By Jed Applerouth, PhD
CEO, Applerouth Tutoring Services
Students will need to flex their critical thinking and composition skills when they tackle the writing sections on both the SAT and ACT. Last year, the SAT was completely redesigned, and the ACT made multiple updates. As a result, the essay sections for both tests are more rigorous than prior versions, however, these tests better reflect the kind of writing assignments students will typically face in college.
To succeed on either writing test, students need to get the basics right first. They need to understand the formats for the new essay prompts, and know what the graders will be looking for in a student’s response.
The SAT essay
The SAT essay writing exercise has been transformed from an opinion piece into an exercise in textual analysis and critical thinking; this is similar to exercises on certain AP exams. Students will be asked to read a short (600-700-word) persuasive passage and write an essay response that explains how the author develops and supports an argument.
It is irrelevant whether or not the student agrees with the author (the task of the old SAT essay); the student’s task on the new test is to articulate how the author uses evidence, rhetorical devices and structure to support a claim. Students will be evaluated on three measures:
- Reading of the provided text
- Analysis of the text
- Writing skills
To optimize their scores, students will need to:
- Actively read the passage
- Scour for evidence that supports the author’s main argument
- Use quotes that demonstrate they understand the author’s argument
- Write a structured, organized essay that stays on topic
- Use smooth transitions between paragraphs
- Have an introduction, body and conclusion
- Use a variety of sentence structures
- Skillfully use vocabulary
- Write significantly longer essays
While longer essays typically generate higher scores, students will be evaluated on both the quality and the length of their essay. The College Board, which administers the SAT, has doubled the time (50 minutes!) allotted for the new essay, and will provide four pages (up from two) of paper to write.
The ACT essay
On the ACT’s revamped essay, students will get 40 minutes to analyze and respond to three distinct perspectives on a topic that concerns a broad, national issue. Students will be asked to:
- Analyze and evaluate the three given perspectives
- State and develop their own perspective
- Explain why they agree or disagree with the perspectives given
- Support their ideas with logical reasoning
- Support their idea with detailed, persuasive examples
Essays will be evaluated using four metrics:
- Development and support
- Language use
To generate higher scores, students must take their critical thinking up a level to identify the overarching themes across the three perspectives. For instance, do the perspectives address tension between change and tradition, or between the needs of an individual versus that of the collective?
Graders want students to critically evaluate the logic of the perspectives, and also to identify errors, assumptions, and potential pitfalls. Students need to organize their essay, use words properly, pay attention to grammar, transition smoothly between paragraphs and vary the sentence structure.
Is the essay optional?
Both the SAT and ACT have now moved their essays to the end of their tests; technically they are both optional. But many colleges require a writing test. It’s best for you to find out how a school uses the writing test in admissions before making the decision to not take it. We always encourage students to write the essay, even if they think their schools won’t require it. We’ve seen too many students discover after taking the test without the writing section that their new stretch schools require the essay. The additional time spent to stay for the essay can save a student unnecessary stress and headaches down the road.
The new SAT and ACT essays raise the bar for critical thinking and analysis, allowing students a chance to show off their thinking and writing skills. Students aiming for a highly competitive essay score would benefit from timed practice with the new forms and corrective feedback. This will help identify strengths and weaknesses early, allowing students to make adjustments and go into the official test ready to hit their optimal score.
Wow offers private coaching for the ACT and SAT writing tests. Each package is $350 and includes four 45-minute sessions with a Wow writing coach, spread over approximately four weeks. We can condense it into a shorter time frame if necessary to accommodate your child’s schedule. Between sessions, the student completes writing assignments that build on what they worked on during their last meeting. As a final assignment, the student writes a sample essay, which the coach will score using the official ACT or SAT rubric.