8 Helpful Hints for the SAT Essay

The SAT essay is – for good reason – always one of my students’ hugest concerns. I say “for good reason” on a number of grounds. In the first place, students sit down to the SAT writing section after years of high school English classes that have instilled in them the process and practice of writing a meticulously organized exposition – one that takes multiple drafts, demands countless hours of editing, and occasionally requires a sleepless night or two. Suddenly they are faced with a 25-minute window in which their first instinct is to squeeze that whole working-and-reworking process into a significantly shorter period of time. Of course, this isn’t humanly possible – nor will it be expected of you. In the second place, the essay is the only section of the SAT that is scored – let’s admit it – subjectively. Granted, readers use sample essays and work with a grading rubric, but they inevitably bring their own thoughts, opinions, experiences, and expectations to their own reading of your essay. This can feel a little intimidating, because you don’t know who is going to be on the other end. And yet, keeping these eight things in mind, and practicing them in your own SAT study sessions (Yes! I am suggesting you write practice essays under actual testing conditions! Spend 25 minutes with a friend and then trade and discuss!), is going to make a huge difference.

 1)    Understand how the essay is scored. This comment, I know, sounds particularly banal – or maybe it seems like how the essay is scored shouldn’t matter. But I’m not talking about the grading rubric itself; I’m talking about the process your two readers will undergo in scoring your essay. In other words, I’m asking you to sympathize. The SAT essay readers are high school English teachers and writing tutors who have been hired and trained by the College Board in the act of speed-reading. By which I mean they are to spend no longer than two to three minutes on each essay. This means that for as quickly as you are thinking on your feet, they are thinking even more quickly. Not to mention they are reading hundreds of these in a day. And they have been told to be on the lookout for very particular things. “Like what?” you ask. And I’m glad you did:

2)    Choose a side… and stick to it. This tends to be one of the more difficult steps to remember, because of course, you’re going to feel rushed. You’re going to read the question and want to begin writing immediately. But hold your pen for a minute and remember this: the SAT question is always going to open three possible doors for you, only one of which you can choose: the yes door, the no door, or the it depends door. What your readers are really looking for is whether or not you are capable of making a claim and then sustaining that argument through examples. So before you dive right in, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Do I think what they are asking me is always true? Do I think it never is? Or can I imagine situations in which it is sometimes true and sometimes not?” Once you’ve answered that with certainty, you’ll have done one of the most important things you’ll be asked to do for this essay: taken a stand.

3)    Don’t be afraid to make use of the opinion already given to you (or for goodness sake, at least read it! – it’s the one in the box just before the question itself, and it generally sets up the prompt). After all, it’s being given as an example of “the stand” I just discussed. Of course, when I say “make use of” I don’t mean “copy.” But it might be a helpful source in helping you determine what your stand is: Do you agree with the excerpt? Do you disagree?

4)    Vary your language and your sentence structure. I cannot tell you how many essays I have seen that begin like this: “It is generally taken for granted that the world is changing for the worse. Some of the changes the world is undergoing are changes that affect our world’s ecosystems and our world’s populations. But these changes are not necessarily making our world worse…” Do you get my point? Three sentences in and I’ve already used the word “world” five times and the word “change” four times. You’ve just spent weeks and weeks building up your vocabulary. Break out some synonyms! Say it differently the second time around! (and keep in mind, while I’m at it, all those grammar rules you’ve just learned for the other portions of the writing section: if you can catch a dangling modifier in an SAT question, you should be able to catch it in your own writing).

5)    If you finish before your time is up, keep writing. Better yet, of course, to have arrived at the exam with enough essay-forethought that you’ll already have a pretty lengthy essay by the time that 25 minutes is up. Here’s what I’m getting at: studies have shown that across the board, the one thing that all essays that receive a score of 12 have in common is length. A little shocking, I know, but true. This hearkens back to the part about those living, thinking, feeling beings: there’s something psychological that’s triggered in the sight of a longer essay. If nothing else, I suppose, it looks like you really came prepared. This is how those at-home practice essays will come in handy as well: thinking on your feet is a practice; it isn’t innate. So break out an SAT book and give yourself 25 minutes of quick-thinking work. It’ll make a huge difference on exam day.

6)    Come prepared with examples. This is crucial: not only will thinking about the kinds of questions you might get hit with calm some of your exam-day nerves, but coming prepared will also certainly allow you to write more, and more quickly (see #4). My general suggestion to students is that in the weeks before the SAT they pay particular attention to what is going on in the news, they revisit the plots of a few of their favorite books, and they think about some of the most interesting historical figures and events they’ve encountered in their history classes. If you’re taking those kinds of classes now, be thinking during class discussions about how these figures might apply to the themes the SAT essay tends toward. The topics are very, very broad. They deal with themes like conscience, knowledge and self-knowledge, authority, hope, and community. Surely in the course of your studies you’ve run into hundreds of examples and antitheses for each of these themes. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using personal examples either. The point is that they be strong, and that they really sustain your stance. My suggestion: find yourself some SAT tests from previous years (again, the College Board book is a great start). Take some time with each and really think about how you would answer them. I guarantee some of the examples you use for one question will be equally – if differently – applicable to the next.

7)    Consider leaving a few empty lines between your intro paragraph and your first paragraph, to be filled in when you’re finished. This sounds like a strange suggestion, I know; and this might be the only place you’ll ever hear it – but my students have found it to be a really helpful recommendation. Here’s why: Imagine yourself in that exam room. You’ve read your prompt, you’ve walked through your yes, no, or it depends door and you’ve begun writing. And about a page and a half into your essay you’ve really begun to get the flow of your argument. And you’re coming up with further examples even as you’re writing. Perhaps your argument has shifted a little. And suddenly it all makes sense, exactly what it is you’re trying to argue. Keep in mind that your readers have three minutes in which to scan and score your essay. What this means is that you want to impress them from paragraph one: the stronger your opening is, the more it will look like you had a really solid argument from the very beginning. Finishing the essay and then going back and filling in those few lines you left blank with the better arguments and examples you came up with along the way will go a long way toward cleaning up that thesis paragraph. If you don’t believe me, practice it at home – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

8)    Most importantly, keep in mind that the SAT essay is not the high-quality essay your high school English teacher would expect of you. Granted, it has the same structure (thesis statement, two to three solid examples to back your claim, and a conclusion), but neither of your readers is expecting perfection. They are expecting that you’ve managed to take a solid stand in a short period of time. And I know you are all capable of arguing very gracefully (I’ve seen many of you do it with your parents and friends, and have been truly impressed by your logic). Now, it’s just a matter of transference…

You may also like my earlier article “8 Essential Tips to Boost your SAT Reading and SAT Writing Scores During the Summer