Essay Analysis—Up Close
Essay Analysis—Up Close
The SAT refers to the paragraphs on Improving Paragraphs questions as “essays” and “passages.” We call them essays for the sake of simplicity, but the SAT refers to them both ways on the test. Essay Analysis questions often cover the essay as a whole. These questions require you to assess aspects of the entire essay, such as its “main idea.” Other Essay Analysis questions pinpoint a sentence or two and ask you to evaluate aspects of the writer’s “technique.”
Sometimes you’ll find that you don’t even need to glance back to the essay to answer the question correctly. In this case, the question is usually referring back to the essay as a whole. On Essay Analysis questions that don’t treat the passage as a whole, you probably will need to go back and reread a few sentences.
This question asks about the entire passage:
Which sentence best summarizes the main idea of the passage?
In step 1 we suggest that you read the essay quickly and outline it in a flash. Now you can see how helpful that quick read and outline will be on questions like the one above. Instead of going back and fishing through the passage, you can use your own outline to refresh your memory of the essay’s content and organization. You will also find that writing out these quick notes reinforces the main idea anyway, which will probably already be in your head.
The following is a different variety of Essay Analysis question that also requires you to analyze the entire essay:
The writer uses all of the following techniques EXCEPT:
(A) using concrete examples
(B) using an anecdote to illustrate his thesis
(C) discounting those who disagree with his opinion
(D) stating and then disproving a theory
(E) making reference to a work of fiction
This type of question does not allow you to prepare your own answer. You have to go right to the answer choices. Before you do that, however, make a big circle around the word EXCEPT. That’s the key word in this question. The question asks you to eliminate all the techniques that the writer actually uses and to pick the one the writer does not use. To answer the question, you can refer back to the essay or you can use the outline you sketched in your first read of the essay. From there, you should try to eliminate answers as you verify that the writer does indeed use the technique in the answer choice. The correct answer will be the technique that the writer does not use, thanks to the EXCEPT in the question.
Now that you know how to approach tough questions like this one, keep in mind that it may make most sense to skip very demanding questions like this one. The SAT rewards students who correctly answer as many questions as possible. The SAT doesn’t value a difficult question like the one above any more than it values the easiest question on the entire test. If you get stuck on a tough Essay Analysis question, feel free to move on to a question you can answer more quickly and confidently.
Analyzing a Single Sentence
Some analysis questions ask you to analyze one specific sentence. The best way to beat this type of Essay Analysis question is to go back to the essay and read the context sentences—the sentences before and after the sentence in the question. Here’s an example for you:
The primary purpose of sentence 4 is to
(A) suggest a hypothetical situation
(B) ask the reader to question the usefulness of theater
(C) let the writer appear modest
(D) contradict a widely held assumption about theater
(E) reveal the writer’s confusion about theatrical productions
To determine what sentence 4 does, head back to the paragraph that contains it and read sentences 3, 4, and 5. Then, before looking at the answer choices, decide what you think sentence 4’s primary purpose is in the paragraph.
If you’re having trouble making up your own answer to this kind of question, use the answer choices. Pay attention to the language each answer choice uses. Some of them may strike you as obviously wrong. Maybe the author is a braggart who doesn’t sound modest at all; or perhaps she’s revealing her mastery of theatrical productions, not her confusion. She could be clearly supporting a widely held assumption, not contradicting it. If you can make those determinations right away, cut those choices. That way you can eliminate the answers that you know are incorrect and raise your odds of selecting the correct answer from the two or three choices that remain.
Here’s another kind of single-sentence Essay Analysis question:
The writer could best improve sentence 8 by
(A) admitting the flaws in his theory
(B) giving concrete examples
(C) explaining his own opinion
(D) bringing up new problems
(E) explaining modern theater
For this type of question, you can prepare your own answer first. Before you do, you need to follow step 3 and reread the context sentences. That means you should glance back at sentences 7, 8, and 9 to see if you can determine the problem with sentence 8 before you look at the answer choices. Next, come up with your own answer and take a look at the actual answer choices (step 4).
Once you’ve got an answer in mind, you can look at the actual answer choices and start eliminating choices that you determine must be incorrect (step 5). Often you can cut answers that seem too broad, farfetched, or ambitious. For example, do you think this writer could explain all of modern theater in sentence 8? No way. Cutting answer choices like that makes selecting the choice most like your own answer much easier, since fewer total choices remain.
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