SAT Essay Writing

By James Rodkey

(Latin & School/University Entrance Exam Tutor)

The College Board recently released SAT score data for all test takers in the US in 2020, and the results were surprising to me in one place in particular. According to the data, the average sub-score for the “Analysis” component of the SAT Essay was 3 out of 8.

It’s worth remembering how the SAT Essay is scored: Two different people read the essay and assign it a score between 1 and 4 in three areas (reading, analysis, writing). The two readers’ scores are added together to give a final score out of 8 in the three different areas. A score of 3 out of 8 on analysis, then, means that one reader gave the response a 1 out of 4 (the lowest possible score). That’s a fairly shocking statistic given that this is the average analysis score out of the 1.2 million students who wrote the SAT Essay last year. This implies that quite a few students must have received the lowest score from both readers on the analysis portion. (The lowest possible score is 2 out of 8, not 0 out of 8.)

If we look at the College Board’s own rubric for the essay, we can see what a score of 1 out of 4 on analysis implies about the student’s response (my emphasis in bold):

  • The response identifies without explanation some aspects of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s choosing.
  • The response contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made, or support is largely irrelevant.

These are, I think, the most common problems leading to a low analysis score. Remember that a thorough analysis of a piece of persuasive writing should include all four aspects of the PEEL paragraph format. (PEEL = Point, Evidence, Explanation, Link)

  • Point: What aspect of the text are you highlighting? Be specific (i.e., make your point).
  • Evidence: Show (rather than simply summarize) examples of the author using the specific persuasive technique you’re analyzing. For the SAT Essay, that usually means quoting the relevant part of the text directly.
  • Explanation: Be explicit in describing how the author’s use of a specific technique produces whatever effect you claim it produces. If you point out that “the author’s use of statistics lends credibility to the argument”, go on to explain how or why that’s the case.
  • Link: Always keep the author’s overall thesis in mind as you analyze the piece. How does each specific point the author makes advance the main argument?

A high-quality analytical essay includes all of the PEEL features throughout the response. Leaving any portion of PEEL out of your analysis will almost certainly result in a lower score for this part of your essay, so make sure to be thorough on this part of the task!

For specific examples of student responses that the College Board has given high scores for analysis, see their website: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sample-questions/essay


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