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How to Write a Great Body Paragraph on the SAT Essay

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If you’re taking the SAT Essay, optional for test-takers but required or encouraged by a great number of colleges and universities throughout the United States, chances are you’re not terribly excited about the 50-minute timed writing assignment. Many of my students confess to me that they don’t understand the SAT Essay task and have trouble knowing what to write about. If you’re the type of student who dislikes writing essays, this is a good article for you! In it, I will explain just why a logical structure is not only essential to a good SAT Essay, but makes writing the essay a breeze.

Why does following a logical, organized structure help both the essay reader AND essay writer? Because readers will have no trouble following your thoughts when you present them in a manner that makes clear at a glance your main claims, supporting evidence, and analysis thereof. And because when YOU know how to structure an essay, you’ll NEVER run into the problem of not knowing what to say next. In fact, you’ll be writing right up until time is called!

Review of the SAT Essay Task

Before we talk about how to write a great SAT body paragraph, let’s recap the essay task. When you get the essay prompt, you’ll notice that it’s a speech, essay, or article by someone else, most likely a persuasive text. Your job is to 1) identify the argument, 2) identify the rhetorical devices the author employs, and 3) explain how the author advances his or her argument through the use of rhetorical devices and persuasive strategies.

To do well, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with common rhetorical devices–know their names and definitions, and know how to spot them when they occur.

You’ll also want to ensure that you write a great SAT intro paragraph. Good SAT Essay intro paragraphs serve to hook the reader, introduce the author, paraphrase the author’s argument, and preview the rhetorical devices and persuasive strategies you’re going to analyze.

How to Structure an SAT Essay Body Paragraph

Once you learn this formula for writing SAT Essay body paragraphs, you’ll be well on your way to finishing your essay! I’m going to assume that you know common rhetorical devices and that you’ve written a great intro. After you’ve written the end of your intro, when you’ve previewed the three or so rhetorical devices and persuasive strategies that you’re going to analyze, you’re ready to begin your first body paragraph.

The SAT Essay body paragraph should follow this structure, which I’ll explain with examples:

  • Sentence 1: Topic sentence
  • Sentence 2: Specific example / quote
  • Sentences 3-4: Analysis of specific example / quote
  • Sentence 5: Specific example / quote
  • Sentence 6-7: Analysis of specific example / quote
  • Sentence 8: Specific example / quote
  • Sentence 9-10: Analysis of specific example / quote

Of course, this structure need not be set in stone. In general, though, it’s wise to have more analysis than quoted material, and it’s wise to provide at least three examples. Let’s examine this SAT Essay structure in detail:

Sentence 1: Topic sentence.

Example: To set up his argument that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is worth protecting and preserving for future generations, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter makes liberal use of vivid imagery.

Notice that we’ve narrowed the focus of this first body paragraph? We’ll be discussing Carter’s use of imagery here.

Sentence 2: Specific example quoted

Carter devotes the first three paragraphs of his article to describing in vivid detail the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s beauty, writing of the “never-setting sun,” the “windswept coastal plain,” and the “brilliant mosaic of wildflowers,” among other things.

Sentences 3-5: Analysis

In so doing, he establishes that the Refuge has a “timeless quality” and is a place of astonishing natural beauty. The reader finds himself or herself imagining the refuge and perhaps wanting to visit, making Carter’s reveal in the fourth paragraph that the Refuge is under threat from oil drilling all the more dire, as the Refuge’s “timeless” beauty risks destruction.

Rinse and repeat!

Now You’ve Got the SAT Essay Body Paragraph Structure Down

And that’s basically it! Notice that each paragraph needs a topic sentence and should contain two to three quoted examples, which you’ll then go on to analyze. Topic sentence, quote, analysis, quote, analysis, quote, analysis, new paragraph, repeat…

See how formulaic the SAT Essay can be? You’ll never ask yourself what to write next!

The main work to do is to identify rhetorical devices, underline examples of those devices to use as quoted material–and, of course, to think of what analytical statements you’ll make!

* * *

That’s it! If you really want a higher SAT Essay score, make sure to get our Complete SAT Essay & ACT Essay course. It’s filled with SAT essay secrets from a veteran tutor, available nowhere else!

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No matter what you’ve been told, the SAT essay doesn’t test how good of a writer you are. There’s no way it can, especially in the form it takes. Outside of the SAT, you’ll only find yourself in a situation like this when taking other standardized tests. The essays you’ve written in high school and those you’ll write in college do have some things in common with the SAT, but the comparisons are limited.


Why “good” SAT essays aren’t really “good” writing

I studied writing through high school and college, and now I write for Magoosh, so you can bet I have some thoughts on what makes “good” writing. But I don’t necessarily see those traits in near perfect SAT essays. The SAT doesn’t care much about your sense of voice, nor does it care much about how engaging or descriptive your writing is. It doesn’t care if you use too many adjectives or if you have an unfortunate love for clichés.

So what makes an SAT essay “good”? It’s pretty formulaic. According to the College Board, they care about five things.

  • Developing a point of view
  • Organization
  • Vocabulary
  • Varied sentence structures
  • Grammar

And while that’s all true, in a way, you can bet that they don’t pick every student’s response apart meticulously according to each of those five evaluations in equal measure. In fact, let’s think for a moment about what SAT graders really do.

They go through thousands of essays every year, and they work by the hour. If you follow the link above, you’ll see that the pay isn’t even all that good. So they take literally about two or three minutes on each essay, and they read quickly to see if there are any glaring errors and whether the writer developed an idea.


The most noticeable strengths of good SAT essays

Here’s an interesting thought: your essay can be pretty much nonsense and you can still score pretty highly on it. Use some high-level vocabulary, avoid obvious grammatical errors, and write enough to make it seem like you’ve developed an idea, and you’re looking at a total score of 8 or higher out of 12. After all, you would’ve met at least three or four of the criteria for a good essay, even if there’s not a single coherent idea on the paper. As long as the schizophrenic lady on the street has some collegiate vocabulary and solid grammar, her essay about how being the queen of 7-Eleven proves the importance of honesty might get a decent score.

That’s either a depressing idea or an encouraging one, depending on how you take it.

The point is that the SAT essay actually tests a lot of the same skills that SAT reading comp and SAT writing multiple choice do. Avoid frequent, large grammar errors, use a couple of your flash-card words correctly, and fill the page as much as you can, and you’re looking at a pretty decent score already.

It won’t make you a good writer, per se, but hey—points are points on the SAT.


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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