SAT Essay writing requires a very specific set of skills. It's a little daunting to think that you only have 50 minutes to read a passage, analyze it, and then write an essay. But don't worry—getting a top SAT essay score is within everyone's reach! The most reliable way to score high is to follow our SAT essay template for every essay and to prepare well beforehand.
In this article, we'll show you how to write a great SAT essay. We'll take you through all the steps you need to follow when writing the SAT essay to show you how you can put together a killer essay yourself.
If you haven't already, read our article on 15 tips for improving your SAT essay. We'll be using the lessons from that article here in our essay example. Come back to this article afterward.
Overview: Before You Start Writing
We'll plan and write an essay in response to the sample SAT essay prompt below, using the tips we've shared. If you follow our plan below and practice it to fluency for your 50-minute essay, you're guaranteed a 6/6/6 or above on the SAT essay.
Let's start by reading and understanding the prompt:
Write an essay in which you explain how Peter S. Goodman builds an argument to persuade his audience that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States. In your essay, analyze how Goodman uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Source: The Official SAT Study Guide; the article referenced in the prompt can also be found (unmodified) online for free here.
Hint: Read The Prompt Before Reading The Passage
As we mentioned in our 15 SAT essay tips article, the author's argument that you'll be discussing is in the first line of the prompt: "Write an essay in which you explain how Peter S. Goodman builds an argument to persuade his audience that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States." This is the argument you need to deconstruct in your essay.
Writing an SAT essay consists of four major stages:
- Reading: 5-10 minutes
- Analyzing & Planning: 7-12 minutes
- Writing: 25-35 minutes
- Revising: 2-3 minutes
There’s a wide time range for a few of these stages, since people work at different rates. Some people, for instance, will be a lot faster at reading than they are at planning, while it might be the other way around for others. You'll need to find the timing combination that works best for you through a little bit of trial and error.
Writing takes the large bulk of the 50 minutes, but reading and analyzing and planning are equally important parts of the SAT essay writing process.
Stage 1: Read the Passage (5-10 minutes)
There are a couple of different ways to read through the passage on the SAT essay, each with their own advantages. No matter which strategy you use, though, make sure to keep an eye on the time so you don’t run out of time for analyzing and writing!
If you can just read straight through the passage without getting too hung up on details, go for it. This strategy works well for students who are naturally fast readers and don't have trouble getting distracted under time pressure.
If you’re a slow reader, get anxious about reading in timed situations, or find that the subject matter of the article is confusing, you might want to try skimming the article. You can use similar strategies to those you might use on SAT reading passages.
In either case, you'll want to make sure you get a good idea of the way the passage is laid out before you do a detailed pass through it. Why?
You'll probably end up reading through parts of the passage multiple times to make sure you fully understand it. Giving the passage a quick read-through before you do any detailed analysis can help cement which parts you'll want to come back to and which parts aren't as important.
When you go back do a more detailed reading of the article, sure to keep an eye out for argument-building techniques and to try to remain objective. You may want to circle or underline examples of these techniques as you read, which leads right into the next stage of SAT essay writing.
Stage 2: Analyze and Plan (7-12 minutes)
Many students resist planning on the SAT Essay because it already feels like there's not enough time to read and write, let alone take away some of that precious time for planning. But take it from us: you're better off with a plan. This is because the SAT essay graders look for a clear structure: introduction, conclusion, and specific evidence in between. It's almost impossible to create this kind of structure and still write quickly without a plan
You can write all over the passage as you analyze it – circle or underline key points, scribble in the margins, etc. This way, when you go back to quote the author in your essay, you’re not searching the text for the quote or supporting detail.
One way to mark up your passage is by numbering your examples and then circling and numbering any evidence from the passage you’ll be referring to in each paragraph. Another option is to write a brief description of the details from the passage in your planning and outlining, along with the location of the details. Taking this time during the analyzing and planning stage will end up saving you time in the long run.
I personally find it helpful to take notes as I read the passage and then organize them into an essay outline. Below are the TOTALLY LEGIBLE notes I took as I was analyzing the passage for the essay prompt:
As I was reading the passage, I scribbled down key details and the way I’d use them to support my thesis in the essay. For instance, I wrote, “last paragraph – We need…we need (x4) -> overall use of “we” drawing reader into his POV” in my notes. This describes what I want to talk about (the author's use of the word "We" and "We need"), what it means (it draws the reader into agreeing with his point of view), and where this is illustrated in the passage (last full paragraph).
I then organized these notes into some semblance of an outline I could use to plan the organization of my essay.
Here's a (rough) transcription of my outline:
-first paragraph stats and facts - to show issue is real, lend credibility
-by not explaining has a couple of effects
->forces reader to draw own conclusions/think about which draws them into the argument
->alt makes reader look to author in rest o/article (b/c had facts at first + so can be trusted)
-so very easily could’ve gone on a rant abt twitter which would’ve undercut argument, disconnected from reader
-instead, provides examples of when social media has been helpful (Arab Spring)
-counterargument is more powerful as a result - take his “unease” more seriously
-“We” draws reader in, makes author sympathetic (not lecturing)
-contrasts b/t ideal + real, b/t prof + amateur engage reader in the comparison, force to admit author is right
-language elsewhere reinforces the idea that prof journalism under siege, words like “assailing” and “eroding”
You can see that in the section labeled “Diction,” the first point is "We" draws reader in, makes author sympathetic (not lecturing)".
You can combine these two steps if you’re comfortable enough doing it; I just find that separating them takes the pressure off to make sure that I take notes in an organized fashion.
Stage 3: Write Until 2-3 Minutes Are Left (25-35 minutes)
Once you have your analysis and planning done, it’s time to write like the wind. If you’ve taken notes and planned effectively, you should be able to jump right in and not have to go back and forth too much between the text and your essay.
For most people, writing body paragraphs is easier than writing introductions. If this is the case, start with the body paragraphs, and just leave 10 lines or so at the top of the page to add the introduction later. One example should take up 1-2 paragraphs.
Let's use a methodical structure to try out a body paragraph about how the author uses a counterargument to add support to his own claim. The sample paragraphs below are all taken from an essay that I handwrote (and planned) in the 50-minute time limit.
Sample Body Paragraph
Start with a transition:
In addition to employing facts to his argument’s advantage, Goodman also cunningly discusses the counterargument to his position.
Then (briefly) introduce your topic:
By writing about how social media and man-on-the-ground reporting has assisted the state of foreign news reporting, Goodman heads off naysayers at the pass.
Explain the example’s context and relationship to your thesis:
It would have been very easy for Goodman to ignore the whole issue of citizen reporting, but the resultant one-sided argument would have been much less convincing. Instead, Goodman acknowledges things like “the force of social media during the Arab Spring, as activists convened and reacted to changing circumstances.” As a result, when he partially refutes this counterargument, stating the “unease” many longtime profession correspondents feel over the trend of ‘citizen journalism’ feel, the reader agrees.
Clearly state, in one sentence, how it is proof of your thesis:
Knowing that Goodman takes the power of social media seriously will make the reader more inclined, in turn, to take Goodman’s concern about the limits of social media seriously.
When you put all these pieces together, it’s a winning body paragraph. We start with a smooth transition from the introduction (or previous body paragraph), give enough background to understand why the example is relevant, and then connect it back to the thesis for the knockout punch.
Try to read through this again so the structure really makes sense to you.
Notice how this is formulaic – every one of your body paragraphs can be written in this structure, and you’ll get an excellent score! Having a structure like this will make many students less anxious about the new SAT essay.
You’d then go through the above process with the other 1-2 examples. In some cases, one very good example of the way the author builds his/her argument can be enough, if you can write 2-3 relevant paragraphs about it without repeating yourself. But having two examples is usually safer, because it gives you a better chance to show how well you've understood the passage.
Introduction and Conclusion
After finishing your body paragraphs, don't forget your introduction and conclusion paragraphs. Both should briefly mention the author’s argument and the examples you're using to support your thesis, but everything else is up to you. Some students write about the concept in theory, and others just try to restate the thesis in different ways. Even a couple of sentences is better than nothing - try to scribble something in even if you're running out of time.
Sample Introduction Paragraph
In the article “Foreign News at a Crisis Point,” Peter S. Goodman eloquently argues the point that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States. Goodman builds his argument by using facts and evidence, addressing the counterarguments, and couching it all in persuasive and compelling language.
Stage 4: Revise (2-3 Minutes)
Much like planning on the SAT essay, revision seems unnecessary to most students. But trust us, it will help your score. There are two reasons for this:
- Revising helps you change up your vocabulary and fix mistakes and/or illegible words
- If you know you’ll revise, you can write much faster because you don’t have to worry about making it perfect
On the SAT essay, you can cross out words that you don’t want the grader to read. You don’t need to waste time erasing them, unless you want to replace them with something else.
So what do you do when you revise? Well, let’s take the body paragraph we wrote earlier and revise it. New text is bolded.
In addition to employing facts to his argument’s advantage, Goodman also cunningly discusses the counterargument to his position. By writing about how social media and man-on-the-ground reporting has assistedhad some positive impact on the state of foreign news reporting, Goodman heads off naysayers at the pass. It would have been very easy for Goodman to ignoreelide over the whole issue of citizen reporting, but the resultant one-sided argument would have been much less convincing. Instead, Goodman acknowledges things like “the force of social media during the Arab Spring, as activists convened and reacted to changing circumstances.” As a result, when he partially refutes this counterargument, stating his the “unease” many for longtime profession correspondents feel over the trend of ‘citizen journalism’ feel, the reader agrees.is much more likely to believe him. After all, Goodman acknowledges that social media does have some power. Knowing that Goodman takes the power of social media seriously will make the reader more inclined, in turn, to take Goodman’s concern about the limits of social media seriously.
At this point, you’ll have a complete winning essay.
Want to see what this essay looks like put all together? Read our article on how to get a perfect 8 on the SAT essay.
Our goal here was to show you how formulaic the SAT essay can be. By making the essay more predictable, you’ll go into every test with a game plan in mind, making the essay much easier (and less scary!).
Information Fall-Out: Buckminster Fuller's World Game by Columbia GSAPP, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped and resized from original.
"Guys guys guys! I figured out a plan for the SAT essay!"
Where to Go From Here
Now you know how to write an SAT essay. To put this information to good use, you need to practice with real SAT essay prompts. We’ve written the most comprehensive guide to SAT essay topics and prompts here.
Aiming for a perfect SAT essay score? Read our guides to get strategies on how to get an 8/8/8 on your SAT essay.
And if you haven’t read our 15 SAT essay tips article yet, do so now!
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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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