Unpacking the SAT Essay Prompt

SAT Essay: Unpacking the prompt

The words in the SAT Essay Prompt have been chosen very carefully. What do they all mean?
This article provides a detailed analysis of the SAT Essay task.
Here's a generic prompt:

"...explain how the author builds an argument to persuade the audience..."

Your essay should be focused on identifying and analyzing the strategies the author uses to make his or her point.
Do describe the HOW: How does the author make the point?
Don't spend more than a sentence or two describing what the passage is about and what the point of the passage is.
Do pay attention to how the author uses particular techniques and elements to make the writing more convincing, persuasive, and powerful. How and why do these features work?
Do focus on what the author does, why he or she does it, and what effect this is likely to have on readers
Do capture some of the main ideas and key details of the passage in your analysis
Don't spend too much time summarizing that information
Do assess the key details' contribution to the argument

"... consider how the author uses evidence to support claims."

"Evidence" refers to information and ideas that the author uses to support a claim. Evidence takes many forms, and the forms vary depending on the kind of argument the author is writing and the nature of the point the author is trying to make.
Types of Evidence
  • facts
  • statistics
  • quotations from (other) experts
  • the results of experiments or other research
  • examples
The author of any given passage may use some of these or rely on other kinds of sources entirely.
Your Job is to figure out what constitutes evidence in a particular passage and how the author uses it to support his or her claims. You may end up pointing out that the author relies (perhaps too much) on one kind of evidence or another — or on little or no evidence at all, likely weakening the argument’s effectiveness. You may instead or in addition point to specific cases in which the author’s choice of evidence was particularly effective in supporting a claim or point.
Other approaches are possible as well.

"...consider how the author uses reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence."

Reasoning is the connective tissue that holds an argument together. It’s the “thinking” — the logic, the analysis — that develops the argument and ties the claim and evidence together.
Reasoning plays a stronger role in some texts than in others. Some authors are very careful about making their thought processes clear so that readers can follow and critique them. In other cases, texts rely less heavily on logic.
Your analysis of an author’s use of reasoning can take a number of different approaches. Here are two possibilities:
  • Discuss how the author uses (or fails to use) clear, logical reasoning to draw a connection between a claim and the evidence supporting that claim.
  • Evaluate the impact that particular aspects of the author’s reasoning (e.g., unstated assumptions) have on how convincing the argument is.
Other approaches are possible as well.

"...consider how the author uses stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to the ideas expressed."

Stylistic and persuasive elements are rhetorical techniques that an author might employ to enhance the power of his or her argument.
  • Appeals to the audience’s emotions, like fear or anger
  • Appeals to the audience's sense of honor, patriotism, justice or decency
  • Word choice - tone, diction, register
  • Vivid descriptive language or imagery to create a mood of excitement, anticipation, anxiety or whimsy
  • Humor
  • Irony
There’s no definitive list of these techniques and you don’t have to know them all by heart or by name to be able to get strong scores on the Essay.
Top Tip: As you read the passage, be on the lookout for the ways by which the author attempts to influence the audience, sometimes by using something other than a strictly logical, rational approach!
Your analysis of the author’s use of stylistic and persuasive elements can follow a number of paths. For example:
  • Point out instances in which the author uses such devices and evaluate their role or their effectiveness in convincing an audience to action.
  • Analyze and evaluate the varying extent to which logic and emotion contribute to the persuasiveness of the text.
Other approaches are possible as well.
We’ve listed some examples of how evidence, reasoning, and stylistic and persuasive elements might be analyzed in a passage, but these are by no means the only ways to earn a good score. For some passages, evidence may be less important than reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, so it makes sense to devote less attention to evidence in such a case. Successful responses do not need to cover each of these three categories.
It’s better to focus your essay on a few points that are well made than attempt to check off a long list of rhetorical elements.
You can also choose to discuss some aspect of the passage that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the three categories but that plays an important part in how the author builds the argument.
The best way to practice is to actually do a few prompts - stop thinking about it, stop reading about it, take out that pencil and start marking up a passage - then, create an outline and write a draft!
Good luck!


This article was adapted by Dave Travis from "The Official SAT Study Guide," with permission from College Board.