The new SAT debuts this Saturday (March 5) and there is good news and bad news. Give me the bad news first, you say? Good call. Let’s end on the happy stuff. The bad news is that the new Redesigned SAT essay is a bit more complex than the old SAT essay. But here’s the good news: it’s also going to feel a lot more like the essays you write in school. (Bonus good news: unlike the old SAT essay, it’s also optional! That is assuming your schools don’t require it.)
So let’s capitalize on these warm, fuzzy feelings and cozy on up with the new SAT essay, and talk about how you can conquer it.
The New SAT Essay Prompts
On the old SAT, you were given philosophical prompts such as “Is it better to aim for small accomplishments instead of great achievements?” or “Do rules and limitations contribute to a person’s happiness?” Or my personal (non-)favorite: the controversial “Is reality television good or bad?” prompt from a few years ago. You were then asked to develop your point of view on this debatable issue and support it with examples taken from your “readings, studies, experience or observations.”
Disgruntled SAT graders got fed up with formulaic essays that started with the rather jarring phrase, “As can be seen in the examples of Huckleberry Finn, my little brother, and Hitler…” and decided there was no hope for the future of society. Ok, maybe that wasn’t the entire reason for the change, but it was a contributing factor. Just as the overhaul of the SAT in general was motivated by a purported desire to more closely parallel what students were learning in school, the change in the essay prompt is also an attempt to better align with the writing tasks students are asked to do in their English classes: namely, “read this [novel, poem, short story, article, speech, etc.] and tell me what it is doing.”
On the test, you’ll be given a passage that is about the length of one of the longer passages on the SAT Reading Test, and you’ll be asked to explain how the author uses evidence to support their claims, reasoning to develop ideas and draw connections, and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to their ideas.
So basically the SAT doesn’t care about your perspective anymore; it wants to know that you can see and evaluate the perspectives of others.
As I mentioned, this is probably the type of essay you write most often in your English classes: “Here’s The Great Gatsby,” says your teacher, “How does F. Scott Fitzgerald satirize American ideals?” or “Here’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ How does the poet Robert Frost convey his attitude about choices?” Or at least the College Board hopes this is the case, so you can’t accuse them of unfairness and you will hopefully write them better essays.
But how do you write a better essay for the new SAT?
Top Tips for Writing the New SAT Essay
Tip 1: You don’t have to figure out the main idea of the essay: the question will tell you.
For example, one of the sample essays released by the SAT asks you to “explain how Eliana Dockterman builds an argument to persuade her audience that there are benefits to early exposure to technology.”
This question appears after the passage, but read it first. This way you will already know that Dockterman thinks there are benefits to early exposure to technology before you start reading (you already know the main idea!) and you can read specifically looking for the support for this.
Tip 2: Spend a full 15 to 20 minutes reading, taking notes, and planning your essay.
When the clock is ticking, it can be tempting to speed read and start frantically in filling the pages of your test booklet as soon as possible. But 50 minutes is a pretty substantial amount of time for the length of essay that the SAT wants. The highest scoring sample student essays on the College Board’s website are not much longer than they used to be on the old essay when you had only 25 minutes. So make sure you use the extra time to find good support in the text and organize it into cohesive supporting paragraphs. This is so much better than writing an essay that rambles or contradicts itself.
On the new SAT essay, you are graded on 3 domains: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. So “writing” is only one part of it. If you don’t put in the time to do careful reading and analysis, you won’t do well across the board.
Tip 3: Organize your supporting paragraphs by author technique or strategy.
Now, this is not the only way to organize a winning essay, but it makes a lot of sense, and it takes some of the guesswork out the equation if you already know how you are going to organize your essay before you even walk into the SAT.
Your introductory paragraph should always include a thesis statement that states the author’s perspective and alludes to the ways in which he or she supports and develops this perspective. For example, maybe the three strategies you saw the author use (which then become developed into your three supporting paragraphs) are a “personal anecdote, historical references, and rhetorical questions.” Introduce this in your intro paragraph, then develop each one as a paragraph of its own, and finish with a conclusion that wraps it up. Boom, you’ve written your SAT essay, and it is beautifully organized.
Tip 4: Examine the sample student essays on the College Board website carefully.
This is a brand new essay, and it is brand new for everyone. The people who will be grading your essay will have been trained to grade it like the sample essays that are on the website, so these free samples and the reasons why they got the scores they did are a gold mine of information. Remember, you too are writing for a specific audience: the SAT graders. So know what they are looking for and write for them.
And if you are taking the ACT, did you know that that ACT essay completely changed this year as well?? Seriously, guys, cool it with the changes. Follow the link for more on that.Kristin Fracchia is an SAT and ACT expert at Magoosh. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007.