The very first section of the SAT is the dreaded essay, where you’re given 25 minutes to write up to two pages on a given prompt. Marked on a scale of 2 to 12, the essay makes up 30% of your total Writing score.
- No need to buy anything here; all you need are the essay prompts from past essay exams
The SAT essay is heavily criticized for the formulaic writing style it forces the test-taker to adopt because of the time constraints. 25 minutes is not enough time to write out a well-thought out, cleverly expressed essay, even if you’re a brilliant writer. What’s more disturbing is the fact that there is a proven correlation between essay length and score; in other words, the more your write, the higher your score will probably be, even if it’s total crap.
But personally, I like the SAT essay. Yes, it requires a dull, mechanical response; however, being able to produce a sizeable chunk of decent writing in a limited amount of time is a valuable skill to have (especially if you’re a blogger!). If you’re aiming for that perfect 12, you want to fill up most of the two pages with clear, organized, and relevant writing.
How to Prepare
Even if your writing skills are subpar, a 12 is still within reach. Why? Because you can prepare your examples beforehand.
Many SAT prep tutors recommend prewriting your essay as much as possible before you even enter the exam room. This is easily but tediously accomplished by writing out dozens of practice essays based on previous years’ prompts.
If you’re short on time, I suggest focusing on prewriting a bank of generic but effective examples. Because of how general and milquetoast the prompts tend to be, you won’t need to prepare any more than 15 or so. Of course, you’ll still need to modify the examples slightly come test day in order to make it more relevant to the given question.
My preparation strategy got me a 12 in about ten hours’ worth of preparation. I’m can’t say it’ll work for everyone, but I think it would be effective for students who are confident about their writing skills and want to prepare for the essay thoroughly without expending too much time.
1. Take a look at the list of essay prompts. Without using a computer or any external source of information, brainstorm a couple possible examples for each group of topics. Don’t pick different examples for each topic; instead, reuse the same examples again and again, limiting yourself to 10-15 examples in total. The goal is to find powerful but generic examples that you already know a bit about so you can spit them out by heart come test day.
Choose examples from a variety of fields (science, literature, history, etc.) while avoiding commonplace knowledge (e.g. Thomas Edison, George Washington) and mainstream media (e.g. TV shows, recent movies). Personal anecdotes are okay, although I don’t like them very much myself. They’re useful if you can’t think of anything to write about and need to make something up, but if you don’t do it well, you might come off as unsophisticated.
2. Summarize each example in note form, including a bit more information than necessary to write a 100+ word paragraph. You can research them if necessary. Include interesting facts that expand the possible applications of the example.
3. Now you’ve got to work on rehashing. The prompts are very broad; however, that doesn’t mean you should use up all the information at your disposal. Do 10 essays or more, spending no longer than 25 minutes on each essay. Stick to your bank of 10-15 examples, manipulating them to fit the question. Don’t refer to your notes when you’re writing; the act of writing out the information from memory will help you remember it.
4. If you come across a prompt that you need an additional example for, add another example to your bank or practice making one up on the spot. This shouldn’t happen very often, but it does occur.
How to Write the Essay
A good example is useless if you can’t write a good essay. This is the general procedure I used to write my essay. You don’t want to follow my guidelines exactly (I don’t do that myself), but hopefully you’ll be able to take away a few tips.
1. Decide on Your Examples Before Your Thesis
The biggest mistake is choosing a thesis statement that you can’t support. The Collegeboard is looking for specific, relevant, and scholarly examples in your body paragraphs. This isn’t the time to ramble on about abstract, philosophical quandaries (i.e. One should always…blah, blah, blah). You want to provide concrete evidence; for example, if the prompt is something along the lines of “Should we question authority?”, a strong example would be the Milgram experiment.
When you open your test booklet, the first thing you should do is quickly list the examples you prepared which apply to the prompt. Your best examples should dictate your stance on the prompt, as opposed to your personal opinion.
Now pick a side to argue and write a simple, single-sentence thesis statement to start your essay. Follow it up with one sentence which provides a bit more insight to your thesis. For this sentence, I like to use the structure, “Only by/through ___ can/do ___.” It’s flexible, easy to use, and results in a decent-sounding expression (e.g. using the same prompt about authority, we can make the statement, “Only by challenging the norm can we stand out amid the crowd”. Finish the introductory paragraph with a phrase leading up to your body. It’s alright if it’s a bit abrupt, as the meat of the essay is what’s most important. You can use something such as, “This is demonstrated/illustrated/exemplified/shown by compelling/powerful examples from ___.”
Most people recommend writing three paragraphs for the body, each describing one example. However, I prefer using two examples. It’s generally faster to write a few more sentences for each example rather than having to think of another example altogether. Because the pages are quite small, filling up the booklet isn’t difficult even if you only have two paragraphs in the body. Furthermore, if you’re memorizing your examples beforehand, you won’t have much choice as to what you’re going to use, and you don’t want to stick in an irrelevant or poorly presented example just to complete a third paragraph.
If you happen to get a topic which you’ve prepared a perfect example for, you can choose to use a single, multi-paragraph example. However, whether you have one, two, or three examples, you should NEVER put more than one example in one paragraph.
Wrap up your essay with a short and tidy conclusion. There’s no need to brilliantly synthesize your ideas; two sentences will suffice. My structure of choice to start off the conclusion is, “___ and ___ both indicate that ___ is, indeed, ___.” Follow that up with a supporting sentence and voila!
This is part 6 of my article series, How to Ace the SAT in Three Weeks. Click below to read the rest of the series.
Part 1: Introduction
Part 4: Math
Part 5: Writing, Multiple Choice
Part 6: Writing, Essay