5 Tips for a Top Essay on the New SAT

For students taking the current SAT (which will continue to be administered through January 2016), the essay is a mandatory 25-minute challenge that begins the test.

Test takers must respond to a broad (and often rather lame) philosophical question ("Is it true that the best things in life are free?" or "Is optimism less valuable than hard work?"), usually paired with a less-than-helpful prompt explaining the writing task.

Those who are well-prepared will have a few key recyclable examples in mind – Martin Luther King, Jr., The Great Gatsby, World War II, and Macbeth are perennial favorites – and be ready to quickly cobble together a few paragraphs that include a succinct introduction, one body paragraph for each of the detailed examples mentioned in the intro, and a snappy conclusion.

Then they'll sprinkle some literary "fairy dust" on top to make their essays fly: a smattering of big words, varied punctuation, a rhetorical question perhaps to rouse a drowsy reader, and some quotes or statistics for extra flavor.

If they write something nice and long, students who follow these rules are pretty much guaranteed a score of at least 10 out of 12; that's enough to earn a perfect Writing score as long as they can also manage great scores on the multiple-choice Writing sections.

The New Test

Come March 2016, the game changes. A lot. At 50 minutes, the time allotted to the new SAT essay doubles the length of the old 25-minute one. Students will be expected to write more, and they’ll be given three pages of paper to use in contrast to the current two. Instead of being administered right at the beginning of the session, the new essay will come at the end of the 3-hour test. And for the first time, writing the essay is optional, though students who are applying to selective colleges will probably need to complete it. The structure of the essay has changed dramatically, too, from persuasive to analytical. Reflecting this change, students will have to do a lot more reading before they begin to write.

The Score

The scoring system is also new. Instead of a 1–6 scale representing a holistic judgment, the new essay will be evaluated along three specific dimensions — Reading, Analysis, and Writing — with scores of 1–4 for each of these sub-scores. Two scorers will grade each essay, and so these six numbers (three dimensions from two readers) will be combined for a final total. These scores will not be included in the old-but-new-again 1600-point final SAT score comprising Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math. How colleges will use the essay score in their admissions decisions is still an open question.

The Passages and the Prompt

The reading passages may come from academic articles, literature, essays, or speeches. The question accompanying the passage, however, will always be the same: Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds her argument and analyze how she uses evidence, reasoning, and style to support her point.

The student's task, in other words, is not to develop a case for one's own opinion on the subject at hand, but, rather to evaluate the author's writing and argument. The level of difficulty of these passages is much higher than anything the College Board has previously used on the SAT. Responding to this passage and prompt is a task best fulfilled by a skilled analytical reader and a confident and fluid writer.

5 Tips for a Top Essay

1. Study the examples.

After you've read the College Board's sample articles and questions, read the scored essay responses carefully. Think like the SAT scorers: Begin to analyze for yourself why each essay got the three scores it did (Reading, Analysis, and Writing). Focus on the higher-scoring examples and look for qualities to emulate.

2. Understand the author’s position.

When you are ready to write your first practice essay, be sure you understand the passage and the essence of the author's argument — not just the topic and your position on it. Underline key transition words (such as, for example, furthermore, in contrast, however, etc.) and think about how they contribute to the author’s overall stance. Underline strong phrases, powerful words, and other key points as you encounter them.

Think about what the author is trying to say. What supports the main claims in the passage? Is the evidence relevant and persuasive and laid out in a clear way? Are there particularly strong or weak points in the author's argument? Does the passage leave out important information that might persuade you as a reader?

3. Spend time planning.

Like fine carpentry, the construction of a great essay hinges on thoughtful and thorough prep work. Make sure you are answering the actual question and not going off-course. Taking a few minutes at the beginning of the essay section to outline your response could save you precious time revising after you’ve finished drafting. Be sure to work in each of these three components explicitly in your outline, too:

  • Reference the evidence that the author uses to support her claim.
  • Discuss the ways in which the author uses reasoning to develop her ideas and argument.
  • Address the author's use of style and rhetorical devices to engage readers and convince them of the points in the passage.

4. Be concise but dense.

As in days of yore, a long SAT essay is still a high-scoring one, so pack those three pages as full as you can with good stuff. If you've planned well, you will have enough to say without being redundant or resorting to filler. If your handwriting is too big, practice writing smaller. You should work on efficiently using all the room you have. Try not to leave any space in the margins except for indentations to introduce new paragraphs. Do not skip lines; they could be filled with your point-earning words!

5. Sprinkle some fairy dust on it.

For a high-scoring essay, don't forget to use some rhetorical flourishes of your own: big words, literary devices, and even statistics and quotations you’ve memorized as part of your test prep. Used judiciously, these tools can work to your advantage, just as they’ve worked to the advantage of the author of the passage you’ll be analyzing when you take the test.

Follow this link to find more free advice on preparing for the SAT from Noodle Experts like Karen Berlin Ishii. Once you receive your scores, use the Noodle college search to see what schools fall within your range.