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Top Score On Sat Essay Practice

Earlier, I wrote a post with a sample new SAT essay prompt and an example on how to annotate the text to look for evidence while you are reading it. Today, I’m going to give you an example of how those annotations were used to write a perfect, 8-point essay. This is part one of a series of four attempts to answer this essay prompt. So, try it yourself and evaluate your essay based on our examples. For even more essay fun (because it’s super fun, right??), you can also check out another prompt here.

A few reminders

About essay scoring: The new SAT essay has a different scoring rubric than the old essay, which we go over here. For more of a complete understanding of what each point means for each area of scoring (reading, analysis, and writing), you can check that out on The College Board’s website.

About comparing essays: Writing an 8-point essay can be really, really hard to do, even for capable writers. As Elizabeth referred to in this post, 50 minutes is not a lot of time to read and analyze a text and then write a beautifully articulate essay about it. So if you find yourself not at the level you want to be after comparing essays, don’t be down! It’s really all about practice and always keeping track of how you can do better next time.

Example 8-point Essay

In the New York Times article “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that although expressing gratitude is important, particularly toward those that deserve our thanks, in practice, gratitude has evolved into a rather selfish act. Ehrenreich reasons through concrete, real-world examples as well as appeal to pathos to convincingly reveal that the common practice of gratitude has definately become about the self as opposed to about others.

In one example, Ehrenreich discredits the popular practice of gratitude by pointing out the hypocrisy of a foundation that has a prominent role in spreading this ideology. Ehrenreich reveals how the John Templeton Foundation, which plays a significant role in “gratitude’s rise to self-help celebrity status” for funding a number of projects to publically spread the message of gratitude, does not provide funding to improve the lives of poor people. Ehrenreich forces the reader to question The John Templeton Foundation for preferring to fund projects that “improve…attitudes” as opposed to more philanthropic aims, which is the purpose of most foundations. As delivering this example required a bit of investigative journalism on Ehrenreich’s part, Ehrenreich also impresses the reader with her well-researched knowledge about the practice of gratitude, which lends more credence to Ehrenreich and her views.

Ehrenreich also paints a lucid picture of the selfishness of gratitude in practice by referring to an example of gratitude advice from a well-known source. In a CNN article, a yoga instructor posits gratitude advice, such as “writing what you give thanks for on a sticky note and posting it on your mirror” or creating “a ‘thankfulness’ reminder on your phone.” In the next line, Ehrenreich then offers her analysis: “Who is interacting here? ‘You’ and ‘you.’” By analyzing the excerpt of the gratitude advice itself, the audience can see Ehrenreich’s point for themselves, in which popular messaging about gratitude is inherently self-serving. Furthermore, isolating Ehrenreich’s pithy analysis of the advice serves as an effective stylistic technique to ensure that the reader truly focuses on the central argument.

Finally, Ehrenreich artfully uses appeal to pathos to draw a distinction between how gratitude is practiced and how it should be practiced. Ehrenreich is ultimately arguing that we should not do away with gratitude but rather we should practice “a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now.” She then lists the menial labor done to ensure one has food on the table and emphasizes that those who enact the labor are actual people with “aching backs and tenuous finances.” These descriptive details of these jobs and the workers serve to generate compassion and perhaps even guilt in the reader—who, as an NY Times reader, is likely a member of a privileged class—for not considering a more inclusive practice of gratitude. These feelings surely heighten Ehrenreich’s point that gratitude in practice has not been focused on those who truly deserve it. Erenreich then goes on to show specific examples of how one can show gratitude to these individuals, beyond just saying thanks, which highlights the selfishness of the current state of gratitude.

Therefore, it is evident that through relevant and real-world examples, reasoning, and appeals to emotion, Ehrenreich provides a cogent argument regarding the selfishness of how society, as a whole, practices gratitude.

Why this essay would receive an 8

This is a really solid essay. Let’s break it down by category.

  • Reading comprehension: The writer’s thorough understanding of the essay is shown not only by their understanding of Ehrenreich’s central claim, but also in effective paraphrasing of her words. The writer also skillfully incorporates quotations from the original source only when it adds to their point* and stays away from simply summarizing the article, which can be a pitfall if one is not careful.
  • Analysis: This essay would probably receive full marks for analysis because it clearly identifies concrete rhetorical elements in Ehrenreich’s essay that support her central point and the purpose of these elements as well as providing a lot of original reasoning for why they were effective (a lot of students might struggle with the latter).
  • Writing: This student is clearly a talented writer, using fancy and well-chosen vocabulary (like pithy, cogent, artful). The writer also gets A+ for varying sentence structure and essay organization, in which there is a solid intro and conclusion** and each rhetorical element has its own paragraph in the body. There are minor errors in spelling (the dreaded misspelling of definitely), word choice (enact doesn’t really mean carry out, which is what the writer seemed to intend; perform would be a better choice), and grammar and punctuation, but nothing that interferes with meaning and quality.


*Seriously, annotate! If you refer back to the annotation of the original text, you will notice that the writer mainly used quotations that were underlined in the annotations. That’s why underlining important parts of the text, as you read, is a great way to easily refer back to the most relevant quotes that you can copy in your essay.

**The College Board doesn’t seem to care if your intro and conclusion basically say the same thing. As long as you succinctly summarize your central claim in the intro and switch up how you say it in the concluding paragraph, you should be good!



About Anika Manzoor

A former High School blogger, Anika now serves as the editor for Magoosh's company and exam blogs. In other words, she spends way too much time scouring the web for the perfect gif for a given post. She's currently an MPP candidate at Harvard University and wants her life back, so if you ever find it, please let her know.

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A New Adventure

As a teacher and an author of test prep books, I make it my job to see any changes to the test firsthand. That means taking the test myself, whether it was the updated ACT in 2015 or now the New SAT in 2016.

So when April of 2016 rolled around, I signed up for the March SAT exam, the very first one that would be conducted in the new format.

I wanted to get a teacher’s perspective of the test. My three main goals were to

  • See what concepts were tested
  • See what worked and what didn’t on the essay using my framework
  • Test out some section-specific strategies

While a perfect score would be nice to get, it wasn’t a priority given that I’m already a few years out of college.

As someone who is extremely experienced with standardized testing, I knew I didn’t have to do too much prep. But to get the most out of this experience, I did all the practice exams released by The College Board and wrote several essays using a framework I had devised.

A week before the test, I got this lovely email in my inbox:

The College Board had decided to ban all tutors (age 21+) from the first administration. I suspect the reasons went beyond just the security of the test, but anyway, that’s beyond the scope of this post. My encounter with the New SAT would have to wait.

After 2 months of waiting, the May 7th exam finally came around and I was allowed to sit for the exam.

Unfortunately, I was dealing with a severe case of jetlag after returning from a 2-week visit to Vietnam. I battled through it, got up early on Saturday, and took the train to a local school.

Upon arrival, my ID was checked and I was told to look for a yellow ticket with my name on it. These tickets were all laid out on a long table in the cafeteria.

When I found mine, I noticed right away that it had a gold sticker that wasn’t on any of the other tickets. Guess I was being singled out. Interesting…

I was told to wait at a separate table in the cafeteria until all the other students were sent off to their testing rooms. As it turned out, I was to be given my own room with my very own proctor because I was over 21. What luxury! Extra space and guaranteed silence. This security measure worked out in my favor.

Tips and Thoughts on the Exam

  • It is so much easier than the old exam. Not only is it more straightforward, the actual questions themselves are less difficult. It’s almost like The College Board took a 12th grade test and made it a 10th grade test.
  • Because it’s easier, expect score inflation. It used to be that a 1500/1600 on the math and reading sections would be a top-notch score. Now you need a 1540/1600 to be on par.
  • It seems like The College Board went out of its way to include 1-2 tricky questions on each section. It’s like they tried to compensate for the rest of the exam being easier. Expect these 1-2 questions to be the difference between a great score and an ivy-league score. Of course, this was always the case but now it’s even more pronounced.
  • The timing is very lax. I can see The College Board reducing the timing for each section in the future. I had ample time to review my work and double-check tough questions on every section. Contrast this with the ACT, which requires that you rush through every section to finish on time.
  • The math was harder than The College Board practice tests. Expect to find one of the math sections much harder than the other (i.e. non-calculator way harder than the calculator or vice-versa). This has been the case for a lot of my students as well.
  • There was very little trigonometry if any on my exam. A lot of people have been making a big deal out of trig being on the exam, but realize that it’s a very small component (1-2 questions max).
  • All the math strategies that helped on the old exam are still very much relevant to the new one (Making Up Numbers, Plugging in Answer Choices)
  • Because there are only 4 answer choices for each question, the math section is much more vulnerable to pattern recognition. For example, you can easily narrow down the answer choices for a vertex-form question just by knowing what vertex-form looks like.
  • You should know how to do the following by hand for the non-calculator section: basic arithmetic, arithmetic with fractions, factoring, completing the square.
  • The difficulty of the reading section was on par with The College Board practice tests.
  • Expect a tricky supporting evidence question (the ones that ask which lines best support your previous answer). The secret to getting these right is a two-step process: 1) Try to figure out the lines before you see the answer choices, and 2) Always ask yourself whether the lines you chose actually support your previous answer. On the trickier ones, there will be a trap answer choice that supports the passage’s main idea or another related point in the passage. Because this trap answer mirrors the passage, it will probably relate to the prior answer you’re trying to support, and you’ll find yourself torn between the correct answer and this trap answer. When this happens, go with the the answer that most directly supports your previous one, not the one that indirectly supports it through the main idea of the passage. I promise this will make more sense once you do some practice.
  • Don’t buy into the College Board marketing scheme that implies SAT vocabulary is no longer important. The passages still contain many college-level words, and if you don’t understand them, you won’t fully understand the passage. Vocabulary also comes into play for the word choice questions on the writing and language section. My favorite way to memorize SAT vocab is still Anki.
  • There seems to always be a civil rights/women’s rights passage. Other than that, a lot of the passages are more current. There was one about reddit, for example.
  • The writing and language section is pretty straightforward and on par with the College Board practice tests. Once you know the grammar rules, you’re pretty set to go. The trickier questions will tend to be those that ask you to choose the right word or place a sentence in the correct spot. Process of elimination is an especially effective strategy on this section.
  • The new essay is easier than the old one. First, you’re less likely to get writer’s block because you’re analyzing a passage. Second, the analysis is not hard once you know the rhetorical and persuasive elements to look for. Two of these elements—statistics and word choice—can be found in pretty much every single essay passage. A minimum of 21/24 is what I would consider a great score (at least 7/8 in each of the three grading categories).
  • The essay template that I had devised worked extremely well (I got a 7/7/7). There were some subtle things I missed and have since tweaked, but in general, my approach was spot on. I cover everything—the template, all the rhetorical devices you need to know, common mistakes—in my SAT Essay book.

My Results

Not too shabby.

If you found this post helpful and want to learn more, check out my books. They contain everything I know about the SAT—all the concepts, strategies, and question types you need to know to get a perfect score.

For the May 2016 test in particular, I devised an essay template for any passage that got me a high score of 21/24 (7/7/7). I share this template and everything else—all the rhetorical devices you need to know, what I did right, and the subtle things I missed—in my new SAT Essay book.

Parting Advice

Even though we’re dealing with a new exam, the path to a higher score hasn’t changed. It just comes down to review and practice. Find as much practice as you can and do all of it. Sit down and actually write the essays too.

Start at least several months before your test date, preferably over the summer. Do all 4 Official Practice Tests. Do the practice PSAT. Download the SAT Question of the Day App and do all those questions. Get a list of vocab words and start studying them (you get one for free when you sign up to my newsletter). There will also be at least one released test floating about by the time you take the exam, so get your hands on that as well.

Use The College Panda books and any others to review and practice the concepts you’re weak in. Then when you think you’ve exhausted every resource you have, redo all the practice tests. I guarantee you’ll still get stuff wrong that you glazed over the first time. That’s a good thing. Covering those loose ends is where the real learning happens.

If you still need more practice, start doing old SAT exams. They’re harder but everything you learn will carry over. I promise.

This process takes a lot of hard work but if you manage to get through it, you’ll be on your way to a perfect score.


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