How to Write the SAT Essay?

The Essay
Students are given 25 minutes to write the essay, which is graded on a scale of 1-6 (1 - lowest, 6 - highest) by two readers. The final score will be between 2 and 12 and will count for a third of the final Writing score (converted into an 800 point scale).

Every essay is read by two readers, each of whom spends approximately 3 minutes reading the essay and then assigns it a grade between 1 and 6. If the two grades differ by more than a point, the essay is then given to a third reader to determine the final score.

While essay prompts are vague, deliberately open-ended statements that can often seem overwhelming at first glance (e.g., "What makes people change" or "Is conscience a more powerful motivator than money, fame or power?"), there are some important rules that you should keep in mind:

1) Read the prompt only and ignore the quote

Reading the quote takes time and will in no way affect your ability to answer the question. Skip it and go straight to the prompt.

2) Answer the question, the question, and nothing but the question

The only way you can possible earn a zero on the essay is by answering something other than the question. DO NOT write about something else entirely. DO NOT rewrite the question in a form that is more to your liking. Just keep answering the question exactly how it is asked.

3) Pick a side and stick to it.

Trying to argue both sides of a complex issue in less than half an hour is often a recipe for disaster. Unless you are the rare student (and they do exist) who can manage to argue both sides of argument coherently in 25 minutes, you will either run out of time or end up with a convoluted argument and therefore a lower score. No matter how tempted you are to explore the subtleties of the prompt, ignore the temptation and focus on arguing one side well. This does not mean that you shouldn't acknowledge a potential counter-argument -- preferably in your intro. or conclusion -- just that you shouldn't spend too much time dwelling on it.

4) Make sure your examples directly support your thesis

Once again, your job is simply to prove your thesis. Do not include information that contradicts your thesis in the body of your argument (if you want to raise some objections, do so in your conclusion). Pick your thesis based on the side of the argument for which you can come up with the strongest examples in 2-3 minutes -- this does NOT necessarily have to be the side you actually agree with.

5) Clarity is key.

The only thing truly being tested is your ability to form a coherent argument using grammatically correct, stylistically varied sentences. Your essay need not consist of award-winning prose in order to receive a top score. What it must be, however, is clear. It is better to have short, direct sentences that effectively convey your point using relatively simple language than it is to have long, poorly crafted sentences that unintentionally obscure your argument. When in doubt, go for clear and simple.

6) Use a maximum of two examples.

The standard SAT essay is not the infamous five-paragraph essay -- it is the four-paragraph essay: Intro, Two Body Paragraphs, and Conclusion.

One example is usually not enough (unless it's a personal story or an event/book you know a lot about), and three take too much time to explore sufficiently.

Do not, however, be afraid to use a slightly less conventional structure -- you can tell a story or use a single personal example, provided that it illustrates your argument. You can even open your essay with an anecdote. There are many, many ways to achieve a high score on the essay, and a paint-by-numbers Intro. - Two Body Paragraphs - Conclusion structure is only one of them.

7) Vary your examples.

If your first example comes from literature, the second should come from politics, history, or personal experience.

8) Don't be afraid to use examples from your own life or even to make up a story

Remember: you are not being graded on the truthfulness of your information, but rather on your ability to argue a point. The essay is a rhetorical exercise, not a test of factual knowledge. Your goal is therefore to present only the evidence that best supports your point, regardless of whether it is true or not.

9) Pick examples ahead of time

Many great novels and historical moments/figures contain the kinds of themes that are commonly asked about on the SAT essay. Try to be well acquainted with at least two novels, two historical moments, and one piece of news that pertains to a serious moral issue. Good examples of books include most Shakespearean tragedies (esp. Macbeth, although Hamlet and King Lear also work well), Crime and Punishment, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, etc. Do not write about Hitler or MLK -- they're overused. Try Ghandi, Rosa Parks, or Harvey Milk instead.

10) Transitions are key

Never underestimate the power of transitions, particularly in your topic sentences. Words and phrases such as "In addition," "However," "Similarly," "Likewise," and "Furthermore" indicate the relationship between the various parts of your argument. The presence of effective topic sentences -- including transitions -- at the beginning of each body paragraph can often be the difference between a 5 and a 6.

11) Vary your sentence structure and your vocabulary

A couple of well-placed SAT words such as astute, intrepid, or tenacious can go a long way in making your writing sound more polished and sophisticated. Careful not to overdo it, though; too many big words and you risk making your writing sound awkward and pretentious.

Rhetorical questions are often a nice stylistic gesture; including one in your introduction can often help grab a reader's attention and help you make a good initial impression.


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