While the SAT Essay may seem intimidating at first, most students find that it is actually not that bad once they understand exactly what it is they are being asked to do. For the colleges that require it, the SAT Essay can provide valuable insight into your writing ability, as well as your reasoning and analysis skills, which are a good indication of how prepared you are for college-level academics. Here is everything you need to know to score well on the SAT Essay.

Do I Need to Take the Essay?

The SAT Essay is optional. So the short answer is, no, you do not HAVE to take the Essay. However, the real answer is that you probably should. Many schools do require you to include an Essay score when you send your test scores in, so it would be a shame to limit yourself to only schools that do not require an Essay score simply because you didn’t feel like taking it. It’s only 50 minutes and, with a little practice, is a great opportunity for you to show off your skills!

Understanding the Prompt

The task you are presented with on the SAT Essay might be different than any you have encountered in your English classes. (AP English students are likely to recognize the SAT Essay as being similar to a rhetorical analysis, but by no means do you have to be in AP English to do well on the SAT Essay.) Here is the SAT Essay prompt, taken directly from the College Board:

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

Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] 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/her] audience.

Essentially, you are being asked to analyze the author’s argument. You can think of yourself like an editor, looking to see how the author of the article you’ve read proves his or her point. You are not looking at the arguments that the author makes, but rather how the author makes the arguments. Does he/she use reliable evidence? Does he/she use humor? What tone does the author take and how does it affect the delivery of the argument? How does the author persuade the reader that his/her stance on the issue is the correct stance? These are just a few of the things you can look for as you’re reading to include in your essay.

The most important thing to understand about the SAT Essay prompt is that you are not being asked to evaluate the issue presented, or even to evaluate the arguments that the author makes about the issue presented. You are being asked to evaluate HOW the author persuades his/her audience that the stance presented is correct one.

How to Approach the SAT Essay

Read and annotate

The first step is to read the passage and annotate as you read. This means that you should underline or mark anything you notice that the author is doing to try to convince his or her audience. Remember, you can write all over your test booklet, so underline, bracket, and write notes in the margins!


I cannot stress the importance of writing an outline enough! DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP! No one is going to see the outline but you, so you can outline in whatever format or style works best for you. The outline should be detailed enough that it covers all the main points of your essay, but not so detailed that it takes longer than five minutes to write. Include your thesis, your main ideas, and the examples you’ve chosen for support.

Start writing

Since you’ve started with an outline, this step shouldn’t be too hard! Your outline will form the backbone of your essay, so now you just have to fill in the gaps. Be careful to keep your sentences clear and concise, and to explain your reasoning along the way. There is no magic number for how long your essay should be, but it needs to be long enough that you have fully explained each of your main points. If you find yourself done with the essay 10-15 minutes early as you practice, you may want to work on adding details. It’s always best to err on the side of over-explaining as opposed to under-explaining. The essay does not have to follow any specific format, but it is perfectly fine to follow the five-paragraph essay structure. Many students learn to write essays that way and this is certainly not the time to reinvent the wheel. Stick with whatever format you are comfortable with, but don’t worry about adhering to any one format too closely. The important part is that your essay is organized, clear, and thorough.

For each of your main points, you should aim to have at least two examples, quoted directly from the article, and thoroughly explained. Remember, every example or piece of evidence you need is in the article.  For example, say your first main point is that the author uses humor to make her argument. You should pick at least two instances from the article where the author uses humor and explain how each example helps to convince the author’s audience of her argument. Ask yourself, “How does this make the reader feel?” Does the author’s use of humor serve to make her more relatable to her audience? Does her use of humor make the audience feel more at ease when reading about a serious topic? Essentially, why did the author choose to make a joke in this instance? I typically recommend that students have at least two sentences of explanation per example, which is not a hard and fast rule, but rather a reminder that you need to do more than just throw an example on the page and hope that the SAT grader can read your mind. You need to walk the SAT grader through every step of your reasoning.

Dos and Don’ts


  • Write a strong thesis
    • If you need help with this, my favorite trick is to use the first sentence in the box that follows the article. This sentence will tell you the main point of the article – the SAT people just give it to you! You can easily turn this sentence into a thesis for your essay by saying “In her article ____________, [the author] uses __________, ___________, and _________ to persuade her audience that [what the sentence says the main point of the article is].” You can, of course, write a thesis any way you like, but if you get stuck, this can help you get your thoughts in order.
  • Use specific examples, quote directly from the article
  • Follow five paragraph essay structure, if that’s what you’re comfortable with


  • Include your opinion on the issue
  • Use an example without an explanation
  • Spend too much time trying to write a clever introduction
  • Evaluate the substance of the author’s argument

How the Essay is Graded

Two different readers will each give your essay a score between 1-4 in each of three areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Thus, you will receive three scores on your Essay ranging from 2-8. The Reading score measures your understanding of what you read in the passage, the Analysis score measures your ability to analyze and explain how the author builds his/her argument, and the Writing score measures your writing skills (sentence structure, grammar, organization, etc.). The Essay score is not included as part of your total SAT score, which consists of the Evidence Based Reading and Writing section and the Math section.

More about the SAT

For more about how to prepare for the SAT, click on the links below.

Comparing the SAT and ACT

Planning for the SAT and ACT

Personalized, one-on-one test-prep tutoring in Sacramento

Khan Academy SAT Practice

For more information about how best to prepare for the SAT, send me an email at sarah@academicimpact.net or call (916) 905-2466.