Category Archives: SAT essay

SAT essay: Should you write a separate summary or weave it together with the persuasive techniques?

Should you separate the summary from the analysis when you write your SAT essay?

I recommend you separate your summary and analysis.  Here’s why:  it’s easier.

You want to be sure to include a complete summary in your response as well as a complete analysis of the persuasive techniques used in the prompt.  If you write the summary as a separate paragraph, you are sure you have supplied a complete summary.  If you weave the summary and analysis together, you might leave part of your summary unsaid.

Weaving all the elements into your response in an integrated way might be possible.  But more likely, your summary or your analysis will suffer.  It will be clearer to you as you write that you are covering what you need to if you isolate the two important elements, the summary and the analysis.

Weaving everything together is a more elegant way to write, but it is also a more difficult way to write.  The exam is stressful enough without adding another layer of difficulty.  Unless you have received perfect scores on AP lang or AP lit, I would not attempt it.

There is not one perfect way of writing your response.  Rather, there are several good ways.  Focus your time on the analysis part of your response; that is the part whose score is usually lowest.  Focusing on that part of the essay can improve your score the most.

What are persuasive techniques used in the SAT essay prompt?

Most students writing the SAT essay find summarizing the persuasive essay prompt to be easier than explaining why the prompt persuades.  But analyzing and explaining the prompt is an important part of your essay response.  It is an area where you can pull ahead if you know how to do it.

There are many reasons why a prompt might be persuasive.  Let’s list some of them here.

____ academic vocabulary:  precise, domain specific words

____ allusions, especially to the Bible or Shakespeare

____ analogies

____ anecdotes

____ attacking, undermining other opinions / counterarguments

____ clarity

____ colloquial language

____ current events references

____ examples, spot-on and easy to understand

____ experts, authorities in agreement with the author

____ facts, lots of facts

____ figures of speech

____ historical references

____ humor

____ inclusive language, including the reader with words like “we” and “us”

____ logical presentation such as using cause/effect, sequential information, chronological information, ranking of info

____ personal experience, education, or work of the author

____ primary source references

____ repetition

____ rhetorical questions

____ sensory language such as vivid images, sounds, smells, textures and tastes

____ statistics

When you analyze why the essay prompt is persuasive, you must identify several of the above techniques which the author uses.  You must give one or more examples of the techniques you identify.  And you must explain why using each technique persuades readers to the author’s point of view.

More of that in future blogs.

Start your SAT essay with a one-sentence summary

If you write the SAT essay, you need to do three things well:

  • summarize the essay prompt to prove you understand it;
  • analyze how the author persuades readers; and
  • write your response in excellent, stylish English.

When you write a summary for the SAT essay response, I recommend you start with a one-sentence summary of the whole essay prompt.  Why?  Doing so proves you know what the essay is all about, what the gist of the essay is.  In the few sentences which follow, you can elaborate by stating the supporting main ideas.

For example, suppose you were to write a one-sentence summary of the US Declaration of Independence.  The first section of that document introduces the idea that the colonies are breaking away from Great Britain and that the world deserves to know why.  The second section identifies the legitimacy of such a break by any people who think their government is not supporting their rights.  The third section names the many grievances the colonial people have against King George III and his government.  The last section declares the independence of the 13 colonies.

How to put that all in one sentence?  How about this:

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to tell the world why the colonies were breaking away from their long established relationship with Great Britain and were declaring their independence, and why they had the right to separate.

All the important information is in this one sentence:  the author, the name of the piece of writing, and the major ideas of the document.

Let’s try another.  How about summarizing Romeo and Juliet in one sentence?   In Italy hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare has two teenagers meet, fall in love, and marry despite a feud between their families, leading to a tragic ending for the young lovers.

Or how about To Kill a Mockingbird?  Author Harper Lee has a precocious white girl, her brother, and their friend taunt a reclusive neighbor while the children’s father defends an innocent black man on trial for his life in 1930’s rural, bigoted Alabama.

In each of these one-sentence summaries, almost all details are left out.  Leaving out major details can be hard for some children.  Even teenagers sometimes can’t figure out what is most important.  That is why writing one-sentence summaries takes practice.

You will have one major help:  the thesis is given to you.  In the paragraph following the essay prompt, the thesis is named.  Many times you can wrap your summary around its ideas.

Scoring higher on the SAT essay

Let’s look at the SAT essay and how you can score higher on it.

Your response to the prompt (a persuasive essay provided in your testing packet) is an essay.  It is judged based on three criteria:

  • Naming the author and title of the prompt; identifying the thesis of the prompt, and summarizing the main ideas in the prompt plus important details.
  • Identifying what persuasive techniques the author of the prompt uses, pointing out examples of those persuasive techniques in the prompt, and explaining why those persuasive techniques work.
  • Writing your response in standard essay format (an introduction, body, and conclusion) while using excellent, stylish English.

Today let’s look at the first of the three criteria, the summary.

Before you read the essay prompt, I would go straight to the paragraph after the prompt ends.  That paragraph directs you to write an essay, but more importantly, it identifies the thesis of the prompt.  You don’t need to figure out what the thesis is because the test information identifies it.  Underline the thesis and in the margin write “thesis.”

(Yes, you can write in your test booklet.  It will be shredded after the test, so no one but you will see it.  Write any notes that help you.)

Now that you know what the essay prompt is all about, you can read the prompt aware of what you are looking for, that is, the main ideas backing up that thesis.  Underline the main ideas as you read and in the margin next to the ideas write “MI1” or “MI2.”  Why?  You need to be able to find the main ideas quickly later on.  Underlining them and annotating them in the margins makes finding them easier

Usually the prompt is five or six paragraphs, so you might wind up with four or five main ideas, one per body paragraph.  But sometimes an author begins the first main idea in the first paragraph and offers the last main idea in the last paragraph.  So read carefully.

Now that you know what the prompt is all about you can write your summary paragraph.  I would make that summary the first paragraph of your essay.  No need for a separate introduction–and no time.  In your first sentence, write an overall summary of the essay, and in the next few sentences, identify the main ideas.  That’s right.  Write a one sentence summary of the article to start your essay.

Remember, the SAT is a test designed to see if you are ready for college.  In writing the summary of the essay prompt, the test is asking you to prove you can read and understand college level material, and to prove that by summarizing the material.

How can you become proficient at this kind of writing without working with a tutor like me?  Go online to a well-written newspaper and read an op-ed article (an opinion essay on the page opposite the editorial page).  Do this several times a week.  Download one copy and mark it for its thesis and main ideas.  Write a five or six sentence summary.  Choose different authors with different writing styles and topics.

Or from your library, take out a book of essays and do the same thing.  Or find a book of essays from a resale book store or Goodwill which you can mark.  Choose persuasive essays because that is the kind you will be tested on.


Should you write the SAT essay?

Will you or your child be taking the SAT  in December?  Here are some facts to keep in mind as you make your decision about writing the essay.

None of the Ivy League universities (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale) requires the SAT essay any more.

Stanford strongly recommends writing the essay as does Georgia Tech.  West Point requires it.

About 10% of US colleges and universities require the essay.  The less prestigious the college, the more likely it does not require the essay.

Unlike the multiple choice math and writing sections of the SAT, the essay score is subjective based on the judgment of two readers (possibly two machine readers).  A perfect score is 8 based on each of the two readers giving a score of from 1 to 4.

The score on the essay is based on one written response to one essay prompt, unlike the scores on the math and writing portions which are based on dozens of questions, each with just one correct answer.

Factors that could influence your score include your reaction to the subject matter of the prompt, your familiarity with the culture and writing style of the prompt writer, and who grades your essay.

The likelihood that you will achieve a perfect 8 on the essay is one percent, according to an analysis of College Board data by Compass Education Group.

The essay you need to write is judged on three criteria:  how well you summarize the main points of the essay; how well you identify and analyze why the prompt persuades; and how well you write your essay in English).  The hardest of these three criteria to score well on is the analysis of the prompt’s persuasive techniques.

More than 80% of test takers receive a score of 4, 5, or 6 on the summary and writing aspects of the essay but receive a 3, 4, or 5 on the analysis, according to Compass Education Group.  Readers/scorers of the essays seem reluctant to give the highest or the lowest scores.  So like a bell curve, most scores cluster in the middle range of possible scores.

You can think of the essay scoring as like the scoring of competitive gymnasts, with each athlete’s score decided somewhat subjectively by the judges.  If you score a 6 on your essay and your friend scores a 5, does that mean your essay is  better than hers?  No.  What if you score a 6 and your friend scores a 4?  Yes, in that case, you probably did write a better essay.

If your college choices don’t require an SAT essay, then you should probably skip writing the essay and lose no sleep over that decision.  But if you are an excellent writer, then you should probably write the essay.  If you do well under test conditions—50 minutes to read, understand, and analyze a prompt, and to respond in essay format in near perfect English—the advantage is yours.

How to write literary criticism

Many high school students will start off the school year needing to write literary criticism of a book they read over the summer.  And many of those students don’t know what is expected of them.  Here is a quick explanation.

Literary criticism is a written analysis, evaluation or interpretation of a piece of literature.  Usually students focus on one small aspect of the book, play, poem or speech, such as the use of metaphor in a particular dialog or how repetition of phrases strengthens an argument.

Usually literary criticism is presented in persuasive essays.

What must the writer do?

  • Break the subject down into smaller elements.
  • Choose one element to analyze.
  • Focus on that single idea, and from it, develop a thesis.
  • Break that idea into several subtopics all of which support the thesis. Back up those subtopics with evidence.
  • Organize before writing sentences. Eliminate any subtopic or any evidence which does not support the thesis.
  • Explain to readers why your evidence—and therefore your thesis—is convincing.

Where do you begin?

  • Write your thesis first. Every other word in the essay depends on the thesis.  If you start with your introduction, you are wasting time.  It might have nothing to do with the thesis you decide on.
  • Find supporting evidence for your thesis in the literature you are analyzing. Explicitly explain why each bit of evidence supports your thesis.  Write subtopic sentences which group various examples of evidence.
  • Write the body of your essay. Make sure every subtopic sentence supports the thesis and every bit of evidence supports its subtopic sentence.  Make sure everything taken from the original source is cited, using one of the standard citation methods.
  • Now think of a hook or opening for your essay which leads to your thesis. The hook might be part of the introduction or it might precede it, but there must be a connection between the hook and the thesis topic.  Good hooks might include quotations, anecdotes, a riddle, questions requiring a thoughtful response, or humor.
  • If your hook is separate from your introduction, write your introduction next. If you have a separate hook, make sure you transition to your introduction.  Many introductions start with general information about a topic and then funnel toward the thesis.  Usually the thesis is the last sentence of the introductory paragraph.
  • Lastly, write a conclusion. You can repeat your thesis or not, but you must show that your essay is ending.  Good conclusions might look to the future of your topic or pick up an idea from the hook.  Humorous endings are good.  Make sure you do not introduce a new topic in your conclusion.

By the way, if this kind of essay sounds like the kind students need to write for the SAT, you are right.  And it’s a lot like the kind of essay students will need to write in college, too.

Use a diagram to “see” the structure of the new SAT essay

When working with students learning how to write an essay for the new SAT exam, I draw diagrams of an essay pattern they can follow. The diagram acts as a prewriting organizer.  It shows students an overall perspective of what they must write.  Here is a diagram that is easy to follow yet leads to an effective SAT essay.

diagram-of-sat-essayThis diagram separates the persuasive techniques from the summary.  In the SAT workbooks, the best essay samples entwine the summary and the persuasive techniques, a more sophisticated pattern to follow.

What is important is to cover all three of the criteria which will be judged:  1) clearly showing that you understand what the essay prompt is all about (the summary), 2) recognizing and analyzing persuasive techniques, and 3) doing all this using excellent English (perfect  grammar, a variety of sentence patterns, advanced vocabulary and–most difficult of all–your own voice).