Top 7 SAT Essay Tips

a student in glasses drafting her sat essay at her desk -magoosh

The SAT essay—which will be discontinued for most students taking the SAT starting in June 2021—requires you to read a complex, opinion-driven essay and write an essay that discusses how the writer goes about trying to persuade his or her audience. While the passages are different, the directions are always the same:

“Consider how the [insert author’s name here] uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.”

If you live in a state that requires the essay as a part of their SAT School Day administration, read on for the top tips on making sure that you ace your SAT essay.

SAT Essay Tips

  1. Know the Fundamentals of Rhetoric
  2. Understand how the Essay is Scored
  3. Practice With Sample Prompts and Essays
  4. Get Skilled in Annotating and Outlining
  5. Vary Your Sentence Structure and Vocabulary
  6. Work on Understanding the Analysis
  7. Read with a Critical Eye

1. Know the Fundamentals of Rhetoric

It’s a good skill to know how writers go about persuading us. Indeed, the ancient Greeks developed a glossary of terms to describe the way a speaker or writer aims to persuade his or her audience:

Rhetor

This is a fancy way of referring to the speaker/writer, the person trying to argue a point. Those he or she aims to persuade is the audience. For the SAT, the writer of the article is the rhetor; the audience is made up of those who originally read the work. You, the SAT reader, however, are not the audience. Instead, you should think of yourself as a referee or judge. Your job is to describe how the rhetor is trying to persuade his or her audience.

To understand this, the next few terms are essential and tie back to the directions listed above:

Pathos

Compare the following two sentences:

    Closing the school down will exert a negative effect on the community at large.

    By closing down the school, administrators will displace hundreds of young children who have only just begun to forge friendships; additionally many local residents employed by the school might be forced to move from the area.

Both sentences are saying the same thing. But the first sentence likely leaves you feeling cold; the language is vague and technical. The second, by contrast, tugs at your heartstrings (the poor children!). Were the second sentence written on a petition to save the school, you’d be far more likely to sign it than the first sentence, I’m guessing. And that’s the point of pathos: it hopes to persuade us by appealing to our emotions.

Ethos

It is possible to make the sentence with the school even more persuasive without appealing even more to our emotions. How? Well, compare the following:

    According to the United States Department of Education, closing down the school will displace hundreds of young children who have only just begun to forge friendships; additionally, many local residents employed by the school might be forced to move from the area.

All I did was attribute—or credit—the idea to an entity. But not just any entity. I appealed to the highest educational authority in the land. After all, if I put “I think”, you might wonder, who the heck I am. But by putting the United States Department of Education, I’ve invoked the highest authority in the land in matters of education. Ethos refers to the credibility of the speaker.

On the SAT essay, ethos will often take the form of “a study released by Harvard Medical school”. That is, the writer will quote where he or she is getting the information from. And it will never be their neighbor or that one lady they talked to on the bus. Writers will always quote leading authorities to give their claims greater authority. That way, their audience is more likely to be persuaded.

Logos

You might be thinking that the kids should just be able to go to another school. And surely there are more jobs in the area. Those are valid objections and that’s why writing doesn’t just aim to persuade us at an emotional level (pathos) but also at an intellectual or logical level (logos). How does the following use logos to build on the pathos?

    Happy Hills Private School is a one-of-a-kind institution for gifted children recruited from all over the country. For many decades it has grown to such a degree that a large community has sprung up consisting of many who depend on the school for their livelihood. If the school shuts down, these educators, administrators, and custodians will have to move elsewhere and many local businesses, which depend on their patronage, will be forced to close. Additionally, by closing down the school, administrators will displace hundreds of young children who have forged deep friendships

We now have the necessary context to understand the logic behind the idea that a closure of a school means a serious disruption in the lives of students and for the community that depends on the school.

Logos, or logical statements, can often be identified by “if…then” statements. Notice the bolded part above. The second bolded part (“by closing…friendships”) also has a similar structure: if you close the school, this will happen (“by closing down the school, etc.”)

All writing that you’ll see will use a combination of ethos, pathos, and logos. Sometimes in the same sentence:

    According to the education department’s report, if the school is closed down, hundreds of students will be torn from a nurturing environment and cast into alien—and possibly hostile—environments.

(Okay, maybe I got a little carried away with the pathos there!)

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2. Understand how the Essay is Scored

Knowing how the SAT essay is scored is fundamental for understanding what the graders are looking for. The SAT essay contains three scores, one for reading, one for analysis, and one for writing. Two graders will score the essay and these scores will be added up. In the end, we get a range of 2-8 for each of the three areas. A score report will look something like this: 7 reading/6 analysis/6 writing. While that adds up to 19, the SAT will deliver the score split three ways.

It’s also a good idea to know what these three different categories are. The reading score reflects your ability to understand the passage that you have to read. For instance, if you misinterpret what the author is trying to say this is going to hurt your score.

Analysis, which I will go over in-depth in tip #6, is your ability to analyze how the author goes about persuading his or her audience. Remembering the fundamentals of rhetoric is a great first step.

Improve your SAT score; start your Magoosh SAT prep today

Finally, writing is just what it sounds like: how do you use words to create sentences and convey your thoughts? Do you so in a way that is grammatically sound and your meaning is clear?

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3. Practice With Sample Prompts and Essays

I can pontificate all day on what the test writers are looking for, but unless you actually look at how specific essays are graded, along with copious feedback from the graders, you won’t really get a sense of what the test writers are looking for.

You also won’t get a sense of what separates a writing score of 4 from a writing score of 3, an analysis score of 2 from an analysis score of 1, and so on. But you get all of that by studying the prompt, essay responses, essay scores, and feedback.

Use the prompts linked below to write your essay first and compare your essay to the corresponding sample essays to see where you’d likely score. In looking at the samples, you’ll likely see things that the writers do well, and things they don’t do so well, which will give you a sense of the issues you need to work on. Maybe you can write wonderful flowery sentences, full of phrasal twists and turns. But when you read the passage, you are not exactly sure what to analyze or exactly what the essay graders are looking at when they grade for analysis. Or you might get the gist of the analysis, but you feel that you can’t get your thoughts down on paper.

Click here to check out official College Board sample SAT essay prompts and responses from real students

Click here for a bonus SAT essay prompt provided by Magoosh and get a sense of the difference between 8-, 6-, 4-, and 2-scoring responses

 

Click here for the essay prompt

As you read the passage below, consider how Barbara Ehrenreich uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

Adapted from Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Selfish Side of Gratitude” ©2015 by The New York Times Company. Originally published December 31, 2015.

This holiday season, there was something in the air that was even more inescapable than the scent of pumpkin spice: gratitude.

In November, NPR issued a number of brief exhortations to cultivate gratitude, culminating in an hourlong special on the “science of gratitude,” narrated by Susan Sarandon. Writers in Time magazine, The New York Times and Scientific American recommended it as a surefire ticket to happiness and even better health. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies the “science of gratitude,” argues that it leads to a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure, as well as “more joy and pleasure.”

It’s good to express our thanks, of course, to those who deserve recognition. But this holiday gratitude is all about you, and how you can feel better.

Gratitude is hardly a fresh face on the self-improvement scene. By the turn of the century, Oprah Winfrey and other motivational figures were promoting an “attitude of gratitude.” Martin Seligman, the father of “positive psychology,” which is often enlisted to provide some sort of scientific basis for “positive thinking,” has been offering instruction in gratitude for more than a decade…

[But] positive thinking was in part undone by its own silliness, glaringly displayed in the 2006 bestseller “The Secret,” which announced that you could have anything, like the expensive necklace you’d been coveting, simply by “visualizing” it in your possession.

The financial crash of 2008 further dimmed the luster of positive thinking, which had done so much to lure would-be homeowners and predatory mortgage lenders into a speculative frenzy. This left the self-improvement field open to more cautious stances, like mindfulness and resilience and — for those who could still muster it — gratitude.

…Perhaps it’s no surprise that gratitude’s rise to self-help celebrity status owes a lot to the…John Templeton Foundation. At the start of this decade, the foundation…gave $5.6 million to Dr. Emmons, the gratitude researcher. It also funded a $3 million initiative called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude through the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, which co-produced the special that aired on NPR. The foundation does not fund projects to directly improve the lives of poor individuals, but it has spent a great deal, through efforts like these, to improve their attitudes.

[Furthermore, it appears that] much of the gratitude advice involves no communication or interaction of any kind. Consider this, from a yoga instructor on CNN.com: “Cultivate your sense of gratitude by incorporating giving thanks into a personal morning ritual such as writing in a gratitude journal, repeating an affirmation or practicing a meditation. It could even be as simple as writing what you give thanks for on a sticky note and posting it on your mirror or computer. To help you establish a daily routine, create a ‘thankfulness’ reminder on your phone or computer to pop up every morning and prompt you.”

Who is interacting here? “You” and “you.”

…Yet there is a need for more gratitude, especially from those who have a roof over their heads and food on their table. Only it should be a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now. Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table? …There are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.

The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, “solidarity” — which may involve getting up off the yoga mat.


Write an essay in which you explain how Barbara Ehrenreich builds an argument to persuade her audience that expressing gratitude has developed into a selfish act. In your essay, analyze how Ehrenreich uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Ehrenreich’s claims, but rather explain how Ehrenreich builds an argument to persuade her audience.

 

Click here for an essay that scored 8 in all areas

Sample response

In the New York Times article “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that although expressing gratitude is important, particularly toward those that deserve our thanks, in practice, gratitude has evolved into a rather selfish act. Ehrenreich reasons through concrete, real-world examples as well as appeal to pathos to convincingly reveal that the common practice of gratitude has definately become about the self as opposed to about others.

In one example, Ehrenreich discredits the popular practice of gratitude by pointing out the hypocrisy of a foundation that has a prominent role in spreading this ideology. Ehrenreich reveals how the John Templeton Foundation, which plays a significant role in “gratitude’s rise to self-help celebrity status” for funding a number of projects to publically spread the message of gratitude, does not provide funding to improve the lives of poor people. Ehrenreich forces the reader to question The John Templeton Foundation for preferring to fund projects that “improve…attitudes” as opposed to more philanthropic aims, which is the purpose of most foundations. As delivering this example required a bit of investigative journalism on Ehrenreich’s part, Ehrenreich also impresses the reader with her well-researched knowledge about the practice of gratitude, which lends more credence to Ehrenreich and her views.

Ehrenreich also paints a lucid picture of the selfishness of gratitude in practice by referring to an example of gratitude advice from a well-known source. In a CNN article, a yoga instructor posits gratitude advice, such as “writing what you give thanks for on a sticky note and posting it on your mirror” or creating “a ‘thankfulness’ reminder on your phone.” In the next line, Ehrenreich then offers her analysis: “Who is interacting here? ‘You’ and ‘you.’” By analyzing the excerpt of the gratitude advice itself, the audience can see Ehrenreich’s point for themselves, in which popular messaging about gratitude is inherently self-serving. Furthermore, isolating Ehrenreich’s pithy analysis of the advice serves as an effective stylistic technique to ensure that the reader truly focuses on the central argument.

Finally, Ehrenreich artfully uses appeal to pathos to draw a distinction between how gratitude is practiced and how it should be practiced. Ehrenreich is ultimately arguing that we should not do away with gratitude but rather we should practice “a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now.” She then lists the menial labor done to ensure one has food on the table and emphasizes that those who enact the labor are actual people with “aching backs and tenuous finances.” These descriptive details of these jobs and the workers serve to generate compassion and perhaps even guilt in the reader—who, as an NY Times reader, is likely a member of a privileged class—for not considering a more inclusive practice of gratitude. These feelings surely heighten Ehrenreich’s point that gratitude in practice has not been focused on those who truly deserve it. Erenreich then goes on to show specific examples of how one can show gratitude to these individuals, beyond just saying thanks, which highlights the selfishness of the current state of gratitude.

Therefore, it is evident that through relevant and real-world examples, reasoning, and appeals to emotion, Ehrenreich provides a cogent argument regarding the selfishness of how society, as a whole, practices gratitude.

Why this essay would receive an 8
This is a really solid essay. Let’s break it down by category.

  • Reading comprehension: The writer’s thorough understanding of the essay is shown not only by their understanding of Ehrenreich’s central claim, but also in effective paraphrasing of her words. The writer also skillfully incorporates quotations from the original source only when it adds to their point and stays away from simply summarizing the article, which can be a pitfall if one is not careful.
  • Analysis: This essay would probably receive full marks for analysis because it clearly identifies concrete rhetorical elements in Ehrenreich’s essay that support her central point and the purpose of these elements as well as providing a lot of original reasoning for why they were effective (a lot of students might struggle with the latter).
  • Writing: This student is clearly a talented writer, using fancy and well-chosen vocabulary (like pithy, cogent, artful). The writer also gets A+ for varying sentence structure and essay organization, in which there is a solid intro and conclusion and each rhetorical element has its own paragraph in the body. There are minor errors in spelling (the dreaded misspelling of definitely), word choice (enact doesn’t really mean carry out, which is what the writer seemed to intend; perform would be a better choice), and grammar and punctuation, but nothing that interferes with meaning and quality.
Click here for an essay that scored 6 in all areas

Sample response

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s article “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” she argues that expressing gratitude has become a selfish act. Ehrenreich uses evidence from popular news sources, real world events and appeal to emotion to argue her thesis.

The first example Ehrenreich uses to show that gratitude has a selfish side is evidence from a popular news site. She says “much of the gratitude advice involves no communication or interaction of any kind” and then uses a CNN article from a yoga instructor to show that this is the case. If one looks at the advice, one will see that Ehrenreich has a point because the advice doesn’t mention showing gratitude to other people at all. This example is effective because it shows that the media is influencing our perception of gratitude and making us selfish about it.

Ehrenreich also uses real world events to show why gratitude has become a selfish act. She talks about the financial crash of 2008 and how it’s related to gratitude (“The financial crash of 2008 further dimmed the luster of positive thinking…This left the self-improvement field open to more cautious stances, like mindfulness and resilience and — for those who could still muster it — gratitude”). By discussing such a famous event, Ehrenreich not only grabs the audience’s attention, but shows how gratitude is related to the problematic way of thinking (positive thinking) that caused the horrible event in the first place.

Finally, Ehrenreich appeals to the emotions when she talks about how we need to show gratitude to other people. She says “there is a need for more gratitude, especially from those who have a roof over their heads and food on their table” which implies that rich people need to be more grateful to the poor people that help us. Then, she provides a lot of details about all the people that are involved in providing meals and how they have “aching backs and tenuous finances”. All these details about how tough the jobs of these people are and how they make up whole communities is heart-renching. Ehrenreich’s appeal to emotion is effective because it forces us to admit that not enough people show their gratitude to others in the way that Ehrenreich is describing.

Overall, Ehrenreich does a good job about making us realize that gratitude has a selfish side. She does that through using evidence in the form of popular news sources, real world events, and appeals to emotion.
Why this essay would receive an 6
Although there’s definite room for improvement, the writer showed competence in all three grading categories.

  • Reading comprehension: In all the examples the writer used in their essay, the writer shows a solid understanding of the passage through paraphrasing and direct quotes from the passage. However, the writer could also have provided more details in their paraphrasing for a higher score. For example, the writer could have included quotes from the yoga instructor to bolster the statement “the advice doesn’t mention showing gratitude to other people at all.”
  • Analysis: The writer also had a good understanding of what they were supposed to analyze. They discussed concrete examples taken from the text and explained what they served to do. For a higher score, the writer could have further developed details used from the passage (e.g. use better or additional evidence that linked the 2008 financial crash to gratitude) or elaborated further on the effectiveness of the examples they used (e.g. why exactly does “[forcing] us to admit that not enough people show their gratitude to others in the way that Ehrenreich is describing” prove that gratitude is selfish?)
  • Writing: The writer has a good knowledge of how to organize their essay (though it might be too formulaic) and can more or less express themself clearly. Sometimes, however, they lapse into common speech (“…Ehrenreich appeals to the emotions when she talks about…”) and makes noticeable punctuation errors.
Click here for an essay that scored 4 in all areas

Sample response

In the article “The Selfish Side of Gratitude”, Barbara Ehrenreich is arguing that gratitude has developed into a selfish act. She provides many examples to prove her point.

The best example that Barbara gives about that is when she talks about the yoga instructer who’s giving advice about how to be grateful. All the advice this instructer gives is only about the person who the instructer is talking to. This is one example of how gratitude is a selfish act because all the people that are talking about gratitude and being grateful aren’t really giving good advice.

Another example that Barbara gives is how gratitude is supposed to look like. She says that when people want to show gratitude they need to show it by supporting the people who provide us with food. That support could be things like giving generous tips or supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. This is another example of how gratitude is a selfish act because people don’t support other people who gave them food even though their probably grateful for the food.

Barbara Ehrenreich did a good job showing that gratitude has developed into a selfish act through the example of the yoga instructer and the example of what she thinks gratitude is supposed to look like.

Why this essay would get a 4
This essay has a lot of the right ideas but struggles with the sophistication in reading comprehension, analysis, and writing that the College Board is looking for in these essays.

  • Reading comprehension: The writer clearly understands the examples that they pulled from Ehrenreich’s piece, but their analysis shows a rather foundational level of understanding. In addition, by only focusing on these two examples, there’s no indication the writer understood the other parts of the article.
  • Analysis: The writer did pull relevant examples to analyze, but the analysis is lacking. For example, the writer says that the best example in Barbara’s thesis is the CNN article but did not elaborate why they think this is the case. Furthermore, their reasoning that “all the people that are talking about gratitude and being grateful aren’t really giving good advice” does not relate to the central point (i.e. the selfishness of gratitude).
  • Writing: While the writing is more or less coherent, it has many faults. The essay structure is obviously formulaic (which shows a lack of originality) and lacks variety in sentence structure. There are spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors that a stronger writer wouldn’t be making. And many times, the writer relies too much on taking direct text from the prompt (“gratitude has developed into a selfish act”) or the article (“generous tips or supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions”) instead of paraphrasing or using proper citation.

For a higher score, this writer would need to provide more details about why the examples were effective, show more originality in their writing by using their own words more and increasing their vocabulary, and improve their understanding of conventions of English writing.

Click here for an essay that scored 2 in all areas

Sample response

The message is clear and straight to the point when she express how gratitude is just a simple, selfish way to be an arrogant person.

For example, how many people are having a good dinner now and are giving thanks and how many of these lucky people are doing something for those who do not have even a piece of bread. Most of the time, this act just feeds the egos of people who think that just saying thanks is enough for making the world a better place or that saying thanks to others is a favor. Well let’s try to do something for other who are not having the same opportunities that we are having now because it is the only way that we can give back.

There a lot of people there outside who are working really hard for making possible that we have better and more comfortable lives. The celebrities are doing public propaganda about how important is gratitude, like Barbara said in her thesis, so the question is what are these people doing to give thanks through real deeds, some of them can say that they are giving millions of dollars for developing the livings of those who are people in risk by organizations who help poor people, but are they actually posting or sending all those resources to make better the lives of those people who do not have the chance of rising over poverty?

We always have to remember that Gratitude is not just take and go away and say thanks in a nice way just to say I have success in this life, gratitude has to be the fact to give more than what you receive.

Why this essay would receive a 2
This writer shows many weaknesses in reading comprehension, in their understanding of what to analyze, and in their writing.

  • Reading comprehension: The writer kind of seems to get some of Ehrenreich’s points, particularly what she says about the importance of showing gratitude through action to those that deserve it, but there are ultimately significant missteps in comprehension. For example, the writer doesn’t seem to fully understand the author’s central point, which is not that “gratitude is just a simple, selfish way to be an arrogant person.” The writer also mistakenly notes that the detail of celebrity promotion of gratitude is Ehrenreich’s thesis.
  • Analysis: Most of the essay actually ends up being the writer’s own opinions and ponderings about the “selfish side” of gratitude, which not only tells us little about what they actually comprehended in the reading itself, but also indicates that the writer completely missed the point of the analytic exercise (i.e. discuss the elements Ehrenreich used to effectively show that gratitude has become a selfish act).
  • Writing: The writing itself contains a lot of grammatical and punctuation errors, has no logical essay structure, jumps from idea to idea without any real organization of thoughts (e.g. in the second paragraph, they go from talking about hard workers to the celebrities that promote gratitude without any segue), and sentences that are confusing in meaning.

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4. Get Skilled in Annotating and Outlining

Whenever you are faced with a timed essay, it is a natural response to want to begin writing as soon as the teacher/proctor says “time.” If you don’t plan on how you’ll attack the essay, however, your essay will lack the organization the test graders are looking for. Most likely, you’ll describe the main points of the essay and just list out what you think are the rhetorical devices the author uses. The essay will lack any overarching point.

Instead, first write down a few main points the author is making. Then, quickly write down three distinct areas in which the author is using rhetoric. This second bit will help you focus your analysis. Often, it is a good idea to break up paragraphs either by the different areas of analysis used in the essay or by the specific points the author is trying to make and how he or she is specifically going about persuading the reader. By outlining you’ll have a clear idea of what you are going to write about, versus frantically grasping onto unrelated ideas just to keep the writing afloat.

Another way of outlining is annotation, which is when you’re underlining and taking notes in the margins. For some students, annotating while outlining allows them to engage more actively with the reading and therefore, improve reading comprehension. Click here for an example of how the writer who scored an 8 in Magoosh’s sample essay above annotated their reading (note the points in the margin have been written out to facilitate understanding. On the test, this writer would have annotated in a much more rushed and abbreviated manner!).

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5. Vary Your Sentence Structure and Vocabulary

    The SAT is an important test. The essay is very important for some. You need to understand what the test writers are looking for. This post will help you that.

What do you notice about these four short sentences? Do they put you off from reading more? The reason is that the sentence structure is almost exactly the same: subject + verb + object. Additionally, these four sentences lack any transitions, such as the word “additionally”.

Changing up your sentence structure makes your writing far more compelling. And using transitions will help tie ideas together both between and within sentences.

Finally, you’ll want to avoid using vague words such as “good”, “big”, especially if you repeat them. Notice the first two sentences use the word “important”. I’m not saying you should avoid this word altogether. But repeating it so closely together smacks of monotony, much as the sentence structure does.

Now, let’s take the intro sentence again:

    The SAT is an important test. The essay is very important for some. You need to understand what the test writers are looking for. This post will help you that.

…and vary up the sentence structure and vocabulary, while offering some helpful transition words.

    Many know the SAT might be the most important test for college admissions. Yet, for some, the essay can also play a significant role. For this group, understanding how the essay has changed and what the test graders expect is paramount. Hopefully, this post will help you with that.

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6. Work on Understanding the Analysis

In tip #1, I talked about rhetoric, or the tools an author uses to persuade us. Understanding these tools is the first step to analyzing the essay. But you’ll want to go a step further. Since each essay is very specific, it’ll be doing things that can loosely be categorized as falling under pathos, logos, or ethos. Make sure you describe these specific things. For instance, let’s take an official SAT essay from College Board.

It is not enough to say, “the author uses pathos because he reminds the author of a childhood experience and such experiences appeal to our emotions.” This is pretty obvious and superficial. Digging deeper means looking at the very specific choices the author makes to really get into our psyche. Here is one possible way to describe this:

    To illustrate just how much darkness has become a scarce resource, Paul Bogard draws upon memories of the night sky from when he was a child. The author, though, is not merely content to describe the night sky but dramatizes the darkness: “I knew woods so dark…eyes.” Furthermore, he uses metaphorical descriptions to capture the intensity of the sky (“sugary trails”). As readers, we are readily transported to the vista unfolding above him. This description also allows the author to set up the dramatic contrast with tonight’s sky when he describes many children today who will “never know” such a sky. This last bit creates an effect of urgency: something must be done.

Notice I didn’t say “pathos” anywhere. Instead, I described—in meticulous detail—how the author constructs the paragraph to elicit a strong emotional response from the reader. I also analyzed how he constructed the passage, an example of logos; yet I didn’t call logos out by name. Instead, I describe the logic of the transitions and how this affected the emotional effect of the paragraph.

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7. Read with a Critical Eye

Assuming you’ve read all of the above and have a good idea of how the SAT essay is constructed, you can start to read a little differently. What do I mean? Well, for the Reading Comprehension section, I recommend that students read articles from the New York Times or some other popular online newspaper. While reading the article, put on your grammar hat and analyze the sentences. Do you notice the subordinating conjunctions? How about the use—and the correct use, mind you—of em-dashes? (See what I did there?)

But it’s not just about grammar. By analyzing professional writing, you can improve your writing, noticing the transitions and the vocabulary such articles use. Of course, it doesn’t hurt with your overall comprehension, something that bleeds into both the writing section and the reading comprehension of the SAT.

Finally, with more pointed pieces—such as those you’ll find in the New York Times op-Ed section—you’ll be able to see how authors use the tools of rhetoric. In other words, you’ll be analyzing and comprehending just as you’ll have to do on the actual SAT essay.

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By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!