In the old days, writing an essay for just about any standardized test meant giving your point of view on a topic. All that really meant was, write well and present a strong, supported argument. But the SAT and ACT have both changed things recently.
The SAT essay section now involves reading an essay, and then analyzing the tools the author used to persuade readers.
In the past few years, high school English departments have begun to emphasize the use and analysis of rhetoric. In theory, this is a great idea, since any culture that hopes to have an informed public should encourage an understanding of the ways in which their public speakers try to bring them around to thinking their way.
What this means is that it is very likely that most students taking the SAT will have had some exposure to the practice of literary/rhetorical analysis, and the art of writing this sort of analytical essay.
Look over this basic outline of what they will be looking for, and see if it looks like the sort of writing you’ve been taught in class.
The classic idea of a proper analysis considers three types of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos.
The term ethos come from the Greek, and originally meant something like “character,” or “disposition.” In an analytic essay, however, ethos means something closer to establishing credibility. In other words, should we consider the author an expert?
In an essay on music, the author might establish a background as a musician, or maybe a professor of music history. In a piece on international politics, an author who is a mechanical engineer will not be given the immediate credibility that a diplomat, or a political scientist will.
Pathos, as the essay readers see it, means making an appeal to emotion. Any time you see one of those “if it were your child who (fill in horrifying event here)” arguments, that’s an appeal to pathos.
When Shakespeare has Antony address the Romans about the assassinated Caesar, he grabs the people’s sympathy when he interrupts his speech and says, “Bear with me; My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, And I must pause till it come back to me.”
This helps him sell the idea that his words are not motivated by a hatred for Caesar. Serious pathos.
Now if Antony’s heart had literally been in the coffin with Caesar, that might have been an appeal to logos.
Logos, unsurprisingly, pretty much means “logic;” Essentially it is the use of facts, or reason to make a point. For example, if you wanted someone to buy your gum, you might say that four out of five dentists recommend it.
This is how the SAT sums up what they are looking for:
As you read the passage below, consider how the author uses
1. Reading - How well you read and understood the passage.
2. Analysis - This deals with the strength of the writer’s analysis of the rhetorical elements of the passage, and how well each point is supported.
3. Writing - Really, this is just a measure of how well the essay was written.
Each of these components will be scored on a four point scale by two readers.
This is not the kind of essay anyone should take on without experience. If your English teacher has not tackled rhetorical analysis well in class, then writing a great essay will require learning how to construct this type of essay on your own, and this will be tremendously difficult without feedback from an experienced reader.
The essay alone is not enough reason to choose the ACT over the SAT, but it can be a factor in your decision.
In addition, since fewer and fewer schools are even requiring an essay at all, check your list of targeted schools to be sure you even need to turn in and essay.
It’s not a bad idea to do the essay section just in case something changes and you suddenly fall in love with a school that will ask for an essay. But if you’re absolutely certain that you won’t need one, spend your time getting ready for the other parts of the exam, and not figuring out how to tell a pathos from an ethos.
Next time we’ll take a look at the ACT essay, so you can decide if you’d rather take a shot at that one.