Intro to SAT Essay

So the big question is this: should you even care about your SAT essay? If it’s optional, and it doesn’t really affect your score, then why would any sane person take this thing at all?

Three answers to this question:

  1. It depends on the colleges. Many competitive universities recommend the “SAT with Essay” when submitting standardized test scores. Because most of you will be applying to the top 100 universities in the United States, I make every student enrolled at AP Guru to take the SAT Essay. It’s up to you to research your colleges of choice and figure out what their policy on this will be
  2. It can be used as an indicator to “verify” your actual application essay. Unfortunately, there’s a growing trend of students getting “help” on their essays. Getting guidance and editing is fine, but a lot of essays now are basically written by a professional and submitted as student work. Many colleges will use this essay to see if your writing style is consistent. If you write like Hemingway in your application essay, and like a 3-year-old child on your SAT essay, they’ll know something is up.
  3. It’s so easy to ace that you might as well take it. The SAT Essay is easy to prep for. Although the essay may seem intimidating right now, after you learn the Essay Strategies, you will find that the SAT Essay is perhaps your favorite and easiest part of the SAT. So honestly, why not just do it? It takes 50 minutes to write that’s an hour you’d probably spend watching Netflix on the Saturday of your test. And because it’s at the end of the test, it’s not going to eat into your mental energy.

Overall, my answer would be: just learn to write this essay well because it’s easy, it can’t really do any harm, and it COULD do some good.

So, now since you have decided to give the essay, it’s important to understand what it actually is about.

Basics of the SAT Essay

The SAT will provide you with an argumentative essay and you will have 50 minutes to read, plan, and write how effectively the author develops his or her argument. Basically, you have to

  1. Read a 2-page essay.
  2. Analyze the essay and explain three things:

  A) How the author uses evidence to make his or her point.

   B) How the author uses reasoning to make his or her point.

   C) How the author uses stylistic or persuasive elements to make his or her point.

3. Write your response in the four lined pages provided to you.

It’s essential to also understand that the PROMPT will ALWAYS be the same. The essay you read will always be different. But the prompt - the actual assignment and the set of tasks ahead of you, will be identical on every test.

Once you learn it, you’ve learned it for every SAT essay.

It will look like this:


“Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his/her audience that the point he or she is making is true. In your essay, analyze how the author uses evidence, reasoning, and persuasive/stylistic arguments to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his/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 the author’s claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his or her audience.”

How is the Essay Graded

Once you have sent the essay in, two readers each will give it a score from 1-4 in three categories: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. The scores for each category are summed up.

Essay Grading in three categories
Essay Grading in three categories

The three totals are then added up to get the final score, a value between 6 (the worst) and 24 (the best). This is the score colleges will look at.

What do these sub-scores mean?

  1. Reading - how well you demonstrated your understanding of the passages.
  • Did you understand what the author is saying?
  • Did you mention the main idea of the passage in your essay?
  1. Analysis - how well you analyzed the passage and carried out the task of explaining how the author builds his or her argument.
  • How well did you explain how the author builds his or her argument?
  • Did you focus on the parts of the passage that most contribute to the author’s persuasiveness?
  • Do you understand the three elements (evidence, reasoning, and style) and how the author uses them to build his or her case?
  • Do NOT take a stance on the issue. Your job is to analyze the author’s argument, NOT show why you agree or disagree with the author.
  1. Writing - how well you crafted your response. In other words, your wording and grammar.
  • Did you break up your essay into discrete paragraphs (intro, body paragraphs, conclusion)?
  • Was your punctuation's and grammar usage correct?
  • Did you vary your sentence structures (short and long, simple and complex)?
  • Did you present your essay in a way that’s pleasant and logical to read?

Notice that you are NOT being graded on your opinions or your facts. You don’t need to know ANYTHING about ANYTHING in order to get a perfect score. Furthermore, you don’t need to come up with any opinions at all. It’s all there for you.

Instead, you’re simply being graded on how well you understand the opinions and facts provided by the author, and how well you can explain them to your own reader.

The house is built for you - the College Board is just asking you what it’s made of and how it’s built.

You just need the strategies that you are going to learn in the AP Guru SAT essay class and the chapters in this book. There’s a very limited set of strategies and procedures that you need to learn, and once you do, you’re going to be a SAT Essay maestro.

Now, you need to understand how the essay graders assign points for these different categories.

The Grading Procedure

For every SAT session, the College Board receives hundreds of thousands of essays from students across the world. How on earth does it manage to grade every single one of them in 2-3 weeks?

First, it hires a bunch of teachers who presumably know something about grading papers. But that still does not solve the problem. Next, it has to standardize the grading process so that scores remain consistent across the board and the teachers can get through the sheer number of essays quickly.

The College Board standardizes the process by asking graders to put their own opinions aside and solely correct using set guidelines. Any flashes of your literary brilliance will be glossed over in a ruthless grading procedure that only cares about whether your work matches the standard model.

Your job, then, is not to write a masterpiece. This isn’t your IB English class. The teacher won’t be looking at every word and dissecting all your punctuation marks. Instead, your job is simply to write something that fits the guidelines. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be innovative and it doesn’t have to be in your voice and style. Just give them what they want.

The Game Plan

The following is what we will learn in the next few chapters and what you have to do:

  1. Circle the thesis from the “summary box” provided by the SAT, which is very important
  2. Read the entire passage.
  3. Every time you see a piece of evidence, underline it in the essay. Evidence is any fact, figure, or date that the author uses to prove his/her point that cannot be proven     wrong.
  4. Every time you see a piece of stylistic or persuasive writing, circle it in the essay. Stylistic elements are statements that the author uses to prove his/her point that can     potentially be proven wrong. These are opinions and pieces of persuasive rhetoric that the author uses .
  5. Every time you see a piece of reasoning, strike through it in the essay. Reasoning is what connects the evidence or a stylistic element to the author’s thesis.
  6. Write the entire essay using the template provided.

If you are confused, it’s okay. We will go through each point in the subsequent chapters. One last point before we move to the next chapter.

Length of your Essay

One question that all my students ask me: Does the length of my SAT essay affect my score? The short answer is: YES. Longer essays usually get better grades.

If you aren’t filling all four pages of your booklet, it’s not the end of the world. But if you’re barely filling up two pages, that’s going to be a problem.

HOWEVER, there’s a risk here: the longer your essay is, the more chances there are for you to go off-topic, break up your structure, or put in random sentences that kill the flow of your essay. You especially don’t want to go off topic - that’s the ultimate essay score destroyer. By planning your essay in advance and sticking to the template you’re about to learn, you will ensure you do not go off-topic.

The best way to expand your essays is to expand the number of elements that you put into each body paragraph. For instance, if you’re coming up short, you can add more pieces of evidence and reasoning into a paragraph.