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SAT and ACT Prep

Overview of the SAT Essay

Overview of the SAT Essay

Here’s our guide to worry-free writing for your upcoming SAT essay.

Stuck with the SAT essay blues? We’ve got good news for you. This once-vital piece of the SAT scoring process has been generally discontinued by the College Board for weekend administrations of the exam.

However, some states (such as Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Delaware, Oklahoma and New Hampshire) do request that students complete the SAT essay section as a part of the exam. Our advice? Prepare in advance so you’re ready for whatever comes your way on test day. 

Read on to learn more about what you need to know to successfully pass the SAT essay portion of the SAT test. 

Understanding the SAT Essay Format 

The SAT essay portion of the SAT exam is designed to test your reading comprehension skills and your ability to write at a collegiate level. 

When this portion of your test begins, you’ll be asked to read through a passage that’s been pre-written. Once you do this, you’ll be asked to respond in essay form—using the author’s information to inform your opinion about the topic. You will be assessed based on your ability to create a well-written and compelling argument; so be sure to brush up on those persuasive writing techniques! You’ll have approximately 50 minutes to write your passage, which should be plenty of time for you to assemble your response and give it a once-over. 

Guide to Reading SAT Essay Prompts 

The prompt can feel overwhelming at first—however, these often revolve around three main areas of focus: 

Developing SAT Essay Writing Skills  

Looking to knock it out of the park on your SAT essay? Here are a few writing tips you won’t want to miss: 

Focus on clarity and precision — It’s easy to get lost in all of the things you want to say. However, it’s best to stick to the most precise information when you’re writing your SAT essay; stating your opinion clearly and persuasively. If you’re not sure where to start, write a sentence. Then, rewrite it in as few words as possible. Repeat this process often, and challenge yourself with practice SAT essay prompts, working to write down as few words as possible while getting your opinion across. 

Know the importance of a good vocabulary — Part of writing concisely and clearly is choosing the right words to describe your argument. This is where having a strong vocabulary comes in. The good news is you likely have a pretty extensive vocabulary from your regular high school courses and homework assignments. It’s always a good idea to brush up and refine your vocab, however, and it can make the difference in SAT essay scores for many. 

Learn effective argumentation techniques — Persuasive writing is both an art and a science. There are plenty of techniques you can use to effectively respond to your passage prompt; including: 

If you haven’t written persuasively before (or wish to have more practice), search for sample text prompts via the College Board and write practice responses to those leading up to your SAT essay portion. Pick just one or two persuasive techniques to master during this practice period for the best results. 

Creating a Strong Thesis for Your SAT Essay

A great SAT essay has a quality thesis statement that answers the “why” behind your response and argument. In short, your thesis statement acts like a roadmap to your audience, detailing your “final destination” (or your main point), and every “stop” (or subpoint) that you plan to take along the way. 

Writing a thesis statement is a critical skill for high school students to learn; and learning to do so well will help you to create concise and powerful responses to your SAT essay prompt. 

Here are some tips for creating high-quality thesis statements: 

Practice the “concluding sentence” — For many, this looks like an “in this article, we will discuss (item 1), (item 2) and (item 3)” — but don’t feel bound by any specific format. Any summative sentence will do, and in some cases, it’s better to be more conversational. 

Chop, chop, and chop (even more!) — Your thesis statement, while all-encompassing, should be short and sweet. Practice cutting your intro paragraph down to just three to four lines; ending with your thesis statement. 

Distill your main point into a single, snappy sentence — It can feel overwhelming to think about creating an entire roadmap in a single paragraph. The trick? Sum up your point in your own words mentally; creating a single, snappy sentence that states your “why.”After you do this, you can fluff out this information into a more well-rounded and organized thesis statement. Then, you can put the finishing touches on your thesis or intro paragraph, using your thesis statement as a framework to build it around. 

Drafting the Body 

The body is the next step to tackle. It’s essentially your vehicle that answers the points or arguments raised by your thesis paragraph and statement. Since you’ll be writing a response to illustrate your college readiness and aptitude, we recommend using your body paragraphs to rebut or comment on the most relevant features of the passage prompt. 

Here are a few other tips to keep in mind as you go: 

Write an introduction — You may have already done this as you formed your thesis statement. If you haven’t, though, be sure to take a moment and do this critical step. You can always come back to it if you get lost in the weeds of trying to persuasively present your personal opinion in the body paragraphs. 

Develop supporting body paragraphs — Take a deep breath. There’s a good chance that you might feel overwhelmed trying to create these supporting paragraphs for your argument. The trick here is to break them down one paragraph at a time, using each one to point back to your main underlying argument and opinion. Ideally, your body paragraphs will follow the flow that you’ve outlined in your thesis statement. 

Construct an effective conclusion — Don’t cave to the time pressure—you’re almost there! Your conclusion should summarize your main points as concisely as possible; featuring a persuasive call to action where you encourage the reader to take action. This may look like considering your argument or taking actual action after reading your essay. It should be well-connected to the main reason or topic that you’re writing about. 

Remember, writing can be subjective. Your test scores will primarily focus on the objective measures of the SAT essay response; such as the ability to use persuasive techniques, and your ability to extrapolate information from the original passage to create an argument. Think strategically and use this information to guide your practice before the test.  

SAT Scoring Criteria 

High scores are always the goal when it comes to the SAT and ACT essay components. Here’s what you need to know about the current SAT scoring criteria for the new SAT essay section, straight from the College Board: 

Strategies for SAT Essay Preparation 

Your test is just around the corner! Here are a few extra tips to try to be as prepared as you can be: 

Practice with sample essay prompts 

Practice makes perfect. As you prepare to ace your SAT essay portion, consider going through the College Board’s repository of sample essay prompts to get you started. You’ll be able to see what type of information you’ll be presented with ahead of time, giving you plenty of opportunities to practice your reading, writing, and analysis skills. 

Time your practice

You’ll only have 50 minutes for the SAT essay portion. This means that you’ll want to start timing yourself from now; training your brain to only spend so many minutes on a given portion of your ideation and writing process. Be sure to practice leaving yourself time at the end to go back over your work and refine it!

Learn new vocabulary words 

Expanding your vocabulary is a great (and underrated) way to prepare for your SAT essay portion. Taking the time to do this step will equip you with the words and confidence you need to pick the “right” word for your needs during your essay. It can also help to boost your reading comprehension, which will strengthen your argument and position automatically. 

Build your mental stamina 

It’s difficult to write well—especially when you’re under pressure. Practicing grounding and mindfulness techniques can help your test to go off without a hitch. Plus, getting your “head in the game” can also help you to avoid the dreaded “writer’s block” or freeze response when the essay portion begins. 

Practice different persuasive styles 

Many people write persuasively in college—but you may not have gotten the opportunity to practice persuasive styles often in high school. Try experimenting with different techniques, and find some that you’re comfortable and confident in using. Taking the time to do this step can help the style come to you easily during your SAT essay portion, leading to more persuasive and natural-sounding writing. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid in the SAT Essay 

Now that you know what you need to do to score well on your SAT essay, it’s time to take a look at common pitfalls to avoid: 

Tips for Improving Your SAT Essay Score 

Mistakes happen, and that’s okay. If you have a score that you’re not happy with, you may be able to come back to it and try again after some more practice. Here are a few helpful tips to improve your SAT essay score if you decide to go this route: 

Review your essay 

Review is the most important step in the improvement process. Think of your review as a roadmap to a higher score, and choose to focus your attention on finding ways to improve instead of defending your initial submission. It can be uncomfortable to do this, but it’s the most effective way to improve quickly. 

Rework confusing parts 

Generalizations and vague statements can quickly drag your score down. Take a read through your work and try to rewrite your paragraphs, focusing exclusively on precision and writing in the most concise way possible. Then, read through your response as a whole to assess for other areas of improvement. 

Seek feedback  

This step can feel uncomfortable to do, however, seeking feedback is a huge sign of maturity and it will also help you to do better on your next attempt! Students might be too close to their work to see every area of improvement in the work, which is where an outside eye can come in handy. Consider reaching out to a parent, mentor, teacher, or writing coach for support and a read-through. 

Avoid getting “stuck” 

Half of the battle of scoring well on the SAT essay is mental. It can be easy to get caught up in the stress of the score and the overall season of life that you’re in. If you scored poorly, it’s important to avoid getting mentally “stuck”—choosing instead to focus on improving your work. The only direction to go from here is forward; and you owe it to yourself to make the most out of your next opportunity. 

Go over your grammar rules 

Grammar is a tricky area for most of us, and poor use of grammar could be dragging down your score. Going back over the grammar basics helps many to create more polished, precise responses; and can be the golden ticket to a higher overall score. 

While the SAT essay portion can impact your college admissions journey, it isn’t the only element of your application that will be factored in. It’s important to do the best you can, but don’t worry if you don’t score fours across the board. You’re doing great! 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Does the SAT still have an essay in 2023? 

Some states do require the SAT essay response portion in 2023. States on this list include Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Delaware, Oklahoma and New Hampshire.

Does the SAT Essay affect your score? 

The SAT essay response does not factor into your cumulative SAT score. Instead, it will appear to your college reps as a separate score for an optional part of the SAT. It still looks great to do it, though! 

What resources would you suggest for effective SAT Essay preparation? 

Apex Learning Virtual School offers some of the top prep options available. Students can explore ACT and SAT preparation support across all areas of the test; including the optional SAT essay portion. 

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