One of the most-feared things about the SAT is the essay. 25 minutes to write a complete essay?! Are you kidding me??!!
Relax! It’s not as bad as you think, especially when you apply some of the techniques I’m about to tell you.
Now, most of this applies to the current SAT and will change when the 2016 SAT update rolls out. I’ll cover a little bit of the 2016 SAT essay at the end and I’ll be releasing a new guide when the time comes.
But for know, here’s what you need to know to write a kick-ass SAT essay…
Look at the grading rubric
Right now, the SAT essay involves you reading a short background passage and responding to a question. You put forth your opinion and then argue it. Two graders each give you a score from 1 to 6, and your scores are combined to form your essay score, which can be from 2 to 12.
If you have The College Board’s SAT guide, you can look on page 105 and see the requirements for getting a 6 on your essay. In case you don’t have the guide handy (though I highly recommend it!), you can see it on The College Board’s website instead. Here’s a screenshot of the rubric:
Let’s go over these one at a time, working our way backwards, ’cause why not.
Is free of most errors in grammar, usage and mechanics
For this, there’s no shortcut. You gotta learn yourself some grammar! Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is a great place to learn a few basics that’ll get you through. That plus lots of practice editing and rewriting and examining your work will make this aspect of your writing immensely better.
Demonstrates meaningful variety in sentence structure
Another thing that you have to do on-the-spot. And again, no shortcut here. You have to practice writing and pay attention to your sentence cadence. Alternate longer, more complex sentences with shorter, punchier ones. Like this. Except make them real sentences.
Exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate and apt vocabulary
Another one of those no-shortcut things. Practice SAT vocabulary words, and try to use them as much as you can. When SAT time comes and you’re writing and reviewing your essay, be thinking about your word choice. Is there a more descriptive or better word you could use than “big” in that sentence, for example? “Gargantuan” or “enormous” might fit better.
Is well organized and clearly focused, demonstrating clear coherence and smooth progression of ideas
Ah finally! Something you can prepare for ahead of time! We’ll be getting to this in the next section. Of course, you need to be clear-thinking on the day of the test, but what I’m going to share will help with that.
Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position
Aha! Another thing we can prepare for ahead of time! Read on…
Outline before you start
One of the easiest ways to go wrong in any essay is to get off-topic or to be unorganized. The easiest way to prevent this is to have an outline. I’m using one right now as I write this.
But how can you have an outline if you don’t know what the prompt is?
It’s surprisingly easy, actually. Just come up with a general outline and fill in the information based on the question at hand. You can write all you want in your test booklet – use it to jot down your outline!
Here’s an example outline:
II. Example 1
III. Example 2
IV. Opposing argument & answer
Having an outline not only keeps your writing organized, it helps you think in an organized and thorough fashion. Including a paragraph to address the opposing viewpoint forces you to think about the opposing viewpoint. That’s critical thinking!
In this particular outline, you use two examples. But more than that, it’s important to put those two examples in the right order.
What’s the right order?
Let’s think for a second – if you’re building an argument, you want to have a natural, logical progression from one thought to another. You want your reader to gradually come more and more in line with your thinking until you end with a bang and he’s totally convinced.
So put the stronger example second. Look at the two examples and ask yourself which is more convincing. Depending on the question you’re talking about, a story from history might be less compelling than a personal experience you’ve had, for example.
Here’s another example outline:
III. Supporting facts, quotes or research
IV. Opposing argument and answer
Remember: make an outline before the test. Know when you walk in exactly how you’re going to structure your essay. When the section starts, jot down that outline and get to work.
The most important thing: a strong thesis
What is a thesis statement? A thesis is basically the one thing your essay is trying to say. It’s your answer to the writing prompt’s question. It’s your whole position distilled into one sentence.
The point of a thesis statement is to guide the rest of your writing. It’s a lot easier to stay focused and on track when you’ve got a thesis statement staring you in the face. As you write, you should constantly be asking yourself: “does that sentence support my thesis?” If it doesn’t, erase it and rewrite it.
If you have a lousy thesis, you’ll have a lousy essay, no matter how great a wordsmith you are. But if you’ve got yourself a solid thesis, most likely your essay will be solid, too. Especially if you’re using a good outline.
Here’s how to write a good thesis.
Answer the question and take a stand. Each SAT essay has a specific question it asks you. Think about it and answer it, clearly and simply. It’s important that you actually take a stand in an essay. No halfways – decide how you feel about the question and then stick to your guns.
Keep it specific. You don’t want to wander around in your essay. Even if you’ve got multiple ideas about the question, keep them out of your thesis. Your thesis should be one thought, one specific answer to the question.
Make sure you can argue against it. “Cows are animals” is a crummy thesis. It’s hard to argue that cows aren’t animals, so your essay will just be proving something people already know. That’s the makings of a boring essay! Instead, make sure there’s the possibility for someone to disagree with you. Controversy is intensely interesting, and if your essay is controversial … you’ve got yourself the makings of an exciting essay!
Remember the 3 C’s. Your thesis should be clear, concise and compelling. Actually, all your writing should be clear, concise and compelling, but right now we’re just focusing on writing an epic thesis statement.
A clear thesis is easy to understand. You don’t want someone to read it and say “huh?” If it’s confusing in the least, rewrite it.
A concise thesis doesn’t use more words than it needs. It’s similar to a clear thesis, but it’s slightly different – clear is easy to understand. Concise doesn’t waste words.
Finally, a compelling thesis is one that commands attention. In the case of an SAT essay, this will usually mean that you’re taking a strong stand for or against something. Something that will make the reader go “Oh?” and keep reading.
A key part of the rubric is that your essay needs to demonstrate critical thinking. You’ll notice I included that in both example outlines I gave you – there’s a reason for that! The single best way of critically thinking about your position is to think about the opposing viewpoint. And the best way of demonstrating critical thinking in writing is to examine the opposing viewpoint in your essay.
It’s important when you do this to actually put yourself in the other side’s shoes. Don’t come up with some crummy argument. Genuinely do your best to think of what someone who disagrees with you would say.
Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher and theologian of the 13th century, famously did this to great effect. In his masterpiece, Summa Theologica, he not only included arguments against every single one of his, but he always included the strongest possible argument. And then proceeded to refute it.
It’s like a mental game of chess – you have to think “if someone who disagreed with my thesis read this, what would they say? How should I respond?” It might take a little practice to identify the strong opposing arguments, but even including a weaker one is better than not including any opposing argument at all.
That being said, it’s your essay. Don’t dwell too long on the opposing argument. Sum it up in never more than two sentences. One is better.
Most of what I’m telling you here will change in regards to the SAT come 2016. But you’ll still have to write essays in college, and what I’ve given you here will help.
In 2016, the SAT essay bit will involve writing an essay analyzing another essay. Basically, you write about how effectively they argued their position. It helps, of course, to be able to write effectively about a position yourself, so you know what to look for! Just keep in mind the current rubric as you analyze that essay; it’s like a blueprint for an effective essay.
As the 2016 SAT gets closer, I’ll be writing another guide on how to analyze an essay. Be sure to subscribe to the email list so you don’t miss it!
Let me explain … no, let me sum up
- You need a thesis statement! Make it clear, concise and compelling. And make it interesting!
- Decide on an outline before test day. Then write it in your test book and slot in your thoughts for the question at hand.
- Refute the opposing viewpoint! This is to demonstrate critical thinking.
The SAT essay isn’t as scary as folks make it out to be. In fact, it can be downright fun if you approach it with a plan and a good attitude.
The best way to improve at anything is to practice, so take these tips, find an SAT essay prompt and get writing!
If after reading this you still need help with SAT essays, click here or the floaty box on the right – I do SAT tutoring and I wouldn’t at all mind meeting over Skype to help you out. 🙂 I’ve set up a couple bonuses for test-taking-tips.net readers, too, so be sure to check it out.
And be sure to get your free ebook below!