All right, so you’re taking the SAT on December 3, two days from when I’m writing this. So what can I help you with at this late date? I can help you with a few basic tips on how to write the SAT essay before you take it, while you still have time to take about an hour and try them out BEFORE you do the real SAT essay. I hope these help!
First of all, I want you to consider the saying “You can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’” That saying is also known as Hume’s Law, and assuming an “ought” (a moral statement that something SHOULD be the case) from an “is” (an assertion of fact). That means you have to have a moral, ethical, logical, or emotional principle upon which you base your argument. Otherwise, you don’t have an argument; you just have a series of factual statements – more like an objective news article, which just reports the facts, than a news editorial, which states an opinion.
Any piece of writing you will be asked to read for the SAT essay will be a persuasive essay or similar article designed to convince you of the author’s point. That means it’s going to be an argument, which has to be based upon an “ought” – a general principle. So, the first thing you should identify is the “ought.” This is extremely easy on the SAT, since the instructions in the box following the passage will ask you :
Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his or her] audience that [THE “OUGHT” WILL BE STATED RIGHT HERE]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his or 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 audience.
You should identify the “ought” in the introduction and conclusion, since it’s the point of the essay. In the same paragraph, you should list the evidence and techniques used. “In his essay ‘I Will Gladly Pay You Tuesday for a Hamburger Today,’ Wim Pea makes an argument for why hamburgers are the best food and how it is a blessed, noble act to lend money to the temporarily indigent for hamburger purchases. Mr. Pea uses evidence from nutrition scientists, statements from theologians and anti-poverty activists, and personal anecdotes. He also uses appeals to emotion, logical arguments, and humor to create an effective argument regarding why you should buy him a hamburger and expect him to repay you on Thursday.”
In a paragraph (or two or three, depending on how many different kinds of facts are used), detail what kinds of facts are used – studies, personal anecdotes (that is, stories from the author’s life), quotes from authorities, examples from history or the news, examples from literature, common everyday examples and/or common sense (e.g,, everyone is familiar with eating, sleeping, going to school, riding a bike, playing games, etc.).
Then identify the techniques used – ethos (appeals to morality and ethics), pathos (appeals to emotion), and logos (logic) – don’t worry if you can’t remember those terms, as long as you can identify them as appeals to emotion, morality, or logic. Identify poetic and literary devices (alliteration, rhyme, metaphors and similes, anecdotes). Again, don’t worry about the technical terms, as long as you can identify the techniques clearly – it’s MUCH better to use simpler words correctly than to use more complex, sophisticated “SAT” words incorrectly.
Do you remember the last time some pretentious jerk used a word in the wrong way? Didn’t you have a good laugh that that person’s expense? Of course you did. You may have quoted “The Princess Bride” and said or thought “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” You don’t want the SAT graders to do that to you. For example, I’ve seen a YouTube video where the man making the video read a comment or email someone sent him, calling him a “sycophant” (a flatterer or a “suckup”) when the writer obviously meant to call him a “psychopath” (a person who doesn’t care about other people and often hurts other people for no purpose other than amusement). That mistake almost completely defused the writer’s argument before she even got to her point. The video’s “host” said “I had to look that word up, and it really doesn’t make sense here,” and made fun of her before addressing her point. Don’t be the idiot YouTubers make fun of in their videos. ;-) But I digress.
You should also ask yourself “What kind of emotional or argumentative language is used to present the facts in such a way that they support the author’s argument?” Does the author use adjectives, adverbs, or even nouns and verbs that are emotionally “loaded?” For example, people will think a car was going much faster and caused more damage if you describe it as having “smashed” into another car than if it “made contact” with the other car. Euphemisms can soften the truth, pejorative words can make things appear worse than they actually are.
Finally, while you’re not supposed to give your opinion on the topic of the essay, you can and should point out obvious logical fallacies, weak examples, or the failure to address obvious counter-arguments (which is a way you can bring in your opinion if you don’t agree with the essay writer). If you’ve read my other blog entries, you know I’m not making a new point here.
For example, does the argument use a shifting definition of a term (for example, does the writer use a term such as “light” as “light in color,” but then “light” as in “not heavy” in another part of the same essay, and confuse the two?) Does the argument “beg the question?” While the mass media often use that term as meaning “inviting a question in response,” as in “Your demand begs the question ‘Who do you think you are, ordering people around like that?’,” the formal meaning is “circular logic,” where the conclusion is assumed at the beginning. For example, the argument “I’m an honest person. You know I’m not lying about being an honest person because I said I’m not lying, and you can believe me, since after all, I’m an honest person” is an example of “begging the question.”
Do the facts fail to support the conclusion? “You should vote for me for mayor because I have a family and have lived in this city my whole life” doesn’t have much factual support. . Are they not terribly convincing? A really old study on something that’s probably been studied multiple times from the distant past to the recent past, might not be the best evidence for the author’s point – scientific studies have to be replicated many times before their conclusion are accepted as unquestionably true (and even then, of course, all scientific progress is based on showing where old principles are wrong and showing a better explanation of the same phenomena).
Basically, the argument has to be a “chain” connecting facts to logical, moral, or emotional principles. Is one of the links really weak? Is the chain missing a link completely? Write about it. If you can’t find any problems, which is likely to be the case, or you can’t articulate what the problems are, then just make a general statement about how each device is appropriate, effective, and how the author uses “powerful and apt” (or some other synonyms) language to make his or her point.
I know this is different from some essay instructions and examples I’ve given, where I’ve suggested writing, and actually written, essays by analyzing them paragraph by paragraph. Either approach is fine – use the technique that works best for you. You’ll figure that out by writing a practice essay or two, perhaps tonight and tomorrow.
Finally, I’ll repeat my advice from other blog entries – write the body paragraphs first, after leaving space for an introduction, then write the introduction at the end, so you know what you need to put in the introduction. Finally, write the conclusion – all it has to be is a rephrasing of the introduction. You can write the conclusion in about two minutes, and I’m sure you have in many high school essays. Good luck!
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Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.