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Articles / Preparing for College / How to Read the SAT Essay Passage with Purpose

How to Read the SAT Essay Passage with Purpose

Rob Franek
Written by Rob Franek | Nov. 14, 2018
How to Read the SAT Essay Passage with Purpose

Wondering how to do your best on the optional SAT Essay? Well, a great place to start is with what you'll be writing about. To craft your winning SAT essay, you'll be given a text to read and analyze. (That's right, another reading passage!)

Your goals in this section are different from those you had for the Reading section. You're no longer searching for specific information in a passage to fit a multiple-choice question. Instead, you're looking for ways to independently discuss how the author builds his or her argument. To do that, you'll read the text (usually a speech or an article of some sort) and then craft an objective analysis of it.

The Reading Score

In this portion of the test, you'll be scored on three things: Reading, Analysis and Writing. I'm going to focus on the Reading score here, which has four basic elements.

- Comprehension of the source text.

- Understanding of central ideas and important details, as well as how the two are related.

- Accuracy in representation of the source text (i.e., no errors in your interpretation).

- Use of quotations, paraphrases or both to provide textual evidence in demonstration of your understanding.

The first step in scoring high here is, naturally, to read the passage. However, I also suggest jotting down some notes while you're doing so. After all, this isn't just your average leisure reading — there are essential concepts you must have a handle on in order to build your response.

Consider Using SOAPS

There's a lot to remember for a test like this, and a huge part of your SAT prep can be figuring out how to do just that. Something I like to recommend is finding an acronym to make things easier. One for the SAT Essay is SOAPS (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject). This list of things to look for can help you clean up the passage. When used appropriately, SOAPS will lead you to identify the speaker/author, the occasion for which he or she is speaking, the intended audience, the purpose and the subject being discussed. Here's a breakdown for you:


Identifying the speaker of the piece means identifying whose voice you are reading. Doing this will help you understand the motivation(s) behind what is being said, as well as the reason(s) why it is being said.

How can I use this in my analysis? You can determine whether the speaker is credible on the subject, and, consequently, if the argument holds more or less merit.


The occasion in this case is the event that triggered the speaker to express his or her thoughts. This could be any type of historical context, like a significant time in a war or an election of some kind. In this case, it's important to remember that the text could have been written in anticipation of an event or as a reaction to one.

How can I use this in my analysis? Knowing what caused the speaker to say this will shine light on the tone that is present in the text, and it will further inform your understanding of his or her motivations.


Not only will you need to identify who is speaking in the text, you will also need to identify to whom they are speaking. What is the relationship between the speaker or author and the intended audience?

How can I use this in my analysis? You'd use a different argument to convince your friends to throw a party the night before a test than you would to convince your teacher to throw a party the night before a test. Identifying the audience can help you better discuss the argument.


Everything mentioned leading up to this point will allow you to decipher the purpose of the text. Is the author defending a stance or attacking another? Is there a persuasive tone at play? Is the text informative?

How can I use this in my analysis? Recognizing the author's goal will tell you whether they've chosen the appropriate tone to accomplish that with their audience.


This one will usually be obvious upon first read: What is the text about? What is the main point? How about the repeated topics or themes? Knowing the subject of the text is integral to your analysis because it will help you write an essay with the accuracy the graders are seeking.

How can I use this in my analysis? Staying on-topic and avoiding misunderstandings will help you keep things clear to the reader.

Finding useful ways to remember key elements like this can be your way to achieving that goal score on the SAT! Start by discussing the SOAPS points in your introduction, then look to incorporate those points as you continue your analysis in the body paragraphs. For more examples of how to use SOAPS and other tricks, check out our book Cracking the SAT.

Does that sound like a lot? I don't blame you if the answer is yes. But I'll also tell you that some of this stuff can be summed up in one word and it will often be stated plainly enough that you can spot it after a single read. The important thing is to make note of anything that may be important later (even underlining will do) and to use it when crafting your essay. Having the essentials of the passage at hand will make sure you keep everything in order while you write!



Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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