On the old test, the SAT essay prompts were pretty simple one sentence phrases that you’d have to evaluate, something like: The best leaders are those who listen to what others have to say. Since this was far too readily gamed, students writing perfect-scoring essays that were cookie cutter and lacked logical consistency, the test writers decided to make the prompt far longer and far more complicated.
And what better source than published essays and editorial pieces? Now, instead of generic topics that have the intellectual merit of a fortune cookie, the SAT prompts are made up of 600-word pieces from the likes of the New York Times or a Martin Luther King speech. Yep, that’s right – you’ll have to read a whole lot before starting to write your essay. For some sample SAT prompts, check out the College Board site (I’ll refrain from printing them here because they’d take up over half of the post).
The Time Limit
You will have 50 minutes to write the essay. Since you’ll have to read a lot more, it should not be surprising that you’re now given a lot longer for the essay section. Of course, you don’t want to spend that entire time, or even half of it, reading the prompt. While you’ll want to read and outline a plan of attack before writing, much of your time will be spent writing the essay itself. The exact balance of time is something that you’ll probably get a feel for after doing a few sample tests, but 20% reading/outlining and 80% writing seems like a reasonable proportion.
What’s also important is that unlike the old SAT, in which the essay came at the very beginning, now it comes at the very end of the test. You’ll likely be burned out, even before you start writing. So make sure to do a few practice essays before the test (not the day of) to work on your writing stamina. I imagine many students peter out somewhere around the second paragraph (make sure to eat a hearty and healthy snack before the essay).
The SAT isn’t just picking out any old 600-word piece from a magazine. It will pick a piece that argues a specific point. Your job is NOT to agree or disagree with this point – the way you would have with the old test – but to evaluate and analyze how the author tries to convince his or her audience.
To effectively analyze a persuasive piece of writing, you’ll have to have a basic knowledge of rhetoric. When an author appeals to our emotions, he/she is using pathos. Your job of course isn’t supposed to be a referee and throw the “pathos flag” every time the author tries to appeal to our emotions. In fact, mentioning the word “pathos” will not score you any extra points. Your job as a writer analyzing how an author is using pathos is to be as specific possible. For example, compare the following two excerpts:
The author tries to make us feel pessimistic that we will no longer have nights that are really free of light pollution.
By invoking a personal anecdote from his youth, when he walked through the forest and beheld every star glittering in the sky above him, the author makes us feel the magic of a starry night sky. As a result, the irrevocable loss of one of nature’s wonders affects was much more keenly than had the author merely stated that in today’s night skies ambient light occludes much of the stars above.
The second example is very specific about how the author uses pathos and what the effect on his/her audience would have been had he not used an anecdote to appeal to our emotions.
You’ll also want to mention ethos, or any claims to authority that an author makes. Does he mention somebody from a university, a famous scientist, a recent study? All of these are ways that an author tries to strengthen the force of her argument by ethos. After all, if the author simply stated that his friend told him such-and-such, his audience would likely not be persuaded.
There is also what is called logos, or arguments of logic. For instance, if the author is trying to convince us that the night sky is important to the functioning of nocturnal animals, he might mention how animals are imperilled in some way. This could lead to large and unknown effects on our ecosystem. This chain of reasoning is an example of logos. Again, you’ll want to be as specific as possible when pointing out exactly how the author is using reasoning.
That said, most arguments – even at the sentence level – will use a mixture of logos, pathos, and ethos. Your job is to point out the pieces of evidence the author uses to support each of his or her points, and whether they fall into pathos, ethos, or logos, or some combination of them.
Surprisingly, the analysis is only 1/3 of your score, or 4 out of a total of 12 points. The other components are comprehension and writing, both of which are worth 4 points. Since I’ve already talked about what makes up analysis in the essay section, I’ll quickly talk about comprehension and writing.
You might have no idea how to analyze a piece, but you might understand what the author’s basic point is. The degree to which you can show that you’ve understood the author’s point will determine your comprehension score.
You can have insightful analysis, which usually comes along with a strong comprehension score, but you can write using simplistic prose and make countless grammatical errors. If that’s the case, you’ll get a low writing score. Nail your mechanics and write eloquently, you’ll likely get a 4 out of 4.
By Kristen Fracchia and Chris Lele. Kristin Fracchia and Chris Lele are Magoosh’s resident ACT and SAT experts. They’re the ones who create awesomely fun lessons and practice materials for students. Read more of their articles on the Magoosh High School Blog.