What to Know About the Optional SAT Essay

Since 2016, the essay portion of the SAT has been optional. Still, many students choose to write it each year to demonstrate strong or improved writing skills to their short list of colleges.

Whether or not to write the SAT essay is not the biggest decision you will have to make in high school, but it is certainly one that requires thought on your part. Here are three things you should know about the 50-minute SAT essay as you decide whether to complete it:

— To excel on the SAT essay, you must be a trained reader.

— The SAT essay begs background knowledge of rhetoric and persuasive writing.

— A growing number of colleges are dropping standardized test requirements.

To Excel on the SAT Essay, You Must Be a Trained Reader

The SAT essay prompt never comes unaccompanied. On the contrary, it follows a text that is about 700 words long, or approximately one page. Before test-takers can even plan their response, they must carefully read and — ideally — annotate the passage.

[READ: 3 Students Who Should Opt to Write the SAT Essay.]

The multifaceted nature of the SAT essay prompt can be distressing to students who struggle with reading comprehension. But the good news is that this prompt is highly predictable. It always asks students to explain how the author builds his or her argument. “How” means using which rhetorical devices, such as deductive reasoning, metaphors, etc.

Luckily, the author’s argument is usually spelled out in the prompt itself. For instance, consider this past SAT prompt: “Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved.” Due to the prompt’s predictability, students should seek to read the passage with an eye toward specific devices used by the author rather than poring over “big ideas” — a different approach than is recommended for passages in the SAT Reading section.

The SAT Essay Begs Background Knowledge of Rhetoric and Persuasive Writing

Since your SAT essay response must point to specific rhetorical devices that the author employs to convince the reader, you should make it a point to intimately know 10-15 common rhetorical devices. The more familiar you are with rhetorical devices, the faster you will become at picking them out as you read texts.

Once you have read the passage and identified a handful of noteworthy rhetorical devices, you will want to apply many of the same essay-writing techniques you already use in your high school English classes, such as outlining.

[Read: How Long the SAT Is and How to Manage That Time.]

For instance, you should start by brainstorming to see which devices you have the most to say about. After that, develop a concise thesis statement, incorporate quotes from the text, avoid wordiness and other infelicities of writing, close with an intriguing conclusion, and do everything else your English teacher advises you to do with compositions.

Remember: You should always provide evidence from the text to support your main and secondary points. And leave enough time to review your essay to prevent errors and sloppiness.

A Growing Number of Colleges Are Dropping Standardized Test Requirements

In recent years, several of America’s most prominent schools — including Ivy League institutions like Harvard University in Massachusetts, Princeton University in New Jersey and Yale University in Connecticut — have made submission of ACT and SAT writing scores optional for undergraduate applicants.

While this trend began as early as 2018, the upheaval caused by COVID-19 has prompted a large number of other schools to adopt a more lenient testing policy, as well — and not just by making writing scores optional, but the entire ACT or SAT.

[Read: How the Coronavirus Is Pushing Colleges to Go Test-Optional.]

Advocates for educational fairness have long expressed their concerns that standardized admissions tests put underprivileged students at a disadvantage. In light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which restricted exam access for almost all high school students, colleges are now getting on board with this idea by placing more emphasis on other factors in a student’s application. As an alternative way to assess writing ability, colleges claim to now be looking more carefully at students’ grades in key subjects, as well as college application documents like the personal statement.

The fact that more and more colleges are lifting their ACT/SAT requirement does not imply that either test, or any component of them, is now obsolete. Students can still stand to gain from completing the SAT essay, especially those who want to major in a writing-intensive field or whose prospective colleges advertise an “optional but recommended” policy for the essay. The essay can also demonstrate a progression or upward trajectory in your writing skills.

Though technically optional, the SAT essay can give a boost to some students’ college applications. Be sure to learn more about it before deciding whether to pass it up.

More from U.S. News

How Colleges Use SAT, ACT Results

What to Know About SAT Prep Classes

Online Tools That Can Support ACT, SAT Prep

What to Know About the Optional SAT Essay originally appeared on usnews.com

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