Don’t just write; Read! Preparing for the SAT Essay

If you’re planning to write the Essay section of the SAT, it’s always helpful to write some practice essays beforehand—doing so will familiarize you with the format and time constraints of the assignment, which can pose a challenge even for accomplished writers. However, there’s another, somewhat underrated tactic you can use in addition to writing practice essays: reading.

What unites all of the SAT essay prompts, whether they’re 50-year-old presidential speeches or recent articles about scientific subjects, is that they are arguments. In other words, these essays attempt to persuade an audience to accept a particular point of view.

If you have a few months before your exam date, you can make a plan to read, say, three argumentative essays a week to familiarize yourself with the patterns of persuasive writing. A free resource like The Conversation, which offers hundreds of opinion-pieces by scholars, scientists, and other experts in various fields, is a good place to start.

Pick essays on topics that interest you (simply because you’ll be more motivated to read them), and pay attention to the following elements as you read:

  1. The author’s thesis or central argument. What’s the author trying to convince you of?
  2. The author’s supporting claims. How do the author’s body paragraphs (that is, the middle bit of the essay) support the thesis? More interestingly, how does each paragraph relate to the next one? Do the paragraphs build upon one another in a particularly effective way?
  3. The author’s use of logical relationships, like cause-and-effect. For instance, does the author suggest that if policy X is not enacted, consequence Y is bound to occur?
  4. The author’s use of stylistic devices. Does the author use language to try to scare you? Make you angry? Make you laugh? Make you trust the author’s reasoning? Can the author’s use of language be categorized in terms of literary or rhetorical devices that you’re familiar with?
  5. The author’s use of outside sources, statistics, or the words of authorities. How does the evidence provided support the central claim?
  6. Finally, the way that all of these elements work together. This is often the most challenging thing to identify about a piece of writing, but is a crucial skill to learn if you want to get the highest possible scores on the Reading and Analysis sections of the SAT essay. Understanding how the different elements interact will focus your analysis, ensuring that you pick the most relevant parts of the passage to discuss in your essay. This understanding will also allow you to conduct a more in-depth analysis; for instance, if you notice that an author uses humor to lighten the mood right after she’s related some rather dry statistics, then you can make a more interesting claim than you would if you’d just acknowledged that the author uses both humor and statistics.

Writers do not have bottomless bags of tricks, and once you’ve seen a handful of essays all using similar techniques, you’ll find that you can more confidently anticipate how an argument will unfold. Remember that reading, like writing, is a muscle. The more argumentative essays you read, the more quickly you’ll be able to get to the heart of what an author is trying to say.

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