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The SAT Essay: analyzing a passage

Writing an SAT Essay.

In this article, we will review a sample SAT Essay and give you some ideas of how you can approach writing a response to the prompt.

Take a look at the example Essay prompt below.

As you read the passage below, consider how Dana Gioia 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.
Adapted from Dana Gioia, “Why Literature Matters.” © 2005 by The New York Times Company. Originally published April 10, 2005.
[A] strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously, the interest young Americans showed in the arts—and especially literature—actually diminished.
According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a population study designed and commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts (and executed by the US Bureau of the Census), arts participation by Americans has declined for eight of the nine major forms that are measured. . . . The declines have been most severe among younger adults (ages 18-24). The most worrisome finding in the 2002 study, however, is the declining percentage of Americans, especially young adults, reading literature.
That individuals at a time of crucial intellectual and emotional development bypass the joys and challenges of literature is a troubling trend. If it were true that they substituted histories, biographies, or political works for literature, one might not worry. But book reading of any kind is falling as well.
That such a longstanding and fundamental cultural activity should slip so swiftly, especially among young adults, signifies deep transformations in contemporary life. To call attention to the trend, the Arts Endowment issued the reading portion of the Survey as a separate report, “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.”
The decline in reading has consequences that go beyond literature. The significance of reading has become a persistent theme in the business world. The February issue of Wired magazine, for example, sketches a new set of mental skills and habits proper to the 21st century, aptitudes decidedly literary in character: not “linear, logical, analytical talents,” author Daniel Pink states, but “the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative.” When asked what kind of talents they like to see in management positions, business leaders consistently set imagination, creativity, and higher-order thinking at the top.
Ironically, the value of reading and the intellectual faculties that it inculcates appear most clearly as active and engaged literacy declines. There is now a growing awareness of the consequences of nonreading to the workplace. In 2001 the National Association of Manufacturers polled its members on skill deficiencies among employees. Among hourly workers, poor reading skills ranked second, and 38 percent of employers complained that local schools inadequately taught reading comprehension.
The decline of reading is also taking its toll in the civic sphere. . . . A 2003 study of 15- to 26-year-olds’ civic knowledge by the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded, “Young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship . . . and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited.”
It is probably no surprise that declining rates of literary reading coincide with declining levels of historical and political awareness among young people. One of the surprising findings of “Reading at Risk” was that literary readers are markedly more civically engaged than nonreaders, scoring two to four times more likely to perform charity work, visit a museum, or attend a sporting event. One reason for their higher social and cultural interactions may lie in the kind of civic and historical knowledge that comes with literary reading. . . .
The evidence of literature’s importance to civic, personal, and economic health is too strong to ignore. The decline of literary reading foreshadows serious long-term social and economic problems, and it is time to bring literature and the other arts into discussions of public policy. Libraries, schools, and public agencies do noble work, but addressing the reading issue will require the leadership of politicians and the business community as well. . . .
Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.
Write an essay in which you explain how Dana Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience that the decline of reading in America will have a negative effect on society. In your essay, analyze how Gioia uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Gioia’s claims, but rather explain how Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience.

Initial Impressions.

If you haven’t already, take a few minutes to read the passage above. You may find it helpful to annotate the essay with thoughts about Gioia’s argument as you read it for the first time. As a reminder from the prompt in the first box above, you are looking for examples of evidence-based support, reasoning, and stylistic or persuasive elements that Gioia uses to build his argument. You can also discuss other rhetorical styles if you find them.

Analyzing Gioia’s Essay.

Here are just a few elements of Gioia’s essay that you could pursue in your own essay:
  • “A strange thing:” Gioia highlights the irony of young Americans’ declining interest in the arts and humanities during a thriving economic period and a major information age.
  • Data: He uses data from a respected source, the National Endowment for the Arts, to lend credibility to his argument that young American adults are reading less (and that this is problematic).
  • Emotional appeal: Gioia uses powerful language designed to generate an emotional response in the reader by calling reading a “longstanding” and “fundamental cultural” activity.
  • More data: Gioia analyzes survey data from the National Association of Manufacturers to show that the loss of reading not only impacts Americans’ cultural lives, but also has negative implications on their work.
  • Conclusion, emotional appeal: In the final paragraph, Gioia appeals to readers’ fear and national pride by stating that “our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded” if Americans continue their reading decline. This language adds urgency to Gioia’s call to action.

Writing Your Essay.

When considering the observations we have made about Gioia’s essay, we see a lot of data analysis combined with emotional language. One way to approach writing this essay is to focus on these two elements. We could argue that Gioia uses persuasive, emotional language, combined with data, to craft his argument.
College Board does not have an official recommendation on the number of paragraphs for the Essay; most essays will probably be 4 or 5 paragraphs.
Remember that the essay should focus not just on the types of evidence and rhetoric Gioia uses, but how he uses them to build an argument. Here is a sample outline of an introduction and some ideas for one or more body paragraphs:
I. Introduction:
  • Gioia primarily uses survey-based evidence and powerful, emotional language to appeal to his audience. He builds the argument that a decline in young adult readers will lead to a less informed and capable U.S. society by using evidence and rhetoric.
II. Data and Evidence:
  • Gioia references a variety of surveys, including surveys by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Association of Manufacturers. The data from the NEA, a respected source of information on arts and culture, lends credence to Gioia’s argument that there is a “troubling trend” of “individuals in a time of crucial intellectual and emotional development bypass[ing] the joys and challenges of literature.”
  • Further, Gioia analyzes survey data from the National Association of Manufacturers to show that the loss of reading not only impacts Americans’ cultural lives, but also has negative implications on their work. Research from multiple sources bolsters Gioia’s argument because it reveals a number of different sources have come to the same conclusion: that a decline in American reading is problematic.
III. Emotional Appeals:
  • Gioia uses strong language to highlight the importance of reading (“longstanding” and “fundamental cultural” activity). He also highlights the toll that a decline in reading will take on the U.S. with strong emotional appeals (“our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded”). He uses the emotional appeal strategy to make American readers worry about a less informed United States population, and the negative effect this could have in the country’s place as a global power.
IV. Conclusion:
  • A brief but strong conclusion is a good way to wrap up your essay. Remind the reader how Gioia’s dual focus on emotion and data help him build a convincing argument.
This is just one example of how you could approach and begin to analyze Gioia’s essay. Keep in mind that the example above is still in a rough form, so when writing a full essay, you would need to take this analysis even further.
Note: It is important to use quotations from the text, or close paraphrases of the argument, in order to provide specific evidence to strengthen your analysis. Successful, convincing essays will interweave direct quotes from the passage with your own analysis of how the author's specific words, phrases or sentences prove the point you are trying to make. Don’t let excerpts and snippets of the author’s text dominate your essay; let them illustrate your argument.
Top Tip! Don’t use any more than a sentence or two to summarize the point of the passage! Use the time you have to analyze how the author is making his or her point more powerful and persuasive and why the author might have chosen those methods to make the point.
Practice Makes Perfect! The Essay Test gives you 50 minutes to read and analyze the passage, plan your essay, and write it, so we suggest that you practice and time yourself so you learn how long this process takes you.
This Tips and Planning section also includes a number of SAT Essay prompts, student responses, and scoring.

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