Change is a-comin’ to the SAT. Beyond different types of math and reading questions, you’re going to have to deal with a whole new essay format. Yes, it’s optional, but odds are good that your dream school is going to require it. Here’s a rundown of what the change is about and what you can expect.
Why is the SAT essay changing?
For a long time, the essay portion of the SAT was like a freestyle rap battle, where rappers trade rhymes and insults with one another on the fly, at least in theory. More often though, both rappers have written and rehearsed what they were going to say, regardless whether their opponent looked like Nicki Minaj or Macklemore. Even if you know nothing about rap…
…you can probably guess that there isn’t a whole lot of common ground between these two. Since they need their lines to work on anyone they battle, their rhymes tended to either be very egocentric or very generic, both of which are kind of boring to listen to.
The essay graders were noticing this too. Regardless whether the question asked the writer to elaborate on the importance of book smarts versus street smarts or whether the media influences people or people dictate what’s in the media, they saw the same types of examples being shoe-horned into the essay to “answer” the question. The essays weren’t a good indicator of critical thinking or analytical skills, so they decided to revamp the whole thing.
So what’s the new SAT essay like now?
Each essay question is going to start with a reading passage that’s about 650-700 words long. Both examples that the College Board provide are taken from newspapers, but the test could also use magazine articles, blog posts, speeches, or something else. No matter what it is though, it will make an argument to try to convince the reader to believe in that argument.
At the end of the reading passage, the SAT gives you your prompt. In example question 1, after reading an article called “Let There Be Dark,” the prompt asks you to describe how the author builds his argument that “natural darkness should be preserved.” The prompts are very straight forward like that.
Here’s a hot tip for you: skip down to the prompt and read the first sentence when you start. Once you know what the essay is specifically asking you to analyze, you can read the passage and be on the lookout for how the author addresses the prompt.
What do good SAT essays look like?
I’m glad you asked, reader with whom I’m having an imaginary dialogue.
Essays are scored in three different categories: reading, analysis, and writing. Each section is scored on a scale of 1-4, 4 being the best. No one category is more important than the other, so your essay should demonstrate that you’ve read (and understood) the passage, that you’ve analyzed the author’s techniques and intentions, and that you’re able to write about them in your own words.
There are a lot of graded sample essays on the College Board website that demonstrate what essay graders are looking for. You should read through a couple of them so you get a sense of what’s good and what’s bad. However, I want to highlight something that I found interesting and may save you a bad score on your essay.
Sample Essay 6 scored high marks in both reading (4) and writing (3), but got the lowest score on analysis (1). The essay itself reads fine and clearly demonstrates that the student understood the passage. However, it only references the author’s evidence and techniques, without explaining why they are effective. It’s like the difference between you sharing an inside joke with your friends and a comedian telling a joke to an audience.
Take for example: the food fax. As an inside joke in my group chat, I can just say “Alex that burger looks pretty good, please fax it over” and we all LOL about it because we are adults and laugh at dumb things like that. But if a comedian were to say “my friend had this burger that was so delicious, that I needed to fax it to my mom,” the audience would be confused. The comedian would have to explain what the food fax was and why it’s essential to the joke.
By the way, this is what a food fax would look like.
Yeah, sure, whatever. How do I practice getting better at writing SAT essays?
While you could write an essay every night and get better with practice, it’s a little unnecessary. What works better is if you read a lot of different articles that look like the passages the SAT gives you. You’ll want to critique them, and you’ll want to do it on your own terms. A good example is the article “The Missing Piece of the Oscars’ Diversity Conversation,” written by Lenika Cruz at The Atlantic. What is the point that Lenika is trying to make? How does she structure her article to support her argument? Are the facts, anecdotes, and statistics she cites effective to proving her point, or do they detract from it? If you think they don’t, how would you improve the essay so that it does? Even if you don’t agree with Lenika’s perspective, you can figure out what works and what doesn’t in her article and explain why.
The internet has no shortage of good writing, or bad writing for that matter. Here’s a couple links that you can use as your own essay prompt storage center. Take a look around, see if there’s something that interests you, and read it.
Digg: I visit Digg daily because it’s their job to basically mine the internet for interesting articles. They’ll provide links to newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post, as well as to less well-known sites like Aeon and Nautilus. They provide links to new stories every few hours.
The Atlantic: They write about all types of topics, from politics to technology to human behavior. In addition to their website, they also publish a print magazine about once a month.
The Awl: An entirely online collection of essays and random posts. Some articles are very in depth, while others are just silly and random. Focus on the deep stuff if you plan to come here. There’s some explicit content and language, but nothing more shocking than a show on basic cable.
The AV Club: For Our Consideration: A column that analyzes music, movies, TV shows, and all other forms of pop culture. Like The Awl, there’s some explicit language and content, though it depends heavily on what the writer decides to analyze. Also, there’s probably spoilers.
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About Jon Chang
Jon has a degree in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins University and a degree in science journalism from New York University. It's safe to say that he's learned a lot of things over the past decade, but he's learned how to write about those things too. All the while, he’s been tutoring students, helping them better understand their own coursework and showing them how to crack the code of the SAT and ACT. When he's not doing that, you can usually find him singing, playing violin, or coming up with bad puns.
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