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Are you taking the SAT Essay soon? Need a bit of advice, or a better score than last time? Well, you’re in the right place! Read on to learn the top SAT Essay tips from a perfect-scoring veteran SAT tutor…
What is the SAT Essay?
The SAT Essay is an “optional” 50-minute writing test, given at the end of the SAT.
You’ll be provided with a reading assignment written by an author who is trying to argue for (or against) some specific topic of interest.
Your task is “rhetorical analysis.” That’s not the same as “agreeing or disagreeing” with the passage. No, it’s about asking “how did the author make their argument persuasive for their audience?”
You’ll be given up to four pages of space to write your response. Once you turn the essay in, you’ll be graded by two human graders (the only part of the SAT test that isn’t graded by computer).
Each essay grader will give you three subscores: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. To get a perfect score on the SAT Essay, you’ll need a 4 on each of the three subsections from both graders. It’s a difficult feat that some SAT tutors have compared to “getting an A+ on the same essay from two different English teachers.”
As you can see, it’s no simple matter to just walk into the SAT Essay and get a great score. Preparation is mandatory. So let’s get into five of my best SAT Essay tips!
1) Understand the SAT Essay Assignment in Advance.
The first and possibly most important of my SAT Essay tips is this: understand every detail of the SAT Essay assignment before the day of the test. You need to understand your essay task and the grading rubric - and you need to acquire this knowledge far before you’re actually tested.
If you’re trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do on the day of the SAT, it’s going to cost you a lot of wasted time. What’s worse, in your haste you will make critical mistakes on the essay task you’ve been given.
To be honest, the SAT Essay isn’t exactly the clearest writing assignment in high school - at least, the first time you try it. Want proof? The national average for the “Analysis” subscore is actually a full point below where it should be. That’s because of how many students simply don’t understand the analytical task they’re required to accomplish for this essay.
It doesn’t matter how good your writing is if it’s not answering the correct question, and that’s the reason so many students lose points on their SAT Essay through lack of preparation.
How can you be sure you understand the assignment clearly? I’d highly recommend our Complete SAT & ACT Essay Course as the perfect time to invest your time. Or, you can study on your own from the Official SAT Study Guide combined with the internet (YouTube, Google, and popular test prep blogs are good places to find more information.)
2) Practice SAT-Style Rhetorical Analysis.
The second of my SAT Essay tips is to master “rhetorical analysis,” which is at the heart of your assignment.
The SAT Essay is all about “rhetorical analysis,” which is a little different from most essays you write in high school. The majority of your essays in school are usually “summarizing” or “persuading” essays. But “rhetorical analysis” is something completely different.
What is rhetorical analysis, exactly? Well, it’s the art and science of analyzing how someone’s argument is built. What parts of the argument are effective? Which parts are stronger and weaker, and why? Does the author use evidence, reasoning, style, and persuasion to effectively change the mind of her reader?
In fact, I’ve just given you the exact list of focal points the SAT Essay expects you to cover in your rhetorical analysis:
- Stylistic Elements
- Persuasive Elements
To master all four of these elements and get a great score on your SAT Essay, I recommend grabbing your own copy of our Complete SAT & ACT Essay course. You’ll get a perfect-scoring veteran tutor’s insights into all four of those elements in detail.
Rhetorical analysis requires you to attend a bit less to what the author is saying, and bit more to how they are saying it. If you try to go on mental autopilot and re-write the same standard essay you use for all your other high school essays… let’s just say, it won’t go very well.
3) Take Targeted Notes as You Read.
Now let me share one of my most useful SAT Essay tips on note-taking and symbol usage.
You know in advance that you’ll need to comment on the four rhetorical elements listed above. And, we don’t have a ton of spare time to work on our essay. Plus, there’s a lot of reading to do before you can build an effective analysis!
What’s the solution? Take notes on the reading as you go. But not just any notes - we will use a very specific style.
Create a personal set of four memorable symbols: one for each of the four rhetorical elements. Here’s how I do it, myself:
- Evidence = a Star symbol
- Reasoning = a Brain symbol
- Stylistic Elements = a Piece of Paper symbol
- Persuasive Elements = a Heart symbol.
Armed with these four distinct symbols, I go over the reading assignment very carefully. And on my first readthrough, I’m able to mark many spots in the passage with these symbols.
You can imagine how much easier my essay-writing work becomes after I do this. As I move onto the planning and structure phase (see below), I already have a full arsenal of examples to use for each of the four rhetorical elements.
In this way, I custom-tailor my note-taking style to fit the SAT Essay task, and my scores (and confidence) go way up. Try it yourself, but make sure you practice before you attempt to use this strategy on the official SAT Essay! Without prior practice, this method will be unfamiliar and clumsy.
4) Plan and Structure Your SAT Essay Wisely.
So, you’ve just completed the previous SAT Essay tips. Now that you’ve got a bunch of great examples and evidence clearly marked with corresponding symbols, it will be much easier to arrange your points into a satisfying essay structure.
There are many ways to do this effectively. But, I’m a fan of the simple methods. So, I usually just group the four rhetorical elements into four separate body paragraphs (Evidence, Reasoning, Stylistic, and Persuasive elements).
Or, you can work through the reading assignment chronologically - in other words, just analyze the assignment from start to finish, and organize your own response in the same order.
There’s really no need to be any more creative than these two structures. After all, you don’t get any points on the SAT Essay for “creativity.” The most important thing is to be clearly organized and provide smooth transitions between each section. Now you have an idea how to do exactly that!
Before you set a single written word to paper, be sure to outline and “tweak” the order of your key points. It’s easy to do a classic outline. Use “A, B, C, and D” for the main body paragraph topics. Then use sub-points like “1, 2, 3” underneath each of the main paragraph topics. It’s easy and simple, and it will make your essay better-organized. That leads directly to higher SAT Essay scores. So do it!
5) Focus Relentlessly and Use Every Minute.
Even with the best planning and practice, the best SAT prep students and tutors understand something very important about the SAT: at the end of the day, success is all about your mindset and your level of intense focus.
Don’t allow yourself to succumb to boredom, anxiety, or fatigue during the SAT Essay. Just because this section is at the very end of the test doesn’t mean you can slack off - at all.
Trust me - there’s a lot to do. If you’re finishing your SAT Essays too early before time is called, you’re missing the opportunity to write a longer, more thorough (and higher-scoring) essay.
Consider the three SAT Essay subscores: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Identify your weakest area to focus on. Start adjusting your time management strategy to devote a higher percentage of your essay time to that weakest area.
Any time left after you finish writing? Proofread. Look mainly for minor errors; don’t try to make major thematic changes at the last second. Stick to small tweaks and improvements that you can make in the final minutes. It’s also a good time to find any repetitious words or sentence structures in your writing and change them.
Understand this: you are meant to stagger out of the SAT Essay completely exhausted. If you have any energy left after the 4-hour SAT test with Essay, you probably weren’t 110% focused.
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