While the essay portion of the SAT® is technically an optional task, there are benefits to going ahead and completing it. With a completed essay portion, regardless of the schools you end up applying to, all SAT® requirements will be met. Some schools require the essay portion and others do not, but if you change your mind at the last minute and apply to a school that does require the essay, you’ll be covered and avoid an incomplete application that won’t be considered for admission. Although there is a slight increase in test cost to take the essay portion (a $14 additional fee), this may also be waived if you are eligible for an SAT® fee waiver. And taking all portions of the test at once can save you money.
Remember the purpose. Unlike other essays you may have written, this one isn’t asking for your opinion nor can you just summarize the passage and earn a good score. The purpose of the essay is to assess your ability to identify and critically analyze an author’s argument. The prompt will generally ask you to analyze the argument in terms of how the author uses:
- evidence to support claims
- reasoning to develop ideas
- rhetorical devices that effectively develop and communicate the argument
Your job is to:
- Write an organized, focused, analytical response to a passage.
- Use appropriate tone and structure.
- Employ standard English conventions of grammar.
Manage your time. Like the rest of the SAT®, the essay portion is timed. You have 50 minutes to read and respond to a 650–750 word passage. This means that you have to use your time wisely to allow for reading and understanding the passage, determining your response to the prompt, finding evidence, and writing a cohesive response—all while leaving time to edit your draft. Here are some hints for successful time management while attending to all aspects of your task:
Read the passage and the prompt carefully. Annotate the passage as you read so that you have evidence and claims identified that you can come back to and use later. Be sure to identify the author’s argument or claim—that is the basis of your response and if you misunderstand it because you are rushing, your whole essay may end up off-topic and earn you a low score.
Plan ahead. Although it may be tempting to dive right in to the writing portion as soon as you’ve read the passage, avoid that temptation and write out a brief outline to help you stay focused and organized while you write. A quick 2 minutes spent outlining can save you time and headache later when you realize you forgot an important point and are trying to figure out where to stick it in because you didn’t plan for it ahead of time.
Start strong. The intro paragraph is important because it sets the tone for your essay and it includes a clear and well-developed thesis statement that will guide the rest of your response. Make sure that your thesis relates back to the prompt and that subsequent body paragraphs support that prompt-based thesis statement.
Use evidence. Don’t make claims you’re not willing to prove. If you say an author does something or uses a particular device, prove it with evidence from the text. Even if not an exact quote, it should be a specific example or reference.
Wrap it up. Manage your time such that you allow time to write some sort of conclusion to draw your writing to a close. It’s not good for a reader to get to the end of your essay and feel like it’s a cliffhanger. Don’t leave them wanting more—wrap up your ideas succinctly and leave the reader with something meaningful or insightful to think about.
Leave time to edit. In the rush of writing, you may inadvertently skip words or misspell something or forget a comma. Leaving yourself a few minutes at the end gives you a chance to reread what you wrote and polish it as best you can in the time that you have.
Do your research. Look at samples and practice writing like them. Understanding how SAT essays are scored and reading some sample passages, prompts, and student responses will give you some insight into the type of writing you will need to produce. Try practicing timed writing responses by looking up sample SAT essay prompts, setting the timer for 50 minutes, and responding to the practice prompt. Using the scoring rubrics (available online), score your response and see where you think you fall. Knowing the rubric elements on which you do well and those in which you need improvement will help you focus on strengthening those weaker areas before the test.