The new SAT essay is a major departure from what went before. Instead of analyzing a topic (“A true hero speaks her mind when others are afraid to”), you will have to analyze a writer’s analysis of a complex issue. The essays will all be over 400 words long and will be aimed to persuade an audience.
Your job is to analyze how the author does this. Of course, it helps to understand the tools any writer or speaker uses to convince his or her audience. To do so, I’m going to introduce three very important terms from rhetoric. You don’t have to quote these terms. Rather, you should understand how an author will use a mixture of these to make a certain point.
Pathos means feeling. In order to convince others, a writer will appeal to his audience’s emotions. Compare the following:
We should stop hurting the environment. It is not good for long-term sustainability of the human race.
Smug that climate change hasn’t compromised made your standard of living? Well, look into the eyes of a 5-year old and tell her that when she is older and has children that they will live in a world of extreme scarcity and want, all because the current generations weren’t ready to make sacrifices.
Sure, I laid it on a little bit thick in that last example. But the point is to make it very different from the first example, which is clinical and as dry as the Sahara. The second example is clearly going for our heartstrings. And while you might think it over-the-top, it is far more persuasive than the first example. Now, when the author describes specific evidence for climate change, we are much more likely to pay attention. But specific evidence isn’t pathos; it’s logos. I’ll discuss that next.
Pathos goes for the heart; logos goes for the head. Whenever a writer uses a logical argument, he is trying to persuade us through logos. To return to the climate change example, here is one possibility:
If we assume that we’ve done enough to help the environment, that complacent attitude might actually hurt us—even if we have made significant gains in the last 20 years.
Specific evidence would fall under logos, too, if it supports the logical assertion. For instance, if the author of the excerpt above (actually, I wrote that, but that’s not the point) were to give some specific facts about how we’ve started to slack off lately in terms of the strictness of certain environmental protocols, he is still appealing to our sense of logic, or logos.
Ethos is authority. In other words, who is doing the persuading makes a huge difference. A second ago, I said that I wrote bit on climate change. The credibility of that sentence instantly plummeted as soon as you learned that. Had I said this was pulled from a recent book by an esteemed Harvard climatologist, you’d be much more likely to nod along earnestly while reading the sentence.
Writers and speakers will often use ethos by drawing direct attention to their credentials. Often, they will cite evidence from notable figures, making sure to attach every Ph.D. doctorate, and Ivy League school at the end. The more impressive somebody appears, the more likely we are to believe what he or she says. That is the essence of ethos.