Test Prep 101: Guide to the SAT Essay

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

SAT Essay GuideHere’s What Students Need to Know About the SAT Essay Section

By IvyWise Master Tutor

Understanding test content, formatting, and changes are important when preparing for the SAT – especially the essay portion. There have been a number of changes to the SAT since the launch of the new exam in 2016, and our guide to the SAT Essay will help students better understand how to master this section should they choose to take it.

SAT Essay Structure and Content

The SAT Essay went through a total transformation in the most recent redesign of the SAT. The new SAT Essay is a lengthy and uniquely challenging section, and it addresses many of the problems that were evident in the prior version of the SAT Essay section.

The new SAT Essay section presents an extended piece of nonfiction prose, often times an article excerpted from the likes of Time Magazine, Condé Nast, or the Los Angeles Times ranging between 650-800 words then asks the student to write a five-paragraph essay that identifies, explains, and evaluates the stylistic, rhetorical, and logical elements of the text that contribute to its meaning.

All the prompts stick to the following template: “Write an essay in which you explain how [the author’s name] builds an argument to persuade his/her audience…your essay should not explain whether or not you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade his/her audience.

Now, this is a tough essay assignment under any circumstances, much less one that the student must complete in 50 minutes as the last section of the SAT. But the need for the new SAT Essay is evident once you look at old essay prompts pre-SAT redesign. The following one is from 2015:

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

“Is it necessary for people to combine their efforts with those of others in order to be most effective? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.” -Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Assignment: Can people have too much enthusiasm? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

The old essay prompts somehow seem both too specific and too general; the main question is too specific to understand—Can people have too much enthusiasm?—and the content the essay is supposed to cover is too broad—“reading, studies, experience, or observations.” Not only were students not required to read the quote given as part of the prompt, in this case an excerpt from Covey’s Seven Habits, it also didn’t represent the sort of reading students do in school.

College Board fixes these problems by looking in-house at the AP Language and Composition curriculum they already have, and adapting one essay assignment from that test to fit the SAT Essay. The ‘rhetorical analysis’ essay assignment from the AP Language and Composition test reads: “Students read a non-fiction text and analyze how the writer’s language choices contribute to his or her purpose and intended meaning for the text.” This could easily be lifted and used as the prompt for the SAT essay.

SAT Essay vs. ACT Essay

The new SAT Essay makes the case that its essay assignment is not only more representative of the reading and writing skills that students learn in school, but also more predictive of the sort of reading, analysis, and writing work that students will go on to do at the college level. Consider the following main differences between the ACT Essay and SAT Essay:

Nature of prompt Develop a unique point of view on a topic while incorporating three different, brief viewpoints on the topic given as part of the prompt. Evaluate a long passage by a published author, identify the author’s argument, and show how the author makes his or her argument.
Time length 40 50
Support that is used Reasoning and examples taken from students’ personal experience in and outside of school Rhetorical, stylistic, and logical reasoning from the passage itself
Average number of words in prompt 250-300 650-800
Scores One holistic essay score between 2-12 points Three separate scores, each between 2-8 points, for Reading, Analysis, and Writing.


The SAT prompt does not ask for the student’s opinion on the passage, it tests for how well the student understands the passage’s argument and how the author makes the argument. For this reason, the student will receive three separate scores for the SAT Essay: a reading, analysis, and writing score.

The ACT Essay prompt is more compact than that of the SAT Essay; however, the SAT Essay is more closely geared to the sort of writing and reading work that students complete in school. The SAT Essay is also unique in that it tests for whether a student understands how an argument works, rather than asking the student to make an argument.

The new SAT Essay is not necessarily ‘harder’ than the old essay section, but it is designed to give universities a clearer picture of a student’s reading and writing abilities, which can be a really positive thing. For this reason, it is important for prospective SAT test takers to be aware of these changes, and familiarize themselves with the new look of the SAT essay!

Need additional help preparing for the SAT Essay? Contact us today for more information on our SAT prep and other test prep services!

Also, be sure to read Peter’s other section breakdowns, including his guide to the SAT Reading, Writing, and Math sections.



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