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Rhetorical Devices and Persuasive Strategies to Analyze on the SAT Essay

The SAT essay task tends to intimidate students, most of whom have no idea what the graders want from them. Knowing these rhetorical devices and persuasive strategies—and being able to recognize them, quote them when they occur, and analyze their effect on the reader—will go a long way toward helping you achieve a higher SAT essay score.

What’s the SAT Essay task?

Students are given a text—an essay, article, or speech, perhaps—in which the author is making some kind of argument. Your task is to analyze how that author uses rhetorical devices and persuasive strategies to persuade the reader.

How Should You Approach the SAT Essay?

Read the text. Stay on the lookout for rhetorical devices and persuasive strategies listed below. This list is by no means exhaustive, but you’ll find it has more than enough for your purposes. Underline instances wherein the author employs these rhetorical devices and persuasive strategies and name them in the margins. After you’ve finished reading, consider which devices feature most prominently. Begin writing.

Your first paragraph should introduce the reader to the issue at hand, then name the author, the title of the piece, and paraphrase the author’s argument. Next, preview the three or so rhetorical devices you’re going to analyze.

Each body paragraph should be devoted to a different rhetorical device or persuasive strategy. After writing your topic sentence, quote examples from the text. Then—and this is critical—ANALYZE what you’ve quoted. EXPLAIN the EFFECT of the rhetorical device or persuasive strategy on the reader. Rinse and repeat. Each body paragraph ought to have at least two, but probably more, examples.

Now memorize these rhetorical devices and learn to recognize them when they appear!

Rhetorical Devices and Persuasive Stategies to Analyze on the SAT Essay

Ethos – An appeal to authority aiming to establish the credibility of a speaker or source. For example, a writer might say “As a veteranarian…” or “a Harvard University study…” or “a constitutional scholar….”

Pathos – An appeal to the reader’s emotions. They’re trying to make you FEEL something. Angry, perhaps. Guilty. Sad. Jealous. The list goes on…

Logos – An appeal to logic. When the author makes logical connections between ideas, that’s logos. IF this happens, THEN this happens. Things like that.

Anecdote – A short personal story.

Allusion – A reference to a book, movie, song, etc.

Testimony – Quoting from people who have something to say about the issue.

Statistics and Data – Using facts and figures. Often accompanied by logos.

Rhetorical Questions – Asking questions to make the reader think.

Metaphor – Saying one thing IS another thing.

Simile – Saying one thing is LIKE another thing.

Personification – Giving a nonhuman thing human qualities.

Hyperbole – Exaggeration

Understatement – Making something sound much less than it is.

Symbolism – One thing represents something else.

Imagery – Language that appeals to the senses, most often visual

Diction – Word choice. Diction can be HIGH and fancy or LOW and informal. Writers can also use specific words for their DENOTATIVE (dictionary definition) meanings or their CONNOTATIVE (associative) meanings. It’s important to consider these things if you choose to analyze word choice.

Slang – A type of informal diction, often regional.

Jargon – Specialized language.

Alliteration – Several words that share the same first letter.

Assonance – Repeated vowel sounds.

Syntax – Sentence structure.

Repetition – Mentioning a word or phrase several times. ANAPHORA refers to lines beginning with the same word or phrase.

Parallelism – Writing constructed in a similar, symmetrical manner.

Juxtaposition – Holding two things up to compare or contrast them.

Antithesis – Mentioning one thing and its opposite.

Analogy – A comparison between two things, typically to explain function. Usually one thing is more complicated and the other is simple and common.

Inclusive Language – Words that make the reader feel part of a group. “We” is an obvious one.

Tone – The way the author’s voice sounds. Is he silly? Sarcastic? Desperate? Etc.

Humor – Jokes and funny language.

Irony – Situational irony: the opposite thing happens from what is expected. Dramatic irony: The reader knows more than the speaker or those being spoken about. Verbal irony: Saying one thing and meaning the opposite.

* * *

That’s it! Go forth and conquer the SAT essay now that you know these rhetorical devices and persuasive strategies.

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Over-achiever alert: the new SAT’s essay is optional! If you choose to accept this challenge, you’ve come to the right place. If you’ve been keeping up with Magoosh’s in-the-know, breaking-news blog posts, then you already know that the new SAT uses real world essays, articles, and samples. Believe me, that’s the best thing you’ve heard all day. Why? Because you can read articles from the same sources the SAT gets material from.


Extra, extra! Read all about it!

The new SAT pulls articles from major newspapers and reputable magazines like The New York Times, The Economist, and The Atlantic. What do essays from all these different sources have in common? The articles the new SAT uses as prompts are all entering a bigger conversation, which means:

  • They usually respond to another article, author, or major event
  • They rely on statistics, articles, and other important people to help make a point
  • They’re usually deep enough in perspective for solid analysis


Responding to the issues

Think about the context of the real world. Stuff is happening all the time! And writers are constantly publishing new material on current events. But, the new SAT isn’t likely to use breaking-news stories that are old by tomorrow morning’s bowl of corn flakes. Instead, the new SAT will use articles about big world issues with far-reaching effects. You might see pieces about climate change, or other environmental issues, like these articles:

Other events and issues the new SAT might use as essay prompts include new discoveries about disorders like autism, gender pay differences, or the recent discovery of gravitational waves.


Let’s agree to disagree

These are pretty big issues, but that means writers have a lot of different opinions about how to talk about complex problems. The new SAT asks you to analyze the excerpt or essay given to you. Analysis means you need to pay attention to the different ways authors build their arguments. What kinds of sources do the author rely on? What kind of language does he or she use? Answering these questions means you must look at the bigger picture. That’s why the new SAT likes to use editorials, or opinion-based articles, for essay prompts. They’re practically asking for analysis!
Some hot-button issues that might show up in editorial form on the new SAT include articles on the effects of natural disasters, college athlete compensation, and the problem of distractions in a digital age.
I bet you weren’t expected to see Sports Illustrated in that list, were you! Remember, the new SAT uses articles from all kinds of publications. Once you check out the articles linked here, browse around those publication websites! Don’t worry if some of the articles you come across seem long. Essay prompt articles won’t usually be longer than a page and a half, so some articles that you find in the LA Times or Scientific American might be abbreviated or adapted for the exam prompt. One of the best ways you can be prepared is to keep up with current events and read articles like these. For more on the what the prompts look like, read this Magoosh post.

And if you’re ready to practice, check out our New SAT Essay Example Passage and Prompt!!


About Emily Faison

An avid reader and art enthusiast, Emily has degrees in English from Florida State University and Southeastern University. When she's not editing web content for a local magazine, you’ll probably find her catching up on her Netflix queue or reading a novel with a fresh cup of coffee at a local cafe.

Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!


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