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Chris Lele

The SAT Essay Approach – Summary vs. Analysis

The SAT essay tests your ability to write persuasively in a short amount of time. Many students seem to forget the persuasive part; they launch into an example and begin summarizing feverishly. Napoleon attacking Russia in winter becomes more protracted than the struggle itself. By the end of the paragraph, all we know is that Napoleon made a bad decision invading in winter. What we don’t know is how the example relates to the student’s thesis (many times the student has no idea either).

The key is not describing how cold Stalingrad is in winter, but to back up a thesis based on the essay prompt. If the prompt states something to the effect that others help us learn more about ourselves, then don’t use the Napoleon example. It doesn’t work.

If the prompt says, “It is more important to know one’s limits than one’s strengths” then Napoleon’s winter siege on Stalingrad can make a cogent case. Notice, the ‘can.’ The example only works if you properly construct your paragraph.

Below are a few tips to take you from slogging through the snow of your bad example to confidently moving through it until the final resounding sentence.


Find your starting point

You do not want to begin the paragraph with “Napoleon’s army could not withstand the Russian winter, and many men died.”

Nor do you want to start, “In 1769, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte emerged into the lightness of the world.”

Besides sounding ridiculous, the latter example takes things back a wee too far. Of course the first sentence brings us to the close of the action. Someone with little or no knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars would be lost.

Find a starting point that sets the stage for the relevant action – Napoleon invading Stalingrad in winter.

After a string of victories, Napoleon seemed unstoppable, poised to conquer all of Europe.

That’s a great place to set the stage: a seemingly invincible general, clearly aware of his strengths. What could possibly stop him? Perhaps, it’s the old hubris – he is overly confident, unaware of his own limitations.


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 Summarize relevant parts

You may not want to dive directly into your analysis. A little summary – assuming the reader isn’t familiar with your example – is important:

In late summer Napoleon’s army marched towards Russia, 500,000 strong. By December, it arrived in Stalingrad, already decimated from a series of battles. Undeterred, Napoleon thought the taking of the city was imminent. Yet the weeks dragged on, the temperature dropping to well below zero. Napoleon’s men quickly succumbed to frostbite and disease. With the Russians, who were used to the harsh climate, hunkering down in the capital, victory was far off.

Now we know what is at stake. Napoleon can wait it out and watch his army wither to nothing, or he can make the choice and pull his army out, thereby saving at least some of his men.


Get to your Analysis

Why did you choose your example? That is how does it relate to the thesis? Your answer to that question is your analysis.

Here we are holding up Napoleon as someone who was clearly aware of his strengths; he was unaware of his limits. And that’s why we are using Stalingrad.

Basically, you’ve’ set up the stage in your beginning sentences. Now show:

1. Any normal general – that is one who doesn’t think he is invincible – would probably pull out of Russia as soon as the leaves started falling from the trees.

2. Despite an opportunity to pull back once his men began succumbing to frostbite, etc., Napoleon ordered his men to stay on, even when a victory would not be worth the devastating loses.

So Napoleon had a chance to cut his losses, but he didn’t know his limits. Aha! He kept pushing his men, thinking he was invincible. Now you are providing analysis and it is clear why you chose this example.


 End with a Counterfactual

At this point, we are almost done. Yet, we want to end with that sense of closure, in which all the parts click into place. To do so, refer back to the thesis. After all, you want to remind your reader what you were setting to prove in the first place.

A great way to achieve the above is with the counterfactual. Now don’t let that long word intimidate you (and please don’t wedge counterfactual into your essay – you only sound contrived, or worse, sophomoric). To set up a counterfactual simply begin the sentence with, “Had xx…” The counterfactual describes something that could have happened but did not. On the road of life it is the path not taken.

Had Napoleon accepted that even his formidable army could not endure the harshness of Russian winter, he would have been able to attack at a more opportune time, altering the course of a war that he would go on to lose.

Wow. That’s much more convincing than ending the paragraph with

Napoleon army lost in Russian because Napoleon didn’t know his limits.

Again, at the end of each example you want to impress the reader. The counterfactual is a great way to do so. On the road of essay writing, make sure you choose the path marked ‘counterfactual


Part III

Now let’s take a look at two examples written on the same prompt. Both examples rely on Huckleberry Finn to make their respective cases. I’ve chosen Huck Finn because almost every student has read the story. If not, don’t worry. A strong SAT example will make sense even if you’ve never heard of what the writer is describing.

Make sure you remember the four points of example writing. Does each e measure up on each point? Which one is convincing?

The prompt: “Do we need others to better understand ourselves?”

In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huckleberry Finn is a boy and lives in Missouri. He does many bad things with his friend Tom Sawyer. Chasing ghosts and getting into trouble. Huckleberry Finn knows this slave. His name is Jim. Jim wants to escape so Huckleberry Finn helps him. Huckleberry and Jim escape and they go on the Mississippi. They hide in a boat and many people chase them, but Huckleberry helps Jim escape. They reach an island and meet some people there. Huckleberry meets all these people and he learns about himself. Jim also helps him learn about himself because he helps Jim, even though Jim is a slave.



This paragraph is concerned mainly with summarizing the story. The writing is choppy and the summary disjointed. There are many superfluous details, “does many bad things with Tom Sawyer.” Who cares? The paragraph, ostensibly, is about what Huck learns about himself by helping the slave Jim escape. But the paragraph never tells us what Huck learns about himself.

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Now many may laugh at this example, thinking it egregious. However, many students feel they only have to pick an example, summarize, and connect it vaguely to the thesis, and College Board is going to be blown away. This attitude results in the above, which is, at best, a ‘2’ out of ‘6.’


Okay, now let’s try to do Huckleberry a little more justice:

At the beginning of Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck lives on the streets and is considered a troublemaker. Nonetheless, a kind old woman, Widow Douglas takes Huck in and attempts to civilize him. However, it is not the widow who helps Huck improve his lot, but her slave, Jim. Huck learns that Jim wants to escape so he can return to his wife and child. Huck—despite being “uncivilized”—believes that society is treating Jim unfairly. Huck helps Jim escape and together they make their way up the Mississippi River. During their time together, Jim acts as a father figure to Huck and teaches him important lessons. Had Huck stayed with the Widow Douglas’s and not helped Jim escape, he would have most likely chafed at the widow’s rules and been back on the streets, hardly civilized. But by helping Jim, Huck learns that he is not a no-good troublemaker but somebody who is able to do the right thing, even if doing so puts himself in harm’s way. Without Jim, Huck may have never gained these valuable insights into himself.


Believe it or not, this paragraph is not perfect. The summary could have been a little shorter.  At times the writer is a little vague, “…and teaches him important lessons…” Perhaps we could have known more about these lessons. The paragraph could have spent a little less time setting the stage and more time describing those incidents in which Huck learned more about himself.

Still, a paragraph doesn’t have to be perfect for an essay to merit a ‘6.’ After all, students only have 25 minutes to write the essay. And these are high school students we are talking about, not aspirants for the Pulitzer Prize. Overall, this paragraph is a strong piece of writing and is well developed. A fair amount of analysis comes at the end. There is a counterfactual or two and it ends very convincingly.



Look over your old SAT essays samples (assuming you have some). Which paragraph is your writing more similar to? I’m guessing it’s somewhere in-between. Regardless of where it is on the score spectrum, make sure to apply the tips you learn about in these posts.


About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 10 million views. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog! You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

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