College entrance exam requirements have been changing. Confirm testing requirements at the schools where you plan to apply. For information on test availability, check the SAT® and ACT® sites.

The SAT® essay has a long-standing reputation of being a tricky beast. Until a few years ago, 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, the SAT essay changed in 2016. Now, students are asked to analyze an opinion piece, and the task is not to agree or disagree, but rather to 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 current version of the SAT essay is optional and while some colleges recommend submitting an SAT essay score, very few require it. The SAT essay has a maximum of 24 points and is separate from the rest of your SAT score. 

According to Kristin Fracchia, a test expert at online prep company Magoosh, it’s worth opting into the SAT essay section 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 prep materials, including example essay prompts. Practicing with 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. On the College Board website, you’ll also find sample essays from students who scored highly so you can see examples of how others analyzed the text. 

Don’t Sweat the Topic

You’re not expected to have an in-depth knowledge of the passage topic you’re analyzing. There’s absolutely no need to become a subject expert on every topic covered in your practice tests. The section is devised to assess your reading, analysis and writing skills, not your knowledge base. Students can score well even when the topic of their essay passage is completely new to them.  

Know Your Strategies and Structure

Fracchia says it is most important to follow a set essay structure and have a toolbox of rhetorical devices (think: anecdotes and similes) 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, 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

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. Using the first 15 to 20 minutes of that time reading the passage and planning your essay is a smart start. You may want to outline your essay, including key points for each paragraph, so you have a clear vision for your work.  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 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.

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