As many students are aware, a comprehensive redesign of the SAT was introduced in March 2016. As part of this revision, the essay section is now optional. The essay focus has also changed and become more rigorous. As a result, some older SAT preparatory resources may have little relevance beyond the basics of planning and style that apply to any timed piece of writing. Fortunately, the prompts for the revised SAT essay are uniform in structure and objective, regardless of when you sit for the exam. Your goal will always be to produce a detailed, well-structured analysis of the given passage. Follow these three steps to accomplish this.
Step 1. Develop a concise thesis statement: If you choose to take the new SAT essay, you will be asked to build a response to this simplified question: How does the author build his or her argument? Your thesis statement should answer this question in the fewest words possible without sacrificing clarity. Remember that a strong thesis is critical not only to earning a high score but also for organizing your response. The College Board suggests that you consider the following items: evidence- and logic-based arguments and persuasive or stylistic elements. A solid grounding in rhetoric can help immensely in this endeavor. Consider this sample prompt. You may well be struck by Paul Bogard’s expressive language and the way he organizes facts in “Let There Be Dark.” Your resulting thesis statement might be, “Paul Bogard uses an emotional appeal supported by facts from credible sources.” This thesis statement may not be beautiful, but it clearly conveys that you understand the author’s approach to persuasion. Note that this statement does not touch on whether you agree with the sample essay or on your own feelings about darkness. Unlike pre-2016 SAT essay sections, there is no place in the new essay for your opinion about anything other than analysis and rhetorical technique.
Step 2. Build a trail of evidence: Your thesis statement should guide the body of your essay. For an essay on the sample passage, simply providing examples of “evocative language” and “facts from credible sources” would not be sufficient – you must also analyze how your examples support the author’s overall objective. In the opening paragraph of “Let There Be Dark,” Bogard recalls his childhood in Minnesota with skies so dark that “meteors left smoky trails across sugary spreads of stars.” This phrase is a prime example of evocative language. The paragraph is effective because of the emotional appeal to childhood that establishes a shared bond with the reader. The imagery he uses is vivid, and it helps the reader imagine the beauty of a world with less light pollution. You might also note that the word “sugary” reinforces the imagery of a childhood wonderland. Again, don’t simply list examples – instead, build a secondary thesis statement that is clear and concise. For example: “The author uses powerful imagery that calls readers to imagine a vanishing world of childlike awe rooted in the beauty and mystery of the night sky.” Repeat a pattern of calling out what the author says, how he said it, what it means and how that relates to the piece on the whole. The facts used in the prompt are perhaps the easiest elements to recognize. Your secondary thesis statement should focus on which facts the author chooses to support his point. Your analysis is the common thread that connects them. In this case, that thread is forked: Certain facts establish that the night sky is growing brighter and that lack of darkness has a negative impact on health. Finally, discuss why the author selected these themes. Why health instead of aesthetics? Given his opening, Bogard could have just as easily argued that the real loss was the beauty of the night sky. But can there be facts with aesthetics? Is his essay stronger or weaker for combining evidence with emotion?
Step 3. Craft a strong conclusion: Ensure you set aside time to write a strong closing argument that draws your themes together. Too often, students simply summarize their claims. A summary paragraph is better than allowing your essay to trail off to nothing, but you miss a true opportunity by not making the conclusion an integral part of your essay. Think of your conclusion as the closing argument of a trial in a courtroom drama: “Bogard’s essay called on powerful imagery of a magical childhood under assault from a flood of wasteful and unnecessary light. The mix of cold, hard facts with emotionally intense language builds to a whole that is stronger than the sum of its parts.” Your last impression is just as powerful as your first – so make it count.
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