SAT Essay Tip: The Passage is Trying to Trick You!


While the essay portion of the SAT is now optional, it can still be a valuable component of your college application – particularly if you’re trying to emphasize your writing or English skills (book your private Irvine SAT tutor today). The directions for the essay are the same for each test:

” As you read the passage below, consider how [Author] uses:
-evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
-reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
-stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion,
to add power to the ideas expressed. ”

They will then ask you to choose one or more of these elements and write about how the author uses them and why (focusing on the most relevant features in the prompt). These instructions do not change, so they should be memorized beforehand in order to save time reading during the test. However, the passage itself will be different every time.

Remember that these passages are meant to be persuasive. You will be reading some author’s argument where they are using various methods to try to convince you that their opinion is correct. They also tend to be rather strong and compelling arguments – they are hand-picked for the SAT after all.

These passages lead to a common issue that I see students have: they are persuaded by the author and agree with him/her by the time they’re done reading.

Now, agreeing with the passage does not have to be a bad thing, but it does tend to lead to two problems when it comes to writing your essay:

– You include your approval in your essay
– You don’t notice the persuasive elements being used
– Of these two, the first is common but easy to deal with. The directions for the SAT specifically say that you should NOT say whether or not you agree with the author’s claims. – Many students get motivated and enthusiastic about the cause that the author is championing after they read the passage, and they write about how the author is correct and even bring in extra outside support. This is NOT what you are supposed to do. Likewise if you disagree with the author. You are only supposed to discuss which of the above examples of persuasive elements you see in the passage and how/why they are used.

The second is the more difficult to get past. When you disagree with someone’s argument, you are more likely to be on high alert for any flaws in their arguments or tricks they are trying to utilize. This is more difficult if you agree with them and are simply nodding along in support. It’s easy to be less critical when you agree with someone. So here is the tip to help you notice more persuasive elements in the prompt: Pretend that the author is trying to trick you.

Go into reading the prompt thinking that the author is wrong but that they are trying to trick you to make you believe them. Even if the passage is called “Why People Like Puppies,” you need to be thinking to yourself “I know that people don’t like puppies and this guy is trying to trick me that they do.” It does not matter what you actually think. It does not matter if the author is right or wrong. What matters is that you find evidence, reasoning, and persuasive elements that the author is using in their argument. And it is easier to find the persuasive elements when you have the mindset that they are out to trick you.

Continuing with our puppy example, here are some things you could see:

Author: “Suzy, a suburban mother of three, tells us how her pottery club includes two members who brought their puppies to a meeting one day and everyone unanimously enjoyed their company.”

You: “Suzy and her pottery club are only a small group and specific demographic. The author is just using a happy anecdote to make me believe them.”

Author: “Puppies are the quintessential eliminators of stress on college campuses during finals weeks. Everyone knows that finals are a difficult time, why wouldn’t we support something that helps ease that stress?”
You: “That’s a gross hyperbole that they’re using to convince me. They’re also using a rhetorical question that I know has nothing to do with puppies, AND they’re trying to relate to me by mentioning finals that might appeal to students. I’m onto them.”

Now, these are more lighthearted examples than you may see on the real test, but they get the point across. It would be easy to read these statements by the author, and just think “yes, people do like puppies, this is correct, I agree.” However, you need to look at things with a critical eye. The author is trying to persuade you, to convince you, to trick you – and you need to see how and why in order to ace your essay.

Are you taking the SAT soon? Sign up for a private Irvine SAT tutor today.

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