SAT Essay Tips

The new SAT essay is markedly different from its previous incarnation. Whereas before you were expected to write a five-paragraph essay expressing your opinion and supporting it with specific examples, the new SAT essay requires you to read a lengthy passage and then write an essay analyzing the passage. This is closer to the type of writing you will do in college, and may be similar to some of the essays assignments you have had in your English class.

The good news is you no longer have to brainstorm specific examples from books, current events, politics, etc.! Everything you need to write your essay is in the passage presented in the prompt. In order to earn a high score, it’s extremely important that you show that you thoroughly understand the passage. You will not be able to “skim” the passage and then write your essay — the SAT is looking for students to do an excellent job absorbing the passage and then actively analyzing it.

As with the previous SAT essay, you will have a page of scratch paper to plan your essay before you write it, and you will handwrite your essay in the lined pages of your answer booklet. Remember your handwriting must be legible — either print or cursive is fine — but make sure to use every line and avoid wide margins. Here are some additional facts about the new SAT essay:

  • 50 minutes allotted to read the passage and write the essay
  • essays must be on-topic or they will not be graded
  • you will receive scores from TWO different readers
  • scores are awarded on a 1–4 scale in three categories: Reading, Analysis, and Writing
  • the two scores in each category are added to produce a “final” score for that category

What this means is that your SAT essay score will actually be THREE scores: one for Reading, one for Analysis, and one for Writing. Let’s say Reader #1 gives you a 3 in Reading, a 4 in Analysis, and a 2 in Writing, and Reader #2 gives you a 4 in Reading, a 4 in Analysis, and a 3 in Writing. Your final SAT essay scores would be:

  • READING: 7
  • WRITING: 5

The range of scores within each category is 2-8 (minimum is two scores of 1 in each category, maximum is two scores of 4 in each category). Read through the rest of our SAT Essay tips to learn how you can maximize your score.

SAT Essay Scoring

Along with the new scoring, there is a redesigned SAT Essay Rubric, available in its entirety on the College Board’s website: SAT Essay Scoring

Here is what the readers are looking for in each category:


  • Did the student understand the passage’s main point?
  • Did the student understand how the author supported his/her main point with details?
  • Did the student understand how the author structured the passage?
  • Did the student misinterpret anything about the passage?
  • Did the student successfully use quotations and paraphrase parts of the passage?


  • Does the student present a clear idea on HOW the argument is built?
  • Does the student specifically discuss how the author uses evidence, reasoning, persuasive elements, etc. to back up the author’s claims?
  • Does the student use relevant and specific points from the passage to back up his/her own claims?


  • Does the student have a thesis?
  • Does the passage include an introduction and a conclusion?
  • Does the student use correct spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc.?
  • Does the student maintain a formal style and avoid use of first-person pronouns?

SAT Essay Prompts

Let’s take a look at the wording of an official prompt:

As you read the passage below, consider how [author’s name] 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.

This prompt is exactly the same for both official sample essays, and will likely be the exact same on your SAT essay. Next comes the actual text of the passage. At the end of the passage, you will see instructions in the following format:

Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade the audience that [author’s main point from the passage.] In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his 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 audience.

SAT Essay Organization

Notice how the instructions here align closely with the SAT essay rubric. In order to effectively write the SAT essay, plan to write 5-paragraphs. Start with an introduction that explains the author’s main point in the passage, and include the 3 types of persuasive technique you will analyze in each subsequent paragraph. Possible techniques can include:

  • personal anecdotes
  • rhetorical questions
  • allusions
  • similes or metaphors
  • data or statistical information (facts and figures)
  • quotations
  • pathos (emotional appeal)
  • ethos (ethical appeal)
  • logos (logical appeal)
  • historical precedence
  • hyperbole
  • analogy
  • irony or sarcasm
  • repetition
  • generalization based on limited example

In each body paragraph, name the rhetorical device or method you will be analyzing. Identify where it is used in the passage and how the author uses it, and then describe the impact it has on the argument. In your conclusion, spend 1–2 sentences summarizing your points and emphasizing your overall idea about the author’s opinion.

SAT Essay Planning Guide

Before you begin writing your first practice SAT essay, it’s a good idea to have a set plan for how you are going to use your 50 minutes. Here’s how to break down the time provided:

5 minutes – Read the passage. Take notes to help you summarize the key points. What is the overall main point the author is making? What is the function of each paragraph? How does each paragraph build on the overall idea? What rhetorical devices is the author using? How is the author making the argument?

10 minutes – Plan your essay. Once you have fully understood the passage, use your scratch paper to plan out your 5-paragraph essay. How do you want to categorize the argument overall? Is it more like a first-person narrative and the author is using personal experience to make a point, or is it more of a logos (logic) based argument and the author is using statistics, facts, and figures to make a point. What three aspects of the author’s argument do you wish to discuss in each body paragraph? Can you find examples of hyperbole, repetition, quotations, etc.?

25 minutes – Write your essay. This is plenty of time for you to produce your essay, especially if you have spent the previous 10 minutes reading and planning what you will discuss. If you get stuck, go back to your scratch paper and make any necessary changes to your template. This allows you a full 5 minutes per paragraph!

10 minutes – Proofread. Make sure you allot enough time to review what you have written and make any necessary changes. In this step, you will want to correct any spelling or grammar errors, add any necessary transitions, cross out and re-write awkward sentences, and check to make sure the passage is clear and the ideas “flow” logically.

SAT Essay Practice

Ready to try out the planning guidelines? Select one of our new SAT Essay sample prompts:

Start your practice by setting a timer for 15 minutes. Use that entire time to read the passage and plan out a practice essay. You’ll actually be surprised how much time you have! Once you have your essay fully planned out, re-set the timer for 25 minutes and try to complete all 5-paragraphs before the timer goes off. Finally, re-set the timer for 10 minutes and re-read everything you have written a couple times, making necessary changes and improving it as much as possible. Ask a family member or teacher to read your essay and give you suggestions for improvement.

Next time, try the entire essay in 50 minutes without breaking it up into chunks. Students who achieve high-scores on the SAT essay are not only strong readers and writers, but can self-monitor and manage the 50-minutes effectively!