Test Prep

Four Common Essay Style Elements You’ll See on the SAT

iStock

The SAT Essay isn’t just about showing that you can craft your own essay — it’s about demonstrating that you can analyze someone else’s. The College Board has four main things that it seeks:

- Insightful analysis of the passage


- Relevant support for claims and points made

- Consistent focus on features relevant to the analysis task

- Thorough evaluation of the author’s evidence, reasoning and stylistic elements

Here I’ll focus on the last thing on that list: stylistic elements. Knowing how to spot them and recognize their purpose might sound a bit complicated. Don’t worry! I’ve compiled a list of a few common style elements to help get you started.

Comparisons

 Let’s start with the basics. A comparison in writing is when the author takes two (sometimes very) different things and makes a connection between them.

You could see comparisons like: Juliet is the sun.

Here, the author takes a universal concept (everyone has some understanding of what the sun represents) and uses that to more concretely explain something more specific. Juliet is portrayed here as someone who brings light into the author’s life, or perhaps feelings of warmth, like the sun.

Imagery

Concrete images shouldn’t be anything new, but something students often forget is that an “image” doesn’t always appeal to the sense of sight.

SAT passages will often use images that appeal to senses of smell, taste and touch as well. Expect to encounter sentences like: The streetcar carried the heavy aroma of a man’s putrid cologne.

Imagery is typically used to appeal to an audience’s emotions by “painting a picture” in the audience’s mind. Consider how these images will strengthen the persuasiveness of the author’s thesis.

Statistics or Quotes

Quotes from the passage will be essential to craft your essay, but you’ll also see quotes and data within the passages, too. Just like you’ll do in your essay, the author includes these to build credibility.

The passages can cite relevant studies and other research. Think about a speech on car seat safety. Will that speech be credible if given by a high school student with no outside references? Not really! How about if the speaker refers to a study completed by the American Academy of Pediatrics? That’s much more reliable, and the audience for the piece is bound to be receptive. That’s something to discuss in your analysis!

Syntax

Let’s shift gears from specifics and look at the passage more generally. We’ve been talking about how words work to make comparisons, to evoke the senses or to provide hard data, but the flow between all of these elements and their presentation also matters. This is the structure of the words: not just content, but format. This is where syntax comes in, and it’s important on the SAT!

Here’s an example of one particular syntactic effect. An author who wants to slow down your reading can use longer sentences: The day was as cold as any that had ever fallen upon the great town of Smithsville, with clouds that hung low in the sky and rain that pelted the rooftops like coins being thrown from above.

There’s much more detail here than is essential to our basic comprehension, isn’t there? By contrast, here’s a terser use of syntax: It was cold. Smithsville was shrouded in clouds. Rain drenched the town.

 In this example, the author spares no time with extra details and quickly gets right to the point. Skilled writers or speakers will use syntax to control the pace of the piece and emphasize certain points. Consider how that plays into the SAT passage’s persuasiveness or effectiveness when plotting your essay.

Now, are you expected to label each of these elements in the passage? Absolutely not! Remember, this isn’t a vocabulary test. What you’re expected to do in the SAT Essay is find the significance of a few of these elements in terms of how the author builds his or her argument. Does a specific piece of data build credibility? Is a concrete image appealing to the reader’s emotions? Once you’ve got a handle on the elements, you’ll be well on your way to writing a compelling analysis on test day.

For more about the SAT Essay analysis, check out our book Reading and Writing Workout for specific Reading, Writing and Essay tips, or our book Cracking the SAT for tips on every section of the test.