This post has been updated with current, accurate content for the new SAT that premiered in March 2016 by Magoosh test prep expert David Recine!
You know how much first impressions count for? The people who read and grade your SAT essay (there will be 2 of them) are going to see a couple of things immediately. First, there’s the length and the handwriting, but those only count for so much. Almost immediately, the reader will get to your introductory paragraph.
What you put in that intro is going to be a significant chunk of their first impression, so you’ve got to make sure it’s good.
I’m going to give you a formula to follow for a clear and focused introduction to your SAT essay. No, it won’t guarantee you a high score, but if you follow it, you’ll have fewer choices to make, and that’s a good thing.
In the New SAT’s essay prompt, you will write a response to an opinion piece, either an historical piece of writing (such as an essay by past political leader), or a recently-written editorial about a modern issue. The example opening paragraph below will be based on an article about the benefits of exposing young children to technology. Before you look at the example sentences below, review the article and essay prompt on the official SAT website here.
First sentence – identify and describe the source article
In your opening, you want to immediately identify the reading passage you’re responding to. Name the author, other relevant information such as when the source was written or where it was published, and very briefly describe the source’s content. This demonstrates fundamental reading comprehension. It also makes the purpose of your essay clear—you are analyzing a specific piece of writing.
In “The Digital Parent Trap,” an op-ed for Time Magazine, author Eliana Dockterman asserts the many benefits of exposing children to multimedia technology via computer, Internet and mobile platforms.
The name of the author and the purpose/subject of the article are essential. Include the title and publishing venue for the article if possible. (Sometimes a really long title may not fit well into a sentence, and the publishing venue can also be unwieldy or difficult to correctly determine.)
Second sentence – Explain more about the writer’s purpose and beliefs
Note that in the first sentence above, the brief description of the article’s content appeared at the very end. This placement allows the end of the first sentence to transition smoothly to the second sentence. The second sentence will expand on the ideas from the end of the previous sentence, giving more details about the article’s content, and what the author is trying to do.
Dockterman challenges the traditional beliefs that electronic media is bad for children, saying that exposure to electronic media actually benefits children cognitively, developmentally, and educationally.
Notice the way that this sentence summarizes all key points from the source article, and lists them in the order they appeared. Dockterman first mentions conventional bias against exposing children to electronic entertainment, and then challenges this bias by listing three benefits of mobile technology for children. It’s best to have the second sentence follow the sequence of ideas in the article, as this is the easiest, most straightforward way to give a summary.
Third sentence – Characterize the argument and give your opinion of it
Now that you’ve given a good description of the article and its content, it’s time to actually analyze the article. Think about your own feelings on what you just read, in terms of writing quality. What does the argument look like, structurally? And how well-constructed is the argument?
The author’s argument unfolds clearly as she provides evidence that anti-tech bias exists and is incorrect.
Be careful when you write this third sentence. You may agree with what the author has written, or you may have a difference of opinion. But the focus of the sentence should be your opinion of the author’s writing skill, not your feelings on the rightness or wrongness of the author’s claims. Try to keep this sentence relatively simple and focused.
Fourth sentence – Give the reason for your opinion
Once you’ve stated your opinion on the quality of writing in the article, you need to justify your characterization of the argument. In this case, sentence four will need to explain more about why the Time Magazine article in question “unfolds clearly,” how the author “outlines biases,” and why the author’s evidence is “believable.”
Citing statistics, scholarly research and quotations from experts, Eliana Dockterman credibly demonstrates all of her key assertions.
Fifth sentence – Preview the body of your essay
The fifth sentence is optional, but I advise including it more often than not. By previewing what you’ll cover in the body of the essay, you provide a strong transition between your introduction and the rest of your written piece. The New SAT essay format is more complex than the previous format, and it helps to have a lot of transitions to hold everything together.
Through an impressive array of external sources, the author crafts a multifaceted argument that adults should allow children to use technology and electronic media.
By mentioning an “array” of evidence and a “multifaceted argument,” this sentence indicates that the rest of the SAT essay will analyze multiple pieces of evidence and different aspects of Dockterman’s rhetoric. This helps prepare the reader (in this case SAT scorer) for the sophisticated full written analysis that will follow the introduction.
Practice this intro structure before the day of your SAT
The best way to remember any system is to use it, so make sure you try this structure out a few times. If you have it down pat on the day of your SAT, it’ll make your life a lot easier.
About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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The new SAT debuts this Saturday (March 5) and there is good news and bad news. Give me the bad news first, you say? Good call. Let’s end on the happy stuff. The bad news is that the new Redesigned SAT essay is a bit more complex than the old SAT essay. But here’s the good news: it’s also going to feel a lot more like the essays you write in school. (Bonus good news: unlike the old SAT essay, it’s also optional! That is assuming your schools don’t require it.)
So let’s capitalize on these warm, fuzzy feelings and cozy on up with the new SAT essay, and talk about how you can conquer it.
The New SAT Essay Prompts
On the old SAT, you were given philosophical prompts such as “Is it better to aim for small accomplishments instead of great achievements?” or “Do rules and limitations contribute to a person’s happiness?” Or my personal (non-)favorite: the controversial “Is reality television good or bad?” prompt from a few years ago. You were then asked to develop your point of view on this debatable issue and support it with examples taken from your “readings, studies, experience or observations.”
Disgruntled SAT graders got fed up with formulaic essays that started with the rather jarring phrase, “As can be seen in the examples of Huckleberry Finn, my little brother, and Hitler…” and decided there was no hope for the future of society. Ok, maybe that wasn’t the entire reason for the change, but it was a contributing factor. Just as the overhaul of the SAT in general was motivated by a purported desire to more closely parallel what students were learning in school, the change in the essay prompt is also an attempt to better align with the writing tasks students are asked to do in their English classes: namely, “read this [novel, poem, short story, article, speech, etc.] and tell me what it is doing.”
And so that, in a nutshell, is the new SAT essay. You can find sample SAT essay prompts on the College Board website, which I highly recommend you check out.
On the test, you’ll be given a passage that is about the length of one of the longer passages on the SAT Reading Test, and you’ll be asked to explain how the author uses evidence to support their claims, reasoning to develop ideas and draw connections, and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to their ideas.
So basically the SAT doesn’t care about your perspective anymore; it wants to know that you can see and evaluate the perspectives of others.
As I mentioned, this is probably the type of essay you write most often in your English classes: “Here’s The Great Gatsby,” says your teacher, “How does F. Scott Fitzgerald satirize American ideals?” or “Here’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ How does the poet Robert Frost convey his attitude about choices?” Or at least the College Board hopes this is the case, so you can’t accuse them of unfairness and you will hopefully write them better essays.
But how do you write a better essay for the new SAT?
Top Tips for Writing the New SAT Essay
Tip 1: You don’t have to figure out the main idea of the essay: the question will tell you.
For example, one of the sample essays released by the SAT asks you to “explain how Eliana Dockterman builds an argument to persuade her audience that there are benefits to early exposure to technology.”
This question appears after the passage, but read it first. This way you will already know that Dockterman thinks there are benefits to early exposure to technology before you start reading (you already know the main idea!) and you can read specifically looking for the support for this.
Tip 2: Spend a full 15 to 20 minutes reading, taking notes, and planning your essay.
When the clock is ticking, it can be tempting to speed read and start frantically in filling the pages of your test booklet as soon as possible. But 50 minutes is a pretty substantial amount of time for the length of essay that the SAT wants. The highest scoring sample student essays on the College Board’s website are not much longer than they used to be on the old essay when you had only 25 minutes. So make sure you use the extra time to find good support in the text and organize it into cohesive supporting paragraphs. This is so much better than writing an essay that rambles or contradicts itself.
On the new SAT essay, you are graded on 3 domains: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. So “writing” is only one part of it. If you don’t put in the time to do careful reading and analysis, you won’t do well across the board.
Tip 3: Organize your supporting paragraphs by author technique or strategy.
Now, this is not the only way to organize a winning essay, but it makes a lot of sense, and it takes some of the guesswork out the equation if you already know how you are going to organize your essay before you even walk into the SAT.
Your introductory paragraph should always include a thesis statement that states the author’s perspective and alludes to the ways in which he or she supports and develops this perspective. For example, maybe the three strategies you saw the author use (which then become developed into your three supporting paragraphs) are a “personal anecdote, historical references, and rhetorical questions.” Introduce this in your intro paragraph, then develop each one as a paragraph of its own, and finish with a conclusion that wraps it up. Boom, you’ve written your SAT essay, and it is beautifully organized.
Tip 4: Examine the sample student essays on the College Board website carefully.
This is a brand new essay, and it is brand new for everyone. The people who will be grading your essay will have been trained to grade it like the sample essays that are on the website, so these free samples and the reasons why they got the scores they did are a gold mine of information. Remember, you too are writing for a specific audience: the SAT graders. So know what they are looking for and write for them.
And if you are taking the ACT, did you know that that ACT essay completely changed this year as well?? Seriously, guys, cool it with the changes. Follow the link for more on that.