Should My Child Take the ISEE or the SSAT?

If your child is applying to private schools, odds are she’ll be required to take either the ISEE (which stands for the Independent School Entrance Exam) or the SSAT (which stands for the Secondary School Admission Test). While these exams are similar in many respects, they are still different enough that the choice of which exam to take should be carefully considered.

School Preference

The first step in deciding which test your child should take is to check which exam the schools your child is applying to require or prefer. Many schools will happily consider either the SSAT or ISEE without any preference for one over the other. Others will explicitly require or prefer that you submit only one of the exams. Traditionally, New England boarding schools have required or preferred the SSAT, whereas New York City prep schools have required or preferred the ISEE. In recent years, however, a growing number of New York City private schools have begun accepting the SSAT as well as the ISEE, with no preference for either test.


Once you have a list of schools to apply to, call each school’s admissions office to find out their policies and preferences. While a school’s website might say they accept both exams, you might find when you call that they really prefer only one.

If a particular exam is required by a school, then the decision as to which test to take is already made for you. If a school prefers one exam to the other, it’s generally a good idea to stick with the exam that the school prefers. Not only do you look more interested and committed to that particular school when you submit their preferred test, but you also allow your child to be more easily evaluated in relation to the school’s other applicants, most of whom will have also taken the preferred exam.

While it’s generally best to follow a school’s exam preferences, there are circumstances in which it might be better to submit a different exam. If a school prefers the ISEE to the SSAT, but your child performs significantly higher on the SSAT than on the ISEE, then taking and submitting the SSAT would generally be wise as it would result in a stronger application. If your child is applying to nine schools that prefer the SSAT but only one that prefers the ISEE, you might also decide to forego the ISEE in favor of the SSAT, unless of course the ISEE school is a top choice.

If the schools to which you’re applying accept both exams, read on to learn the critical differences between them.

Critical Differences

When it comes to choosing which test to take, there are two major issues to consider. The first is whether your child tends to perform better in verbal or quantitative work, and the second is her level of testing anxiety.

If your child usually performs better in English and reading than in math, the SSAT might be a better choice. If math is your child’s strong point, on the other hand, then the ISEE might be better for her. The verbal section of the SSAT is more difficult than that of the ISEE, whereas the math section of the ISEE is more difficult than that of the SSAT.

What’s more difficult about SSAT verbal? The vocabulary tested tends to be more advanced, for one. The vocabulary is also tested partly through the use of analogies, which are much more reasoning intensive and difficult than the sentence completion question format the ISEE uses to test vocabulary. On the reading comprehension section, passages on the SSAT include both nonfiction and fiction, whereas the ISEE tests only nonfiction. This can make the SSAT more difficult for students who aren’t strong fiction readers.

SSAT verbal isn’t only more difficult than ISEE verbal—it also makes up much more of the total exam score. Even though the SSAT features two math sections and two verbal sections, two-thirds of the cumulative SSAT score is devoted to the sections testing verbal ability: there is a “reading,” “verbal” and “quantitative” score. The ISEE, on the other hand, breaks scores down evenly into two verbal (“verbal reasoning” and “reading comprehension”) and two quantitative scores (“quantitative reasoning” and “mathematics achievement”).

Mathematics doesn’t only feature more prominently in the ISEE score, but it’s also more difficult than on the SSAT. It’s important to note that this is a fairly recent change—the ISEE math section was revamped a few years ago, before which time it was much easier.


Whereas topics on SSAT math are usually pretty basic and stay within the grade levels of the test taker, the ISEE now tests some math that is often a few years more advanced than what a typical high school applicant will have been exposed to. This includes some 10th and 11th grade Algebra II and pre-calculus, such as matrices and vectors, as well as Trigonometry. These topics aren’t tested in a very challenging way and they can be learned, but they do pose an added hurdle for a student preparing for the ISEE.

ISEE math questions are more difficult than SSAT math questions not only because they can involve higher level math, but also because the problems themselves are often more complex and require more extensive critical reasoning. There is also significantly less time provided to solve each of these questions: either 57 or 51 seconds, depending on the section, whereas the SSAT provides 72 seconds per math question. This is the only area where the two exams differ significantly with respect to timing.

Testing Anxiety and Retakes

The second major difference you should consider when choosing between the ISEE and SSAT is your child’s level of testing anxiety. Students can only take the ISEE once every six months, whereas there is no limit on the number of times they can take the SSAT. Because the ISEE can only be taken once an application to a school has been formally initiated, this essentially means that that there is only one opportunity for the student to take the exam, generally in either December or January of the application year.

Some students will have no problem (and will probably welcome!) sitting for the test only once. For other students, however, the one-shot, make-or-break nature of the ISEE can create a burdensome amount of anxiety that can hinder performance on the actual exam. This can happen even among students who aren’t generally prone to testing anxiety. While this anxiety can be mitigated through taking multiple timed practice tests and by techniques aimed at relieving anxiety, it is something that must be considered before electing to take the ISEE.

The ability to retake the SSAT offers other benefits beyond simply mitigating test day anxiety. A student can take the test more than once and then choose which scores to send to schools, opting to report only their highest scores. Many schools will even “superscore” SSAT results, combining the highest individual section scores from across testing dates. Because students have more chances to take the exam, and because scores tend to fall within a range on any given sitting, taking the test more than once can help students earn higher scores than they might otherwise achieve sitting for the exam only once.

Other Differences

The ISEE and SSAT vary in a few other minor respects. The SSAT has a guessing penalty, whereas the ISEE does not. Both feature similar essay prompts (neither of the essays are scored, they are merely sent to the schools), but the ISEE provides an extra five minutes for the essay assignment. These types of differences, however, are very minor when compared to the relative difficulty levels of the verbal and math portions of each test and the difference in retake options. They are highly unlikely to cause any significant difference in a student’s scores on one test versus the other.

Still Not Sure Which To Take?

If you’re still not sure which test would be best for your child, ask them to take an official practice test for each. This will allow you to both compare their scores on two exams and find out which exam your child feels more comfortable taking. While most students usually do comparably well on both tests, some do perform stronger on one test in particular. Also, if you find that your child has a preference for one exam, this might help motivate them to put the necessary time into preparing.

What About Taking Both?

While the ISEE and SSAT are separate tests with a few critical differences, they are also very similar in many ways. Both test vocabulary, reading comprehension and general mathematics and feature many similar question types. The work done to prepare for one test will absolutely help a student on the other test. It is generally best to focus on one exam, but because the tests are so similar there is little harm in letting your child sit for both tests. If the schools to which your child is applying will accept either exam and your child is motivated to sit for both, she could do so and then submit the higher of the two scores. It’s important, however, to make sure your child is thoroughly prepared for at least one of the two exams. If your child doesn’t need to take both exams in order to fulfill school requirements, then there is no generally need to sit for both unless your child is motivated to do so.


For many students, the decision of which test to take will already be made for them by the schools to which they are applying. If that is not the case, then you should carefully consider how these critical differences between the ISEE and SSAT might play to your child’s own strengths and weaknesses. It’s always a good idea to take an official practice exam for each test to see if your child does better on and/or prefers one of the two tests. Officially sitting for both tests is an option, but it’s generally not necessary unless required by the schools your child is applying to or unless your child is especially motivated to do so.

SAT and ACT Calculator Tips and Shortcuts

Both the SAT and ACT allow a calculator on the mathematics section, so it’s important to know how to get the most out of one come test day. Note, however, that the calculator is not allowed on any other sections—including ACT science.

What Type of Calculator Is Allowed?

The SAT and ACT place relatively few restrictions on calculator use. The ACT is somewhat stricter than the SAT, prohibiting calculators with CAS (“computer algebra system”) functionality, whereas these are generally allowed on the SAT. Most popular high school calculators, like the Texas TI-83 and TI-84, are permitted. Always make sure to check, however, that your model is kosher before you sit for the exam. You can find a complete list of permitted calculators for the ACT here and a similar list for the SAT here. The following graphing calculators are generally allowed on the SAT:

FX-6000 series
FX-6200 series
FX-6300 series
FX-6500 series
FX-7000 series
FX-7300 series
FX-7400 series
FX-7500 series
FX-7700 series
FX-7800 series
FX-8000 series
FX-8500 series
FX-8700 series
FX-8800 series
FX-9700 series
FX-9750 series
FX-9860 series
CFX-9800 series
CFX-9850 series
CFX-9950 series
CFX-9970 series
FX 1.0 series
Algebra FX 2.0 series
HP-28 series
HP-39 series
HP-40 series
HP-48 series
HP-49 series
HP-50 series
HP Prime


Radio Shack

EL-9200 series
EL-9300 series
EL-9600 series
EL-9900 series

Texas Instruments
TI-83/TI-83 Plus
TI-83 Plus Silver
TI-84 Plus
TI-84 Plus CE
TI-84 Plus Silver
TI-84 Plus C Silver
TI-89 Titanium
TI-Nspire/TI-Nspire CX
TI-Nspire CAS/TI-Nspire CX CAS
TI-Nspire CM-C/TI-Nspire CM-C CAS
TI-Nspire CX-C CAS


Datexx DS-883

What’s The Best Calculator To Use?

While graphing calculators allow you to find solutions to some linear and quadratic problems, these problems are generally solved just as quickly (or more quickly) without a calculator. That said, popular graphing calculators like the TI-83 often contain handy shortcuts that standard or scientific calculators lack. For that reason I recommend using a graphing calculator, such as the TI-83 or TI-84, that features the types of added functionality described below.

No matter what type of calculator you’re using, make sure you’re familiar with it before test day. Know when to use parenthesis, for instance, and how your calculator processes the order of operations.

SAT and ACT Calculator Tips and Shortcuts

When Should I Use The Calculator?

Most, if not all, SAT and ACT math problems can be solved without the use of a calculator. That said, not using a calculator at all will take more time and can often lead to more careless mistakes. It’s important, then, to know when and when not to use the calculator.

In general, take a few moments to understand each question and plan your method of attack before picking up the calculator. Don’t rely on your calculator for the big picture problem-solving strategy—this part is up to you. You should be especially wary, for instance, of problems that look overtly complex. Many of these can be solved quickly with a simple shortcut, and thus should not be immediately plugged into the calculator.

Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to solve a problem, then you can use the calculator to quickly work through any arithmetic. Doing so is a good idea because it’s faster than solving on paper and less likely to lead to mistakes.

Beyond simple arithmetic, there are a couple of powerful shortcuts you should know about that can speed up your work on the SAT or ACT. Pretty much everything else, on the other hand, you can solve better without the calculator.

Calculator Shortcuts For The SAT and ACT

While these shortcuts are available on many graphing calculators, I’m going to explain how to access them on what are perhaps the most popular of all high school graphing calculators, the TI-83 and TI-84.

Decimal-Fraction Conversions: Did you solve a problem and end up with a decimal that you need to convert into a fraction, or vice-versa? Enter the value into your calculator and then hit “Math,” followed by “1:Frac” to turn a decimal into a fraction or “2:Dec” to turn a fraction into a decimal.

Least Common Multiple and Greatest Common Factor: Need to find one of these quickly? Don’t construct a time-consuming factor tree. Instead, hit “Math,” go to the “Num” menu, then go down to “8:lcm” for least common multiple or “9:gcd” for greatest common factor. Enter the two values, separated by a comma. If you’re trying to find the least common multiple or greatest common factor for more than two values, simply use this function to find the LCM or GCF of the first two values, then solve again for THAT result combined with the third term, then solve again for THAT result combined with the fourth term, and so on. Once you’ve worked through all your terms, you’ll end up with the LCM or GCF for the set as a whole.

Combinations: When finding out how many ways you can choose r number of selections from n number of things and the order they’re arranged in doesn’t matter, enter the total n number of objects, then hit “Math,” go to the “Prb” menu, then select “3:nCr,” then enter the number of r selections. Then press enter for your solution.

Calculator Shortcuts For The ACT Only

If you’re taking the ACT, you’ll also want to learn a few additional shortcuts.

Arc Functions: When given a sine, cosine or tangent value, you can solve for the initial angle by taking the arc function. Simply press “2nd,” then sin-1, cos-1 or tan-1, to find out the initial angle. The angle will either be in radians or degrees—you can choose which by using the “Mode” menu. Remember that arc functions result in only one of the possible angles that could produce the given sine/cosine/tangent value, so be careful here.

Radian-Degree Conversions: Need to convert radians to degrees or vice-versa? Hit “Mode” and then select radians or degrees to specify the type of value you’d like to end up with. Then enter the starting value and press “2nd,” then “angle,” then “1” if the angle is in degrees “3” if the angle is in radians. Press enter to see the converted value.

Logs: You can solve any log problem of the sort log base x of y by entering “log y” and then dividing that result by “log x.”


While calculators can’t do the big picture thinking the SAT and ACT require for you, they can help minimize errors and speed up your work. Look for an approved graphing calculator with the above functionality for the exam, become familiar with it, and then use it to your advantage on test day!

Want a Free List of All the Math Topics That Have Recently Appeared on the SAT or ACT?

For a free list of all the math topics that have recently appeared on the SAT or ACT, and/or for answers to any other questions, you can reach me at or 212-658-0834.

Is The New (“Redesigned”) SAT Easier Or Harder Than The Current SAT?

The new, or “redesigned,” SAT, which will debut in March 2016, is a radical departure from the current version of the exam. While the new test shares some features with the current one, its overall emphasis has changed. The result is an exam that, at least for many test takers, will be both easier and more readily “learnable” than the current version. Without question, the overall difficulty level of the exam has dropped.

Why is the exam getting easier? To answer that question, consider why the SAT is changing—and only ten years after the exam underwent a major overhaul back in 2005. A major reason is competitive pressure from the SAT’s rival test, the ACT, which has been gaining tremendous ground on the SAT in recent years. Since all colleges began accepting the SAT and ACT equally some years ago, the number of ACT takers has risen dramatically. In fact, in 2012 the number of students taking the ACT actually surpassed the number of students taking the SAT. Since then, the ACT has only continued its ascent while the SAT has declined in popularity.

Is New SAT Easier Or Harder

One reason why the ACT has been so successful is that many students find it an easier alternative to the SAT. The ACT is shorter than the SAT, clocking in at only 2 hours 55 minutes without the optional essay or 3 hours and 25 minutes with the essay, compared to 3 hours 45 minutes for the current SAT. The ACT is broken up into four distinct sections, whereas the current SAT contains no fewer than 10 sections, with multiple sections for each subject (math, critical reading, writing). The current SAT requires all students to write the essay, whereas the ACT has made the essay optional. The ACT only presents four possible choices for each question instead of the SAT’s five, and it does not dock points for incorrect answers like the SAT does. Questions on the ACT also tend to be less difficult, requiring much less in the way of critical reasoning than do SAT questions, some of which can be very difficult. Lastly, the ACT does not test vocabulary, unlike the vocabulary-dense SAT.

While some students still find that they perform better on the current SAT than the ACT, it’s no surprise that, given these differences, a majority of students have been opting for the ACT of late.

What does the SAT overhaul have to do with the ACT, you ask? Well, the new SAT replicates nearly all those features of the ACT that make it a more appealing, and in many ways easier, exam than the SAT. In seeking to halt its declining popularity and regain market share, the SAT has made a more user-friendly exam.

Easier Questions

The questions on the new SAT are, like the questions on the ACT, simply easier. When it comes to math, the test makers have mostly abandoned the puzzle-like brainteasers that require creative critical thinking. The new questions are much more straightforward and focused on testing mastery of content rather than reasoning ability. The only downside is that you’ll now be required to know more math for the exam than you did previously. There are more topics on the test from Algebra II, for example, as well as some trigonometry. Once you learn that content, however, the math will be much easier to master, given the lack of puzzling brainteasers and hidden tricks.

The critical reading section has also become notably easier. There are practically no difficult or advanced vocabulary words anywhere on this section, let alone vocabulary questions proper. The SAT has claimed to be moving from “tier three,” or advanced vocabulary words, to commonly-used “tier two” words, but the vast majority of students will have no trouble with these new words. One of the most challenging features of the current SAT is its pervasive use of advanced vocabulary—on vocabulary questions, within reading passages, and in reading comprehension questions and answer choices themselves. Difficult vocabulary has now completely vanished from the test.

Questions on the new critical reading section, much like the new math questions, are also easier. Whereas current reading questions require serious critical thinking to identify subtle distinctions between two seemingly valid answer choices, answers on the new section are much more straight-forward and easily identifiable. Questions are still somewhat more difficult than ACT reading questions, but less difficult than the reading questions on the current SAT.

The “writing and language” section of the new SAT, which replaces the writing section of the current test, is also much easier. Rather than having to compare multiple, lengthy grammatical constructions, you now only have to look at four short alternatives to one small portion of a sentence. While the same rules are being tested as before, the way in which they are tested has become much easier. This section now looks nearly identical to the ACT’s English section.

An Optional, More Predictable Essay

The new essay has now been made optional, which will no doubt encourage more people to take the SAT. That said, because a number of colleges either recommend or require the essay, if you are taking the SAT then I would strongly encourage you take the essay in order to broaden your college options.

For those taking the essay, the College Board has create a much more predictable assignment than the current essay or the ACT essay. The new essay asks you to analyze a given passage, rather than construct an argument on a random topic on the spot. You’re also given more time to write (50 minutes) than you are on the current version (25 minutes) or on the ACT (40 minutes). No doubt many students will find this easier than the current essay. The College Board even boasts on their website that the new essay will be much easier than essays requiring you to construct an argument on a random topic within a short time period—a clear jab at the ACT.

New SAT Easier

Friendlier Structure

The structure of the exam as a whole has also become more user-friendly, once again following in the footsteps of the ACT. There are now only four sections, rather than the current 10. There is also much more time granted per question on the reading and math sections—an extra 13 seconds on each reading question and an extra 5 seconds on each math question. Writing questions now allow for less time, but this is only because the format has changed and the questions themselves require much less time. When you factor in the more limited number of answer choices per question on all sections (four instead of five), this also translates into more time per question, not to mention fewer distractions and traps.


What will all this mean for scoring? It’s unfortunately difficult to say just yet. The scoring tables that College Board has released so far don’t indicate any major changes in the curve, so an easier test won’t necessarily equate to a harder curve. That said, College Board is still working out scoring details and won’t be ready to provide official scores until after two administrations of the exam next spring. If everyone who takes the exam in the spring does very well, you might see a tougher curve than you do on the current scoring tables.

What Does This Mean For Me?

If you’re in the class of 2017, there’s still not enough quality prep material out there to warrant studying for the new exam just yet. Focus on the current SAT or the ACT for now, but given these changes, consider the possibility of studying for and taking the new SAT once more material has been released and College Board has worked out all the kinks of the new exam, probably sometime late next spring or early summer.

If you’re in the class of 2018 or above, these changes should make the SAT an easier, friendlier, and more learnable test than the existing one!

How To Solve Direct and Inverse Variation Problems On The SAT and ACT

Here’s an explanation of direct and inverse variation and how to solve problems asking about them on the SAT and ACT.

Want a Free List of All the Math Topics That Have Recently Appeared on the SAT or ACT?

For a free list of all the math topics that have recently appeared on the SAT or ACT, and/or for answers to any other questions, you can reach me at or 212-658-0834.

How To Write The New (Redesigned) SAT Essay

Essays Changes and Basic Features

The new (or “redesigned”) SAT essay, debuting in March of 2016 as an optional section on the new SAT, looks radically different than the earlier version of the essay. Instead of coming up with your own argument, you’ll now be required to analyze someone else’s argument. This argument takes the form of a 650-750 word article, and you’ll be given a total of 50 minutes, instead of 25, to read and respond to it.

In short, the SAT asks you to describe how the article in question persuades the reader of its point. In particular, you’re asked to consider its use of evidence, reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements.

How To Write the New (Redesigned) SAT Essay

Scoring has also changed. Instead of receiving a cumulative score of 2-12, you’ll now receive three cumulative scores of 2-8 in three separate categories (with 2 being the lowest score and 8 the highest). Two separate graders will read your work and each will rank it on a scale of 1-4 for each category. When they’re finished, their scores will be combined into your three cumulative scores. The three categories are writing (how well write, i.e. your grammar and style), reading (how well you understood the article) and analysis (how well you assessed the writer’s persuasive techniques). It’s possible to do very strongly in one category but very poorly in another, and there is no overall single score for the essay as a whole.

Even though each essay will feature a different passage, the essay question itself—show how the author persuades the reader of her argument—will never change. For this reason it’s completely possible to prepare for the essay in advance.

Should You Take The New (Redesigned) Essay?

Unlike the old SAT essay, the new version is optional. Some colleges will require the essay, some will recommend it, and others will neither require nor recommend it. In the Ivy League, for instance, the essay is currently required by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, whereas Columbia, Penn, Brown and Cornell are not requiring it. You can find an official list of each college’s policy here.

Because a number of colleges do require or recommend you submit essay scores, I recommend anyone sitting for the SAT also sit for the essay. Even if you’re not currently planning on applying to a college that asks for the essay, you might later decide to apply to a school that does. College lists change frequently and you never know where you might want ultimately apply. The last thing you want is to have to retake the entire exam, or, worse yet, not be able to apply to a particular college, just because you took the exam without the essay.

How To Write A High Scoring Essay

Before you begin writing your essay, you’ll want to make sure you read the passage carefully. It’s important to read actively, always keeping in mind the author’s main point and how the various parts of her argument relate to that point.

Before you start reading, look at the question that follows the passage. This question tells you the main point of the passage, so you don’t have to figure it out on your own. For example, one official question reads “write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved.” This means that the main point or argument of the passage is that natural darkness should be preserved.

After you’ve ascertained the main point from the question, keep it in mind as you read the passage. Ask yourself how the author uses evidence, reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements to convince the reader of this main point, as well as how the various parts of her argument relate to the main point. Everything should lead back to the main point in some way.

As you read, annotate or note whenever you come across a device the author uses to persuade you of her argument. If you don’t understand something, go back and reread it. You have ample time to make sure you understand the passage, and it’s important you do so in order to get the highest “reading” category score possible. Confusing moments are often easier to make sense of after you’ve read the entire passage and understand the full context.

Once you’ve read the passage and identified key persuasive devices, it’s time to make a brief outline for your essay. A powerful way to structure your essay is to have an opening paragraph that states the thesis, followed by two or three paragraphs, each devoted to arguing one part of the thesis, followed by a conclusion that restates the thesis (although in slightly different language than in the opening paragraph).

The thesis should make a central claim that the entire essay then sets out to prove. You might argue, for example, that “the author uses statistical evidence, ironic language and emotional appeals to persuade the reader that natural darkness should be preserved.” The next paragraph would then provide concrete examples of how the author uses statistical evidence to persuade the reader, the following paragraph would discuss examples of ironic language, and the next paragraph would discuss specific examples of emotional appeals. The concluding paragraph would wrap things up by restating the thesis. Here’s an example of what your outline might look like:

P1: Thesis – author uses statistical evidence, ironic language and emotional appeals to persuade reader natural darkness should be preserved
P2: Statistical evidence examples
P3: Ironic language examples
P4: Emotional appeals examples
P5: Conclusion (restate thesis)

After you’ve completed this brief outline, you’re ready to write. Keep an eye on the clock and make sure to leave a couple minutes at the end so that you can review what you’ve written. This will give you a chance to correct any grammatical, spelling or stylistic mistakes before you hand in the essay.

Key Pointers and Mistakes To Avoid


When you’re coming up with your thesis, make sure to focus on what the author does to persuade the reader, rather than on what the author fails to do. Even if there are some shortcomings in the author’s argument, your task is to analyze what devices are used in order to persuade the reader, not what shortcomings might exist in the argument.

New Redesigned SAT Essay 2

Similarly, make sure that your thesis explains what persuasive devices the author uses rather than whether her argument is right or wrong. Even if you personally agree or disagree with the argument, it’s important to stay neutral. Think of yourself as an impartial outside observer, confined to commenting on how the author constructs her argument, not on the merits of the argument itself.


When you write about your examples of persuasive elements, always make sure to tie those examples back to your central argument about persuasion. It’s easy to get so caught up in the details that you forget to state what those details are actually doing—attempting to persuade the reader of something—but it’s important to make this connection clear.

When you choose your examples, look for those examples that are most important to persuading the reader of the author’s argument. Avoid marginal and insignificant details that don’t play a big role in persuading the reader of the main point.

While the SAT asks you to consider the author’s use of “evidence, reasoning, and stylistic and persuasive devices,” you’re not required to discuss all three. In fact, it’s better to go into more detail on just two than to try to address all three and use less detail in the process.

As you discuss specific persuasive elements, try to elaborate on how and why they work to persuade the reader of the main point. It’s not enough to simply mention a detail from the essay in one sentence. Try instead to really flesh out why a specific detail works persuasively—devote a number of sentences to explaining the different ways it functions. The highest scoring essays always go into great detail about a few select moments in the passage, rather than trying to briefly mention every persuasive moment in passing.

When discussing examples, avoid making broad claims that you can’t back up, such as “by discussing tragedy, the author moves the reader.” Instead, get into specifics: “when the author discusses tragedy, she chooses specific examples aimed at resonating with her audience. Since her audience is American, for example, she discusses the American tragedy of September 11th.”

You should also mention how key details and ideas interrelate to one another and the author’s main argument. Showing how everything “fits together” in the passage is critical for earning the highest score possible according to the SAT’s scoring rubric.

In citing specific examples, avoid lengthy direct quotations from the text. You should mainly reserve direct quotes for when you want to draw attention to the specific language or structure of the writing the author is using. Otherwise, it’s usually best to paraphrase what the author is saying. This is not only good writing practice, but it also demonstrates to the grader that you have understood the passage, which is critical to earning a high “reading” category score.

In order to earn a high “reading” score, it’s also important that you write a substantial amount. Essays earning the highest reading scores are usually among the longest, and this is because the more you write about the text, the clearer it is that you understand the text as a whole. Plan on using the full 50 minutes to write as much as possible when you’re not reading the passage or planning and reviewing your essay.

Common Persuasive Elements

There are an unlimited number of persuasive elements that an author can use to make a point, and each passage will feature different ones. That said, here are some common persuasive elements that you might see on any given passage:

Historical Facts

Applying a general rule to a specific case
Deducing a general rule from specific cases
Using logic to rule a possibility in or out

Stylistic or Persuasive Elements
The author tries to sound like the reader
Word choice
Irony or sarcasm

Grammar and Style Tips

Because your essay will receive a “writing” score, it’s important to use good grammar and style. Since you should already be studying grammar for the Writing and Language section of the redesigned SAT, try to apply the same rules you’re learning to your own writing on the essay.

New Redesigned SAT 3

To pick up as many “writing” points as possible, make sure that your writing flows smoothly from one idea to the next. Use strong and clear transitions at the start of each new paragraph. You might begin a new paragraph, for example, by saying “Similar to her use of historical evidence, the author employs statistical evidence to argue that the economy is strong.” You should also connect separate clauses with words and phrases that show the specific nature of their relationship, such as “thus,” “therefore,” “nevertheless,” “for example” and “in contrast.”

It’s also important to vary the structure of your sentences. Instead of writing “John is hungry. John is tired. John is not having a good day,” write “John is feeling hungry and tired. As you might guess, he is not having a good day.” Avoid starting consecutive sentences and paragraphs with the same word. One trick to help mix up sentence structure is to throw in an occasional rhetorical question, such as “How would the early Monicaros have felt if they too lacked freedom?”

Whenever possible, forgo passive sentences for active ones. Instead of writing “The apple was eaten by the boy,” for instance, write “The boy ate the apple.” What you’re essentially doing is replacing any “to be” verb forms (“was”) with a verb that represents the action actually taking place in the sentence (eating, or “ate”).

The SAT also expects you to write formally. This means avoiding contractions like “it’s” or “that’s” in favor of “it is” or “that is,” as well as avoiding the first person (I, we, me, etc.). You should also avoid clichés or any expressions that sound too colloquial. Try to emulate the type of formal writing you find in many academic essays and school textbooks. This also means aiming to use advanced vocabulary when appropriate. Just make sure you’re using any advanced word correctly—when in doubt, leave it out.

Practice Makes Perfect

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of what to do on the essay, it’s essential to practice. You’ll ideally want to write a couple of practice essays before you sit for the real thing.

It’s best to practice with official College Board essay prompts, since prompts written by test prep companies might not always represent what you’ll see on test day as accurately. Fortunately, College Board has already released a number of prompts. You can find two prompts, including scored sample responses with College Board commentary, here. There are also another four included with the four released practice tests here, as well as an additional two in the new Official SAT Study Guide.

If you’ve exhausted these eight practice prompts, you can also practice with old AP English Language and Composition free response questions, available here. The second question in each free response asks you to compete essentially the same task as the SAT essay question.

Make sure to adhere to the 50 minute time limit when practicing!


The new (or “redesigned”) SAT features a very different type of essay question than the prior SAT did. Although this essay is optional, it’s a good idea to take it so as not to close the door on any colleges you might be eventually wish to apply to. You can make sure you’re prepared on test day by combining the advice in this article with writing multiple, timed practice essays. Because the assignment and scoring criteria never change, preparing should leave you with no surprises and a high set of scores.