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Monday, February 11, 2013
How to Write an Effective SAT Essay
How to Write an Effective SAT Essay
Obviously the SAT Essay carries a lot of importance—you already know that. Your score on the essay is going to be a major factor on how well you do on the writing section, which in turn is going to determine a third of your overall score. But—maybe even more importantly—the SAT Essay is going to be your first hurdle of an over 4-hour obstacle course. Your performance on this section is going to set the tone for the rest of the exam. You want to start off as well as possible, and carry over that positive energy to every other section. You don’t want to fall flat on your face right out of the gate…
But how do I do that you ask? How do I perform as well as possible on this critical section of my exam? Well that’s exactly why I’ve written this document! There is a very specific formula to follow that will allow you to score highly on your essay. And after reading this document carefully and thoroughly, and internalizing that formula through practice, you’re going to become a masterful SAT Essay writer.
If you need to ask me any questions, feel free to reach out to me via email, text, or at our sessions!
PLANNING (5 minutes)
After everyone in your testing room has successfully bubbled in their names, addresses, registration numbers, and the rest of the information that the CollegeBoard deems relevant, you will begin the exam with the SAT Essay. First Step: Switch to your second pencil. All that bubbling in will likely have made your first pencil fairly dull—and you want to write your essay as neatly and legibly as possible! Second Step: Read the essay prompt slowly and carefully…
After you read the essay prompt should NOT be to begin writing. You may feel pressured to get your thoughts on paper as quickly as possible because the exam is timed. You may also feel that the essay question is very vague or simple and does not merit a lot of thought. However, what your first step should be is to PLAN.
Planning your essay will allow you to organize and develop your thoughts before you commit them to paper in a final version. Having such a roadmap of your thoughts will make the actual writing process—when you do get to that point—significantly easier. While you may feel that planning is a drain on time, it will lead to a finished piece that is of higher quality in terms of content and structure. Planning may also save you time in the long run as you will not get stuck in the writing process thinking “what comes next?”
The question on the exam will be very straightforward. It will merit a Yes or No answer. Sometimes the answer will be so obvious that your decision will be made for you. Regardless, the first thing you should do is to:
Decide whether you agree or disagree with the prompt.
From there, ask yourself WHY you either agree or disagree. Jot down your answer. Then read over the essay prompt. Read your answer again. And ask yourself WHY your first answer. Develop your first answer a step further with more analysis and critical thinking. Now repeat. Repeat until you get stuck and can’t ask WHY anymore. Until you have nothing else to write down. Really push yourself to squeeze every last bit of meaning out of your initial answer. Think hard. This is one of the most important parts of your essay—the development of your THESIS!
Once you’ve exhausted your WHYs, look at the notes you’ve jotted down. Ask yourself how all the points you’ve made fit together. Then write a detailed and complex thesis synthesizing all of your points.
Congratulations! You have a thesis. That’s half the battle.
Now it’s time for your support. It’s time to rack your brain for all the literary, historical, and personal knowledge that can apply to this specific question. Think deeply…
Literature - Think of a book whose plot either focuses on the essay question or tangentially addresses it. If you’re stuck, turn to the classics. There are some books that have such a plethora of themes that they can apply to almost every SAT Essay question—The Iliad, The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Bible. There’s a reason why they’re classics! Try to recall the ones you’ve read. If you haven’t… well I suggest you get cracking! You still have a month until the exam. Or read their SparkNotes profiles in depth. At least well enough so that you can write about one or two of these books with confidence. If you are wholly lost on this end, or simply curious, ask me for a list of good book recommendations and I will provide them for you.
History / Current Events - Now turn to your knowledge of historical events. Focus on what you’re studying in history class at the moment. It should be the easiest to recall. Assuming that you’re a junior in high school, that will likely be US History. Well… thought of something yet? You love your country don’t you? Tsk.. tsk.. If you’re having trouble with historical events, you’re welcome to use current events instead! Think about what’s happening in the world today. If you have no idea, start watching CNN or reading the Wall Street Journal / NY Times. It’s about time you got out of your bubble anyway…
Personal - Once you’ve gotten a book and a historical / current event, think of a personal event in your life that applies to the question at hand. This is very easy to do… Why, you ask? Because you can fake it! Come up with a story. Be creative. Be detailed. Just don’t be over the top! There is no way that the grader will know you’ve made it up.
Once you’ve thought of your three topics of support (and how they apply to the question at hand) it’ll be time to start writing. But before you do, you’ll have to memorize the outline below. Always keep it in mind as you write your essay. It’ll make the writing process quick, efficient, and successful! Each sentence will flow into the next, and your essay will practically write itself!
Your Formula for a High-Scoring SAT Essay:
- Hook (Use the information in the prompt. Regurgitate what is said in that little paragraph preceding the essay question. Be sure to use different words.)
- Background Information (Briefly analyze the prompt. Discuss the opposing point of view to your argument, and explain why it’s incorrect. Doing this will show to the graders that you are capable of thinking at a high level.)
- Answer (Directly answer your question. Yes or No.)
- Thesis (Rewrite the thesis you developed while planning. Then use a very basic sentence to end your introduction and outline what you will discuss in your body paragraphs, i.e. “This position is made evident in “Title,” by Author, in the “Historical / Current Event,” and in my personal experiences.”)
- Topic Sentence (Main idea of your paragraph, a mini-thesis just for that paragraph. It should be the unifying theme of that paragraph—make sure you include it. At times you may feel it is unnecessary to include a topic sentence because it will give away the point that you’re trying to make in that paragraph before you even make it! But that’s okay, this is a formal essay. It shouldn’t have any surprises. It should make your point as effectively as possible, and clarity and transparency are great tools to that end.)
- Background Information (Set the stage for what you are writing about. Explain the basic plot of the book / historical or current setting / relevant personal details.)
- Example (State the example in the book / historical or current event / your personal life that supports your answer to the question. You should have had this in mind the planning stage of your essay.)
- Analysis (Explain how the example you’ve just used relates to the point you are trying to make.)
- Transition Sentence (Lead into the next body paragraph—if possible. Not always necessary and sometimes hard to do. Don’t sink your time into this if it doesn’t flow right away.)
- Conclusions (Reiterate your thesis in different words—your answer to the question. Also include your main pieces of evidence and briefly write how they prove your point. Bring the essay around full circle.)
- Big Idea (What have you learned as a result of your personal event, how have you changed, what differences have there been in your life, and how does that apply to the world in relation to this question? This is a very open-ended part of your essay and can be interpreted in many different ways when writing. Try to be as creative as possible. Take your point a step further. This is the last part of your essay that the grader will read—be memorable, be interesting, and be intelligent. Leave the grader with a positive feeling about you once he has finished reading!)
Spelling errors, grammar errors, fragments, and illegibility. All of these can be problems in an essay and can also be easily be avoided if you THINK, PLAN, and DON’T RUSH when you're writing. It is also very important to REREAD your essay after completion and edit it accordingly to make sure these mistakes do not come up.
Another thing to keep in mind: Write in the 3rd person in a formal essay—never the 1st ("I") or the 2nd ("You"). Unless you’re writing a personal example, of course. Then you can use “I”.
Make an effort to write with a vocabulary that is a bit more formal and advanced than you would normally use for speaking. Try to write as if you were going to give this essay as a speech to President Obama, or Congress, or some important scientific body. Your audience is very intelligent—try to meet their expectations, and even impress them. Use advanced vocabulary. Throw in those SAT words you’ve spent so much time studying. Obviously don’t force them in. But if it feels appropriate and your writing flows, be sure to follow through. Write formally and follow the structure I detailed above.
Never add new details or information about your examples in your conclusion that you have not already included in the body paragraphs. Only repeat and conclude on information you've already mentioned. If you want to write something new in the conclusion, stop and determine if what you want to include is important. If it is, then figure out how to incorporate that into the body paragraphs. Never the conclusion.
Never use terms like "in conclusion" "therefore" "to sum up" and "so" in your conclusion. They are incredibly redundant and in poor form. The reader will know that this is your conclusion if you followed my steps above and structured your essay properly. There should be no need for these words.
Best of luck,
 Please keep in mind that what you will soon read will only work for the SAT Essay. Do not attempt to apply the following formula and tactics directly to your Humanities essays in school. It will not end well… Trust me. The SAT Essay is a very different beast.