Whether you've never written an SAT Essay or didn't get the score you wanted on your last test, you can benefit from knowing more: both about the essay itself, and what really matters when the graders are reading your essay.
To introduce you to what you'll have to do, we've gathered up these 15 tips to master the SAT essay. If you can reliably follow all these points, you'll be able to get at least a 6/6/6 on the SAT essay—guaranteed.
The SAT Essay is a very short assignment. You only get 50 minutes to read a 650-750 word passage, analyze the devices the author uses to structure her/his argument, and write a full-fledged essay—and it can pass in a flash if you don't have a method for attacking it.
Writing an SAT essay requires a very specific approach that's unlike the essays you've been writing for English class in school. The goal of this strategy is to cram in as many as possible of the desired components in the 50 minutes you've got. In this article, we give you 15 key tips for the SAT essay.
The first five tips in this article relate to what the College Board tells us about what's a good essay. The next five are truths that the College Board doesn't want you to know (or doesn’t make explicit). And the last five tips for SAT essay writing show you how to build an SAT essay, step by step.
What the College Board Does Tell You: 5 Tips
The College Board explains the main components of the successful SAT Essay in its scoring criteria. Here they are, condensed:
#1: Give a Clear Thesis
The SAT essay rubric states: "The response includes a precise central claim.”
What this means is that your essay needs to make a clear argument that the reader can easily identify. All you have to do to create your "precise central claim" is to identify the main idea of the passage and list the methods the author uses to support it.
Fortunately, the SAT provides you with the passage’s main idea, so you don’t have to go hunting for it yourself. I've bolded the claim in this (fake) sample prompt so you can see this for yourself:
Write an essay in which you explain how Sam Lindsay builds an argument to persuade her audience that more works of art should feature monsters. In your essay, analyze how Lindsay uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of her argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Lindsay’s claims, but rather explain how Lindsay builds an argument to persuade her audience.
Now, here's an example of a thesis statement for an essay responding to this prompt:
In the article “Monsters Monsters Everywhere,” Sam Lindsay uses personal anecdotes, vivid language, and appeals to emotion to persuade her audience that more works of art should feature monsters.
It's fine to copy the exact words describing the author’s central claim from the prompt into your thesis statement—in fact, this guarantees that the graders will see that your thesis is there and on-topic.
#2: Include Both an Introduction and a Conclusion
The SAT essay rubric states: "The response includes a skillful introduction and conclusion.”
Including an introduction paragraph in your essay is absolutely essential to getting a Writing score above a 4 (out of 8). The introduction paragraph introduces the reader to what you’ll be talking about and allows you to set up the structure for the rest of the essay. Plus, an introduction can be a pretty good indicator of the quality for the rest of the essay—a poorly constructed introduction is often a warning that the essay that follows will be equally discombobulated.
It's best to have both an introduction and a conclusion, but if you’re running short on time and can only have one, definitely pick the introduction. The main reason for this is that a good introduction includes your thesis statement. For the SAT essay, your thesis (or your "precise central claim") should be a statement about what devices the author uses to build her/his argument.
Introductions can be tricky to write, because whatever you write in that paragraph can then make you feel like you’re locked into writing just about that. If you’re struggling with the introduction paragraph, leave yourself 10 blank lines at the beginning of the essay and jump into writing your body paragraphs. Just make sure you remember to go back and write in your introduction before time’s up!
#3: Use Effective Language and Word Choice
There are a couple of parts of the Writing score section on the SAT essay rubric that pertain directly to style.
The SAT essay rubric states this about a perfect-Writing-score essay: "The response is cohesive and demonstrates a highly effective use and command of language."
For most of us, "command of language" is an area that takes a long time to develop, so unless your language skills are really rough or you're prepping at least a year ahead of time (or both), you'll probably get more out of focusing on the other components of the essay.
The SAT essay rubric also states: “The response has a wide variety in sentence structures. The response demonstrates a consistent use of precise word choice. The response maintains a formal style and objective tone.”
This basically boils down to: don't be repetitive and don't make grammar mistakes. In addition, you should avoid using first person statements like "I" or "My" in the essay, along with any other informality. You're writing the equivalent of a school paper, not an opinion piece.
Bad (Too informal):
“I think that Sam’s super persuasive in this article cause she’s just so passionate. It made me feel kinda bad that I don’t really monster it up in my everyday life.”
“Lindsay’s passionate defense of how drawing monsters 'allows us to laugh at our personal foibles' causes her audience to put themselves in her shoes and empathize with her position.”
Finally, try to use different words to describe the same idea—don't use "shows" 15 times. Take the chance to show off your vocabulary (if, and only if, the vocabulary is appropriate and makes sense). This component is the biggest reason why revising your SAT Essay is essential—it's fast and easy to change repeated words to other ones after you're finished, but it can slow you down during writing to worry about your word choice. If you're aiming for a top score, using advanced vocabulary appropriately is vital.
#4: Only Use Information From the Passage
All the relevant information is in the passage, so avoid getting drawn into the topic and using your outside knowledge—you want to be sure to show that you’ve read the passage.
In real life, there are many ways to support a thesis, depending on the topic. But on the SAT, there's one kind of correct support: specific details drawn from the passage you’re asked to analyze. We'll show you more below.
#5: Focus Your Essay on Relevant Details
You don’t have to mention every single detail that makes the argument effective. In fact, your essay will be more coherent and more likely to score higher in Analysis if you focus your discussion on just a few points. It's more important to show that you're able to pick out the most important parts of the argument and explain their function that it is to be able to identify every single persuasive device the author used.
Think about it as if you were asked to write a 50-minute essay describing the human face and what each part does. A clear essay would just focus on major features—eyes, nose, and mouth. A less effective essay might also try to discuss cheekbones, eyebrows, eyelashes, skin pores, chin clefts, and dimples as well. While all of these things are part of the face, it would be hard to get into detail about each of the parts in just 50 minutes.
And this is the eye, and this is the other eye, and this is the...other eye...and the other eye...and the other...wait...what's going on here?
What the College Board Doesn’t Tell You: 5 Secrets
Even though the SAT essay has clearly stated, publicly-available guidelines, there are a few secrets to writing the essay that most students don't know and that can give you a major advantage on the test.
#1: Read the Prompt Before the Passage
Why? Because the prompt includes the description of the author’s claim. Knowing what the author’s claim is going into the article can help keep you focused on the argument, rather than getting caught up in reading the passage (especially if the topic is one you're interested in).
#2: Your Facts Must Be Accurate…But Your Interpretation Doesn’t Have to Be
A big part of the Analysis score for the SAT essay is not just identifying the devices the author uses to build her argument, but explaining the effect that the use of these devices has on the reader. You don’t have to be completely, 100% accurate about the effect the passage has on the reader, because there is no one right answer. As long as you are convincing in your explanation and cite specific examples, you’ll be good.
Here's an example of an interpretation about what effect a persuasive device has on the reader (backed by evidence from the passage):
Lindsay appeals to the emotions of her readers by describing the forlorn, many-eyed creatures that stare reproachfully at her from old school notebook margins. The sympathy the readers feel for these forgotten doodles is expertly transferred to Lindsay herself when she draws the connection between the drawn monsters and her own life: “Often, I feel like one of these monsters—hidden away in my studio, brushes yearning to create what no one else cares to see.”
Now, you don't necessarily know for sure if "sympathy for the doodles" is what the author was going for in her passage. The SAT essay graders probably don't know either (unless one of them wrote the passage). But as long as you can make a solid case for your interpretation, using facts and quotes from the passage to back it up, you'll be good.
#3: You Should Write More Than One Page
This has always been true for the SAT essay, but for the first time ever, the College Board actually came out in The Official SAT Study Guide and explicitly said that length really does matter. Here's the description of a one-paragraph, 120-word-long student response that received a Writing score of 2/8 (bolding mine).
“Due to the brief nature of the response, there is not enough evidence of writing ability to merit a score higher than 1. Overall, this response demonstrates inadequate writing.” (source: The Official SAT Study Guide, p. 176)
You’ll have one page for (ungraded) scrap paper that you can use to plan out your essay, and four pages of writing paper for the essay—plan on writing at least two pages for your essay.
#4: Be Objective When Reading the Passage
Being able to stay detached while reading the passage you'll be writing the essay about can be tricky. This task might be especially difficult for students who were used to the old SAT essay (which pretty much made it mandatory for you to choose one side or the other). You’ll have to practice reading persuasive essays and gaining objectivity (so that you are able to write about how the argument is constructed, not whether it’s good or bad).
A good way to practice this is to read news articles on topics you care deeply about by people who hold the opposite view that you do. For instance, as a composer and violist/violinist, I might read articles about how children should not be encouraged to play musical instruments, since it holds no practical value later on in life (a view I disagree with vehemently). I would then work on my objectivity by jotting down the central ideas, most important details, and how these details relate to the central ideas of the article.
Being able to understand the central ideas in the passage and details without being sidetracked by rage (or other emotions) is key to writing an effective SAT essay.
"Always Wear a Helmet." ©2015-2016 by Samantha Lindsay. Used with permission.
Don't let the monster of rage distract you from your purpose.
#5: Memorize and Identify Specific Persuasive Techniques
Once you’re able to read articles objectively (as discussed in point #4 above), the next step is to be able to break down the essay passage's argument. To do this successfully, you'll need to be aware of some of the techniques that are frequently used to build arguments.
The SAT essay prompt does mention a few of these techniques (bolding mine):
As you read the passage below, consider how Lindsay 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.
It’s certainly possible to wing it and go into the test without knowing specific names of particular persuasive devices and just organically build up your essay from features you notice in the article. However, it's way easier to go into the essayknowing certain techniques that you can then scan the passage for.
For instance, after noting the central ideas and important details in the article about how more works of art should feature monsters, I would then work on analyzing the way the author built her argument. Does she use statistics in the article? Personal anecdotes? Appeal to emotion?
I discuss the top persuasive devices you should know in more detail in the article "6 SAT Essay Examples to Answer Every Prompt".
How to Get All the Necessary Components in 50 Minutes: 5 Step-By-Step Strategies
When you write an SAT essay, you only have 50 minutes to read, analyze, and write an essay, which means that you need a game plan going in. Here's a short step-by-step guide on how to write an effective SAT essay.
#1: Answer the Prompt
Don’t just summarize the passage in your essay, or identify persuasive devices used by the author—instead, be sure to actually analyze the way the author of the passage builds her argument. As The Official SAT Study Guidestates,
"[Y]our discussion should focus on what the author does, why he or she does it, and what effect this is likely to have on readers."
College Board makes a point of specifying this very point in its grading rubric as well—an essay that scores a 2 (out of 4) or below in Analysis "merely asserts, rather than explains [the persuasive devices'] importance." If you want to get at least a 3/4 (or a 6/8) in Analysis, you need to heed this warning and stay on task.
#2: Support Your Points With Concrete Evidence From the Passage
The best way to get a high Reading score for your essay is to quote from the passage appropriately to support your points. This shows not only that you’ve read the passage (without your having to summarize the passage at all), but also that you understand what the author is saying and the way the author constructed her argument.
As an alternative to using direct quotations from the passage, it’s also okay to paraphrase some of what you discuss. If you are explaining the author's argument in your own words, however, you need to be extra careful to make sure that the facts you're stating are accurate—in contrast to scoring on the old SAT essay, scoring on the new SAT essay takes into account factual inaccuracies and penalizes you for them.
#3: Keep Your Essay Organized
The SAT essay rubric states: “The response demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay.”
The main point to take away from this is that you should follow the standard structure for an SAT essay (introduction-body-body-conclusion). Using a basic four- to five-paragraph essay structure will both keep you organized and make it easier for the essay graders to follow your reasoning—a win-win situation!
Furthermore, you should connect each paragraph to each other through effective transitions. We'll give you ways to improve your performance in this area in the articles linked at the end of this article.
#4: Make Time to Read, Analyze, Plan, Write, and Revise
Make sure you allocate appropriate amounts of time for each of the steps you’ll need to take to write the essay—50 minutes may seem like a long time, but it goes by awfully quick with all the things you need to do.
Reading the passage, analyzing the argument, planning your essay, writing your essay, and revising are all important components for writing an 8/8/8 essay. For a breakdown of how much time to spend on each of these steps, be sure to check out our article on how to write an SAT essay, step-by-step.
"Watch Yourself." ©2015-2016 by Samantha Lindsay. Used with permission.
The more you practice analysis and writing, the better you’ll get at the task of writing an SAT essay (as you work up to it a little at a time).
It's especially important to practice the analysis and writing components of the essay if you are a slow reader (since reading speed can be difficult to change). Being able to analyze and write quickly can help balance out the extra time you take to read and comprehend the material. Plus, the time you put into working on analysis and writing will yield greater rewards than time spent trying to increase your reading speed.
But don't forget: while it’s okay to break up the practice at first, you also really do need to get practice buckling down and doing the whole task in one sitting.
This is just the beginning of improving your SAT essay score. Next, you actually need to put this into practice with a real SAT essay.
Looking to get even deeper into the essay prompt? Read our complete list of SAT essay prompts and our detailed explanation of the SAT essay prompt.
Hone your SAT essay writing skills with our articles about how to write a high-scoring essay, step by step and how to get a 8/8/8 on the SAT essay.
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Makers of the new SAT have decided that the Reading and Writing sections go together like peanut butter and jelly. Instead of treating them separately, College Board now takes Reading and Writing together to give you one Evidence-based Reading and Writing score.
This guide will go over exactly how these two sections merge and how this new format affects your test prep. To begin, let’s define this new category on the SAT.
What Is Evidence-Based Reading and Writing?
Ah, the million dollar question! Evidence-based Reading and Writing, which we can abbreviate as EBRW, refers to both the Reading and Writing sections of the SAT together.
"But these two sections are separate!" you might have just declared at your computer screen. You wouldn't be wrong, and I applaud your passion for SAT accuracy. When you take the test, you do take these two sections individually. When you get your scores back, though, you’ll just get one EBRW score between 200 and 800.
The other half of your total score will be your math score, which will also fall somewhere between 200 and 800. Add your EBRW score and math score together, and you’ll get a total score somewhere between 400 and 1600.
On the old SAT, Reading and Writing were scored separately, resulting in a maximum possible score of 2400. In those days, the verbal sections (technically called Critical Reading and Writing) made up two-thirds of your total score, while math only made up one-third. Not the ideal make-up for students who were stronger in math, but English-oriented kids were sitting pretty.
Now, half your score is verbal, and the other half is math. They’re equal! Similarly, your performance on both the Reading and Writing sections factor equally into your combined EBRW score, even though the Reading section’s almost twice as long as the Writing section.
To give you a clear view into where your EBRW score actually comes from, I'll go over the process in the steps below.
Where Does Your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score Come From?
On the SAT, you’ll first take the 65-minute Reading section. Then you’ll move onto the 35-minute Writing and Language section. Even though Writing’s a lot shorter than Reading, it counts equally toward your combined Reading and Writing score.
If you’ve scored any of your own practice tests, then you may be familiar with the scoring process. First, you add up your raw score in each section, giving yourself one point for every right answer and zero points for wrong or skipped answers.
Then you use the provided conversion chart to convert both raw scores into scaled scores between 10 and 40. The exact conversion might differ slightly based on how students perform on a given administration, but here’s a representative sample chart:
After you convert your raw scores to a scale of 10 to 40, then you simply add them together and multiply by 10. That equation will get you your final EBRW score between 200 and 800.
For Example: Let’s say you got a raw score of 31 in Reading and 28 in Writing and Language. Your Reading score gets scaled to a 30 and your Writing and Language score gets scaled to a 28. Add them together and multiply by 10:
30 + 28 = 58 x 10 = 580
Your final EBRW score’s a 580.
Similarly, you can see how to perfect scaled scores get you an 800. A perfect scaled score of 40 in Reading + 40 in Writing = 80. Multiply by 10 and you get 800.
Even though the two sections are scored together, they’re still presented as separate sections on the SAT. At the same time, they feature some overlap in content and skills beyond a strong grasp of the English language. To give you a sense of their similarities and differences, let’s explore the content of both sections, starting with Reading.
Gather round! It's reading hour.
SAT Reading: An Overview
SAT Reading is always your first section on the SAT. It tests your reading comprehension skills by asking you to read passages and one or more graphics and to answer questions about them. Below you’ll find an overview of the Reading section’s format and question types.
SAT Reading Format
|Time||Number of Questions||Time/question|
|65 minutes||52 questions||1 minute, 15 seconds|
All of the questions in the Reading section are multiple choice with four possible answer choices, A, B, C, and D. This section contains five passages, or technically six, since “one” is a set of paired passages.
One of these passages come from World Literature, two come from History or Social Studies, and two come from Science. One or more passages will be accompanied by a graphic, like a chart, table, or graph.
SAT Reading Content
The Reading section tests your skills to comprehend passages from various genres. It wants you to examine both big picture ideas and little picture details, as well as to manage your time efficiently. Since you just get one big block of time in this 65-minute section, it’s your job to divide it roughly equally among the five passages.
Some elements that the Reading section asks about are main idea, important details, and vocabulary in context. By analyzing the text, we’ve actually picked out eight main types of Reading questions. They are big picture/main idea, little picture/detail, inference, vocabulary in context, function, author technique, evidence support, and data interpretation.
For a detailed breakdown of each question type, along with sample questions of each, check out our full guide to the SAT Reading section! For now, let’s take a look at the structure and content of Writing and Language.
The Writing section's like the Reading section, except the passages are all messed up. You get to fix them!
SAT Writing and Language: An Overview
SAT Writing and Language asks you to be an editor. You’ll read passages that have errors of grammar and punctuation, as well as unclear organization. Then you’ll identify the errors and provide suggestions for how to fix them. Before getting into the question types, consider this section’s overall format below.
SAT Writing Format
|Time||Number of Questions||Time per Question|
|35 minutes||44 questions||47-48 seconds|
All 44 of the Writing questions are multiple choice and based on passages. You’ll get four passages, each followed by 11 questions. These passages will come from four distinct areas: Careers, Social Studies, Humanities, and Science.
Like in the Reading section, one or more of these passages (often the Science one) will be accompanied by a graphic, like a scatterplot, bar graph, or chart.
SAT Writing Content
As you read above, Writing and Language questions ask you to edit and revise words, sentences, and paragraphs. You might replace a word, fix a mistake in grammar or punctuation, rearrange sentences, or even add or delete details to improve organization and clarity.
College Board categorizes 24 questions as Command of Evidence, Words in Context, and Expression of Ideas. These questions ask about how ideas develop or get supported, the proper use of vocabulary, and organization.
The remaining 20 questions ask about Standard English Conventions. These include questions about sentence structure, usage, and punctuation. These questions tend to get down to the nitty-gritty of sentence mechanics and little details like comma and apostrophe use. You can find a full breakdown of the skills tested in Writing and Language in this comprehensive guide.
As you can see, Reading and Writing both test your verbal skills, but they do so in distinct ways. So does the fact that they’re now combined into one score affect your prep at all?
Reading and Writing have distinct differences, but these next five study tips focus on where they overlap.
Prepping for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 5 Tips
Reading and Writing require their own approaches to prep, but they have enough of an overlap that some of your prep will help in both sections. The five tips below focus on the ways that Reading and Writing intersect.
Read on for five essential pieces of advice that will help you get ready for both Reading and Writing at the same time - and thereby boost your EBRW score!
1. Focus on Command of Evidence
If you look at the way College Board describes its question types, it uses the category, “Command of Evidence,” for both Reading and Writing questions. For both sections, you need to base your answers on evidence from the text.
This “eye for evidence” is a key skill in both sections. However, Reading and Writing evidence-based questions look a little different. The Reading section has explicit evidence-based questions that ask you about your reason for an answer to a previous question.
Here’s one example of a Reading Command of Evidence question.
The Writing section tests your Command of Evidence slightly differently. It typically asks whether you should make a specific revision to a passage and why, like in the following sample question:
While Reading and Writing have their differences, they both call for a strong command of evidence. To improve your EBRW score a whole, you should hone this skill. Make sure you practice close reading and base your answers entirely on the text.
Don’t get distracted by previous knowledge of a topic. You should be able to back up all of your answers with evidence directly from the passage if asked. As you can see from the above sample questions, you very well may be asked to do just that!
2. Study Words in Context
Another similarity between Reading and Writing is that they both ask about words in context. As all of the questions are passage-based in both sections, all of the vocabulary questions require you to understand how a word is being used in context.
Here’s a typical example of a vocabulary questions in the Reading section. It refers to a passage from SAT Practice Test 3.
In Writing, you’ll get the passage alongside the questions so you can refer right back to a specific word or line. In the example below, #25 asks if the vocabulary word being used is the correct one.
To prepare for these questions in both sections, you should make sure you understand how the meanings of words shift depending on their contexts. The words might not be especially advanced, but they often are ones that can have multiple meanings. Focus on these kinds of mid-level, multiple meaning words as you study for EBRW.
Take a close look at graphs and charts to boost your EBRW score.
3. Practice Data Interpretation Questions
As you read above, both sections ask you to interpret data from charts, tables, and/or graphs. These graphs will relate back to a passage.
Here are examples of data interpretation questions from the Reading section.
Since the Writing section features passages with errors, it tends to ask whether the data in a graphic is being accurately represented in its corresponding passage. If the answer’s no, it may ask you about the correct way to describe it.
To prepare for Evidence-based Reading and Writing, you should practice data interpretation questions. Strengthen your skills at interpreting and describing data in graphs and charts, and keep an eye on the relationship between a passage and its corresponding graphic.
Your SAT prep materials should have sample questions for you to use, and you might also practice with data interpretation questions from the Science section of ACT practice tests.
4. Read and Write Widely
You just saw three specific ways that Reading and Writing questions overlap. On a more big picture level, these sections are similar because they test your understanding of the English language.
By practicing reading widely and writing often, you can greatly improve your skills. As you saw, both sections select passages from various genres, mainly those that are nonfiction and argument-based. To prepare, therefore, you should practice reading not just prose, but also works from history and science.
There are specific methods you can use to break down the structure of an argument or analyze an author’s word choice. When you’re not taking such an analytical approach, though, you should practice reading and writing as often and possible. Over time, you'll see gradual improvement in your reading comprehension and writing skills.
5. Be Strategic About Your Scores
One final tip: remember that your final scores will be half math and half verbal. You can’t consider the Reading and Writing sections as unrelated, as your performance on both sections will affect your overall verbal score.
Also remember that both sections contribute equally to your EBRW score. If you’re scoring consistently strong in Reading, then you might want to put more of your energy toward Writing, or vice versa. Figure out where your strengths and weaknesses lie and what question types you can study to improve your combined score.
There are other important strategies you can use to study for each section individually, but these five tips are the most important ones to remember when considering the sections together as Evidence-based Reading and Writing. In closing, let’s review the key points you need to remember about EBRW and your SAT verbal score.
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: Final Thoughts
If you take anything away from this guide, it should be this: Evidence-based Reading and Writing refers to the Reading section and Writing and Language section together. You'll get one EBRW score between 200 and 800 that makes up half of your total SAT score.
Both of these sections require their own approach to prep. Reading asks about reading comprehension, while Writing asks you to be an editor and fix mistakes in grammar, organization, and punctuation.
Skills and questions in both sections have some overlap, though. They’re all passage-based and emphasize command of evidence, an understanding of words in context, the ability to interpret data, and, of course, your overall English language skills.
Finally, as you prep, remember that both Reading and Writing and Language factor equally into your verbal score. They’re both equally important sections that together make up half of your total SAT score.
Would you like to learn more about the Writing and Language section? Check out this guide for a full overview of the Writing section of the SAT.
SAT Reading has changed a lot this year. This guide goes over the five key changes that you need to know.
Do you feel like you get what the verbal sections are all about? To learn more about the Math No Calculator, check out this comprehensive guide.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now: