How To Structure Body Paragraphs for the SAT Essay

By James Rodkey

(ACT, SAT, ESOL, Latin, BMAT, GRE, TSA tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

The SAT essay asks test takers to read a piece of persuasive writing and then give an analysis of it. As a reminder, this is the SAT’s description of the analytical task:

Write an essay in which you explain how [author] builds an argument to persuade his/her audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [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/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 [author’s] claims, but rather explain how [author] builds an argument to persuade his/her audience.

One of the more challenging aspects of this essay is the organization of the body paragraphs. There are two main approaches to doing this, and many students default to the first one. The purpose of this post is to suggest a second way of organizing information in the body paragraphs that may be more useful for some texts.


Option #1: The Standard 5-Paragraph Essay.

Most students’ inclination is to write a standard 5-paragraph essay in response to the SAT essay prompt. This means writing an introduction, three body paragraphs (each dedicated to a specific aspect of the text), and a conclusion. There is nothing inherently wrong with this structure for the SAT essay; in fact, on the College Board’s website, the example student essay provided to show a full marks response is structured exactly this way.

This does not mean that the standard 5-paragraph essay is always the best option, however. There are some potential limitations of this structure that could make writing the SAT essay more difficult, as the text changes from test to test (while the analytical task remains the same). For example, writing a body paragraph on the topic of the author’s use of figurative language requires that you find enough examples of figurative language in the text to justify a full body paragraph. This approach also means that you can only choose three persuasive features or rhetorical techniques to address – one for each body paragraph.

It should be clear how this structure could be limiting. What if there is one striking and effective use of figurative language, but only one? Or what if the author uses multiple modes of persuasion: figurative language, appeals to emotion, evocative diction, rhetorical questions, and logical reasoning? If you choose to write a standard 5-paragraph essay, you can only write about three of these things.


Option #2: A Chronological Essay.


There is another way of approaching the SAT essay that makes up for the limitations of the standard 5-paragraph essay. Instead of grouping examples of certain rhetorical techniques into their own body paragraphs, follow the author’s argument as he or she makes it, and provide a chronological commentary on various stylistic features along the way.

This approach removes the limitations of the standard 5-paragraph essay by structuring body paragraphs according to the author’s content rather than arbitrarily chosen stylistic features. This approach allows you to comment on any interesting rhetorical flourish that the author makes and generally do a more thorough job of addressing the essay task.

There is one drawback to this approach, namely its inherent lack of a prescribed number of body paragraphs. This open-endedness may be less appealing to students who prefer a more rigid, easily memorizable essay structure.

The important takeaway from this is that there is more than one way to structure the body paragraphs of the SAT essay. On test day, read the text carefully and decide which approach, the standard 5-paragraph essay or the chronological essay, would work better for that particular text. It’s always better to have options so that you can write the best response to the analytical task.


James’s Blog: Test Prep Strategies: Picking NumbersChanges in vocabulary between the old SAT and new SAT format, Translation Tips for IB Latin Paper 1, Backsolving SAT Algebra Problems, Why Vocabulary Still Matters for SAT ReadingHow To Structure Body Paragraphs for the SAT Essay

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