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Goodbye Old SAT, Hello New SAT, Pt. 4 - Essay

Nearly a month has passed since the old SAT was administered for the last time, and while many are finished with college entrance exams, others are just beginning. For all those students who plan on taking the new SAT, we have begun a series of posts that focuses on changes and tips for individual subjects. Last week, I talked about the new SAT Math section. And before that, I discussed the new SAT Writing and Critical Reading sections. This week’s topic is the new SAT Essay section.

Here are the key changes and considerations:

1) Structure: The time limit increases from 25 minutes to 50 minutes. You must read an article and write an essay that analyzes the persuasive elements of the article.

The new SAT Essay is almost entirely different from the previous version. Instead of writing an essay about a random topic like “Should we always be loyal?”, students are tested on how well they can analyze the rhetorical devices and persuasiveness of an argument. Of all the changes College Board has made to the SAT, the Essay seems to get the best improvement; the skills you learn to master the Essay are incredibly useful in the real world. What’s the irony? Well, the new SAT Essay is now optional. Universities and colleges haven’t unanimously sided with requiring or not requiring an essay score for admissions, so most students will probably still need to add this section to their tests.

2) Question Content: Every essay section has the same prompt (analyze the persuasive elements of the author’s argument); the only difference is the article.

Every essay prompt will essentially be the same; even College Board admits this. In fact, College Board gives students a generic prompt so students can practice with any essay or article. Here is the prompt:

As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] 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.

[Passage content]

Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade his audience [about content of the passage]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] 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 [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade his audience.

Most of the essays that students will analyze will come from periodicals like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. These periodicals have opinion sections in which authors post argumentative articles. There are many articles free for students to browse online, so there’s really no way you could run out of materials to use for practice. And think, building your skills for this section will make you a more informed citizen. How great!

3) Strategies: Write a five-paragraph essay; choose three persuasive elements to analyze.

When tackling this section, it is important to first consider how to use your time and then how to structure your essay. Since you have 50 minutes, you should spend about 10-15 reading and analyzing the article. With your remaining 35-40 minutes, you should plan and write your essay. The reading and analyzing part should never take too long, and the articles themselves are not meant to be too challenging--not like the Critical Reading section.

For the essay structure, you should choose three persuasive elements and analyze one in each body paragraph. Make sure that you write your essay as specific as possible to the content within the article. Don’t just say an author “uses pathos”; say, for example, that the author “appeals to the reader’s emotions by saying a lack of darkness will affect the creative minds of a new generation.” Many students know the terms needed to describe an author’s rhetorical strategies, but they often make the essays vague because they only use terms and don’t explain precisely what the author is saying or doing.

4) Grading: Two people will grade the essay, but the grade will be reported as 3 separate domain scores, including “Reading,” “Analysis,” and “Writing.”

In the old days, two people would read your essay and each would give it a 1-6 score. These two scores were combined to make the final one, which was 2-12. Now you are going to receive three separate scores.

For the new SAT Essay, each grader scores “Reading,” “Analysis,” and “Writing” on a 1-4 scale. Every “domain score” is combined, so the complete range is 2-8. When you get your test results back, if you got a perfect score, you will see an 8-Reading, 8-Analysis, and 8-Writing. (So, just for the sake of comparing old score to new score, a perfect score would be a 24 now instead of a 12.)

Most students will struggle with the “Analysis” domain, which requires you to explicitly state how the author persuades the audience through the techniques you identify and write about. The “Reading” domain should not be as challenging, as long as you provide a solid introduction paragraph that summarizes the author's position and key points. Also, what you write about throughout the essay will alter your “Reading” domain score, so make sure you talk about the text in specific ways to show you understand its meaning. Finally, the “Writing” domain can be a little tricky if you struggle with varying sentence structures, choosing higher level vocabulary, and do not organize your thoughts clearly.

Overall, the new SAT Essay section will present new obstacles, but it should be a bit more manageable. You actually can use these skills in other parts of your life in tangible ways, so studying shouldn’t be as much of a burden. And there are plenty of resources online to use for practice. Indeed, practice and preparation are key, and at B2A we have a spring semester course and a March cram course to help prepare students for the new SAT spring tests. Let us help you uncover the secrets and master the next stage in SAT testing.


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