge endure?
“braided rivers that meander” — more imagery, more personification, river as a living thing


One of the most unforgettable and humbling experiences of our lives occurred on the
coastal plain. We had hoped to see caribou during our trip, but to our amazement, we
witnessed the migration of tens of thousands of caribou with their newborn calves. In
a matter of a few minutes, the sweep of tundra before us became flooded with life,
with the sounds of grunting animals and clicking hooves filling the air. The dramatic
procession of the Porcupine caribou herd was a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife spectacle.
We understand firsthand why some have described this special birthplace as
“America’s Serengeti.”


“unforgettable and humbling” — indicative of life-changing/transcendent experience prompted by the Refuge
“amazement” — again, awe, transcendence; the Refuge is awe-inspiring
“the migration of tens of thousands of caribou with their newborn calves” — anecdote, place of animal life, birth imagery
“flooded with life” — flood imagery is often destructive in nature but here Carter inverts it and makes it creative in nature; birth imagery
“sounds of grunting animals and clicking hooves” — imagery
“a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife spectacle” — superlative language
“special birthplace” — again establishing the Refuge as a place of life (under threat!)


Standing on the coastal plain, I was saddened to think of the tragedy that might occur
if this great wilderness was consumed by a web of roads and pipelines, drilling rigs
and industrial facilities. Such proposed developments would forever destroy the
wilderness character of America’s only Arctic Refuge and disturb countless numbers
of animals that depend on this northernmost terrestrial ecosystem.


“saddened to think of the tragedy” — Carter shows his own empathy and we might empathize with him
“consuming by a web of roads and pipelines” — imagery of devouring and decay to contrast with images of life/beauty
“destroy the wilderness character” — not only will it destroy the wilderness but also the wilderness CHARACTER; it’s destroying not only the Refuge but the IDEA of the Refuge as a place of wild and free life and beauty
“disturb countless numbers of animals” — drilling will displace and destroy animal life
“northernmost terrestrial ecosystem” — biology/environmental science language


The extraordinary wilderness and wildlife values of the Arctic Refuge have long been
recognized by both Republican and Democratic presidents. In 1960, President
Dwight D. Eisenhower established the original 8.9 million-acre Arctic National
Wildlife Range to preserve its unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.
Twenty years later, I signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act,
monumental legislation that safeguarded more than 100 million acres of national
parks, refuges, and forests in Alaska. This law specifically created the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge, doubled the size of the former range, and restricted development in
areas that are clearly incompatible with oil exploration.


“both Republican and Democratic” — not a partisan issue; appeal to both sides of the political spectrum
“I signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act” — ETHOS; Carter, a Democrat, has experience with this topic; so does Eisenhower, a Republican
Since I left office, there have been repeated proposals to open the Arctic Refuge
coastal plain to oil drilling. Those attempts have failed because of tremendous
opposition by the American people, including the Gwich’in Athabascan Indians of
Alaska and Canada, indigenous people whose culture has depended on the Porcupine
caribou herd for thousands of years. Having visited many aboriginal peoples around
the world, I can empathize with the Gwich’ins’ struggle to safeguard one of their
precious human rights.


“opposition by the American people” — if the audience is American they’ll want to jump on the bandwagon here
“the Gwich’in Athabascan Indians of Alaska and Canada, indigenous people” — not just animals or land that’s under threat here but also human beings. Invoking indigenous people will likely cause the audience to remember we have a long history of abusing such people
“I can empathize” — pathos; audience likely to empathize as well
“precious human rights” — the history of America is one long human rights struggle; all humans have felt disempowered at some point and we will empathize with this political buzzword


We must look beyond the alleged benefits of a short-term economic gain and focus
on what is really at stake. At best, the Arctic Refuge might provide 1 to 2 percent of
the oil our country consumes each day. We can easily conserve more than that
amount by driving more fuel-efficient vehicles. Instead of tearing open the heart of
our greatest refuge, we should use our resources more wisely.


“At best, the Arctic Refuge might provide 1 to 2 percent of the oil our country consumes each day” — Logos, statistics; even if you don’t love the land or the animals or the indigenous people, if all you’re focused on is oil and profits, there are more efficient ways to get oil and better ways to make a profit in the future, for the future will be one of sustainability and renewable resources

“tearing open the heart” — shocking and violent imagery, personification of the Refuge as a living being
“we should use our resources more wisely” — the implication is that to drill in the Arctic or to support drilling makes you a fool


There are few places on earth as wild and free as the Arctic Refuge. It is a symbol of
our national heritage, a remnant of frontier America that our first settlers once called
wilderness. Little of that precious wilderness remains.


“few places on earth as wild and free” — emphasizing rarity and again superlative adjectives of wilderness and freedom as opposed to the “web of roads and pipelines”
“a symbol of our national heritage” — elevating the Refuge to symbolic status; it is not just a place but an IDEA and to destroy it is to attack our own nation’s history and tradition


It will be a grand triumph for America if we can preserve the Arctic Refuge in its
pure, untrammeled state. To leave this extraordinary land alone would be the greatest
gift we could pass on to future generations.


“pure, untrammeled state” — image of purity juxtaposed with images of corruption; obviously pure is preferable to corrupt
“pass on to future generations” — more images of birth, futurity, the circle of life, etc. A selfless appeal to the future


What to Do After Annotating


As you can see, pretty much every paragraph contains plenty of stuff you can analyze. Once you’ve underlined the interesting bits, ask yourself what the most prevalent tactics the author uses are, and structure your essay around those! You can either a) devote one paragraph to each type of rhetorical device or persuasive tactic or b) offer a line by line, paragraph by paragraph reading of the article.


Hopefully this helps!

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