How to Write the SAT 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 a score on 800 point scale). 

In general a score of 8 will keep the multiple choice score (out of 800) the same; a score above 8 will raise it; and a score below 8 will lower it. The lower the multiple-choice score, however, the lower the chance that writing a strong essay will significantly improve. A multiple choice in the low to mid-500s often means that the overall score can't crack 600, even with an outstanding essay.

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 tips for writing the SAT essay 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. If you're stuck for a conclusion, you can always bring in the quote, but initially, you can skip it. 

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 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 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 (again, 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. If you have zero issues writing clear, grammatically correct prose, you can make things a little fancier, but when in doubt, go for direct. The reader should not have to work to follow your train of thought.

6) You don't have to use three examples 

Very often, students who try to cram in three full examples don't have the time/space to discuss each example sufficiently and end up running out of time for the conclusion. Plenty of my students have gotten high scores using a four paragraph structure: intro - 2 body paragraphs - conclusion. 

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 a story or a quote. There are many, many ways to achieve a high score on the essay, and a paint-by-numbers Intro. - Body Paragraphs - Conclusion structure is only one of them.

7) Longer is better


Whatever you write about, try to write a lot. One-and-a-half pages is good; two pages is better. There is a correlation between the length of an essay and the score it receives, and the more you write, the higher your score is likely to be.

8) Vary your examples, and don't be afraid to make things up

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

Remember, though, 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, a fact that people who criticize the SAT for giving high scores to essays containing factual errors tend to miss. Your goal is  to present only the evidence that best supports your point, regardless of whether it is true or not. 


9) Make sure your body paragraphs are about the same length 


Having a very long paragraph next to a very short one creates a sense of imbalance. It's also strange to have a very detailed example next to a very vague one. Try to keep each one to about seven sentences. 

10) 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. 

But remember: 

The writing, not the examples, makes the essay. It doesn't matter how fabulous your examples are if you can't write about them effectively. 

11) 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.

12) 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.


Suggested Examples


Literary

The World According to Garp (one of my favorite books, works for almost everything)
A Widow for One Year
All the King's Men
Crime and Punishment
Great Expectations
Frankenstein
To Kill a Mockingbird
Of Mice and Men
The Scarlet Letter
The Great Gatsby
1984
Brave New World
The Odyssey/The Illiad/The Aeneid
Any Shakespearean tragedy, esp. Hamlet and Macbeth
And if you're truly a kick-ass writer and want to have some fun... Harry Potter (yes, it can be done)

Historical

French Revolution
American Revolution
Civil War: 54th Regiment (Subject of the film Glory)
Ghandi
Civil Rights Movement: Rosa Parks, Malcolm X (not MLK!)
Mother Teresa
Harvey Milk
Nixon/Watergate Scandal
Cuban Missile Crisis
Roosevelt/New Deal
Johnson/Great Society
Abraham Lincoln
Harriet Tubman
WEB DuBois
Napoleon's Invasion of Russia /Hitler's Invasion of Russia
Peter the Great/Modernization of Russia

Scientific

Copernicus
Galileo
Newton
Thomas Edison
The rise of the Internet/Cell Phones
Alexander Fleming/Discovery of Penicillin
Genetic Testing (another example that works for tons of questions)
Genetically Modified Food
Grigori Perelman (recently proved the Poincaré Conjecture) -- really interesting story, great if you're interested in math

Current Events

Obama
Hillary Clinton
Stock Market Crash/Madoff
Japan Nuclear Disaster
Revolution in Egypt
Hurricane Katrina
War in Afghanistan/Iraq (no, you will not penalized for your political views)
AIDS Epidemic
And of course...Reality Television

For a full list of SAT Essay prompts since 2005, I would also highly suggest you check out the following site:

http://satninja.com/sat-essay-prompts