The SAT essay has long had a reputation as a tricky beast.

Until recently, students faced confounding questions like, “Is it more important to avoid hurting people’s feelings or to tell the truth?” There were no right or wrong answers — the essay, for which you were allocated 25 minutes — tested how well students constructed a persuasive argument.

But last year, the SAT essay changed. Now, students are asked to analyze an opinion piece, and the task is not to agree or disagree, but rather discuss the strategies the author employs to persuade their audience. You’re given 50 minutes to complete this assignment following the required sections of the test.

Unlike its predecessor, the new SAT essay is optional. Only about 10 percent of U.S. colleges require it, and those that do, like Harvard and Princeton, are generally highly prestigious.

According to Kristin Fracchia, a test expert at online prep company Magoosh, it’s worth opting in if you’re a strong writer or any schools on your list recommend completing the essay. “I’ve learned that when schools say ‘recommended,’ it’s best to read that as ‘required,’” she says. The exception is if you’re a poor writer. “I wouldn’t recommend it to practice your writing,” she adds. “Don’t take it for any other reason than to boost your application.”

If you’re on board, here’s how to ace it.

Put in the Practice

Perhaps the top tip is to do your research up front. The College Board not only administers the SAT, but also provides a lot of prep materials, including these example essay prompts. Practicing with these prompts accustoms you to analyzing a source text. “You don’t have to find anything hidden, so if you just get used to finding the devices, it’ll flow when you take the actual test,” says Jake Berman, who heads up JakeSATPrep in Long Island, NY. You’ll also find sample essays from students who scored highly on the College Board website so you can see examples of how others analyzed the text.

Don’t Sweat the Topic

Eva Burns, now a freshman at the University of Georgia where she is majoring in natural resources, didn’t apply to any schools that required or recommended the essay. Nonetheless, she opted in because she knew she’d perform well. “I stressed out about needing to know a lot about the topic of the passage,” she says. “But I realized that the test isn’t looking to assess your knowledge of what the text is about. It’s just looking for how you analyze the rhetorical devices used in the article.” Ultimately, Burns scored well responding to a passage about minimum wage, a topic on which she hardly considers herself an expert.

Know Your Strategies and Structure

Most important, Fracchia says, is to follow a set essay structure and have a toolbox of rhetorical devices (think: anecdotes, similes or pathos) at the ready. “It’s really easy in a timed writing situation to go off base and start writing anything that comes into your head,” she says. “What you need is four or five paragraphs: an introduction stating the author’s message and the devices they use to communicate it, two or three middle paragraphs addressing a rhetorical device each and a conclusion. That organization is key.” If you haven’t been taught specific rhetorical devices — AP students tend to be at an advantage here — ask your English teacher for a list or research them online. “Don’t just summarize the piece,” Fracchia cautions. “You need the right terminology to describe the strategies being used.”

Cover All the Bases

Not only does the SAT essay have a new format, it also has a new scoring system. Points are awarded in three equally weighted categories:

  • Reading: how well you’ve read and understood the passage
  • Analysis: how well you’ve analyzed the passage
  • Writing: how well you’ve crafted your response

It’s important to show off your skills across the board. “Include a variety of sentence structures and the most advanced vocabulary you’re confident using,” says Berman. But don’t get too creative: “You need a neutral, academic tone,” he notes.

Plan, Plan, Plan

“You have 50 minutes to write this essay, but you’re not expected to write for that entire period,” Fracchia points out. “You should set out to spend 15 to 20 minutes reading and planning your essay.” Burns agrees, “Outlining what you’re going to say in each paragraph is helpful, because then you know what you’re working toward.” So far as length, think back to the sample essays you read. “Often students are surprised to realize the essay they have to write isn’t that long,” says Fracchia.

Ultimately, Fracchia likes the new SAT essay because it tests college preparedness. “Reading and understanding texts, then articulating what the author is trying to express is very much in line with what is expected of students at the college level,” she says.