Sat Essay Pointers

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Vivian Kerr at Veritas Prep.

The SAT essay is worth 25 percent of your total SAT writing score. If you can prove your writing skills on college applications and on the SAT essay, you’ll be well-prepared for undergraduate work. Follow these tips to get a perfect score on the SAT essay.

Create an outline before you write. Make sure to take a few minutes to create a plan for the essay in your test booklet before you start writing. (Your essay will be written in a lined sheet in your answer sheet, so you can use the booklet as a scratch pad.) Choose only one side of the prompt; don’t take a middle-of-the-road approach. Even if you don’t really agree with your position, you’ll have time to argue only one side. Aim for five clear, concise paragraphs.  If you’re using the SAT 2400 Essay Template, you should practically have a pre-written essay.

Get specific. Don’t be general. SAT prompts are very general, so the trap is to generalize your response as well. Get specific with your examples: TV shows, Top 40 songs, books you’ve read in school, politics, current events, history. It all works. Just stay away from personal examples—except as a last resort—and be sure to explain how each example supports your thesis. This should be clear from the topic sentence, which is the first sentence of each body paragraph.

Rev Up your vocabulary. Big words alone won’t make or break your score, but a few well-chosen $10 words can impress the reader. Read over a few practice essays and look for some common words you use. Are there any that you can replace with something a bit loftier?  For example, why use “support” when you can use “bolster”? Maybe try out “presupposition” instead of “idea.” Pick a dozen words to incorporate in your SAT essay template. The essay-graders have only a minute or two to read your essay and must go through hundreds each day, so using big words is a good way to set your essay apart from the rest. Plus, haven’t you been memorizing big vocabulary words for the SAT’s reading section anyway?

Practiceand get feedback. Check out some sample essays before trying your own. Practice writing them with sample prompts, following the 25-minute guideline. The only way to get comfortable with the time constraints is to practice in test-like conditions. Ask your peers and family members to read your essay and give feedback.

Refute the opposing position in your conclusion. Wonder what to do in your concluding paragraph? Recognize the opposing viewpoint, showing you understand that some people do not support your position. What is their main argument for the other side? Refute that argument in one or two sentences while reasserting your thesis. Keep your conclusion short and sweet.

Remember, don’t wait until a week before the exam to prep for the essay. You’ve been developing writing skills in your English classes; now is the time to show them off.

Vivian Kerr has been teaching and tutoring in the Los Angeles area since 2005. She graduated from the University of Southern California, studied abroad in London, and has worked for several test-prep giants tutoring, writing content, and blogging about all things SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT.

For more SAT advice from Veritas Prep, watch “Find the Motivation to Get a High SAT Score”

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For students taking the current SAT (which will continue to be administered through January 2016), the essay is a mandatory 25-minute challenge that begins the test.

Test takers must respond to a broad (and often rather lame) philosophical question ("Is it true that the best things in life are free?" or "Is optimism less valuable than hard work?"), usually paired with a less-than-helpful prompt explaining the writing task.

Those who are well-prepared will have a few key recyclable examples in mind – Martin Luther King, Jr., The Great Gatsby, World War II, and Macbeth are perennial favorites – and be ready to quickly cobble together a few paragraphs that include a succinct introduction, one body paragraph for each of the detailed examples mentioned in the intro, and a snappy conclusion.

Then they'll sprinkle some literary "fairy dust" on top to make their essays fly: a smattering of big words, varied punctuation, a rhetorical question perhaps to rouse a drowsy reader, and some quotes or statistics for extra flavor.

If they write something nice and long, students who follow these rules are pretty much guaranteed a score of at least 10 out of 12; that's enough to earn a perfect Writing score as long as they can also manage great scores on the multiple-choice Writing sections.

The New Test

Come March 2016, the game changes. A lot. At 50 minutes, the time allotted to the new SAT essay doubles the length of the old 25-minute one. Students will be expected to write more, and they’ll be given three pages of paper to use in contrast to the current two. Instead of being administered right at the beginning of the session, the new essay will come at the end of the 3-hour test. And for the first time, writing the essay is optional, though students who are applying to selective colleges will probably need to complete it. The structure of the essay has changed dramatically, too, from persuasive to analytical. Reflecting this change, students will have to do a lot more reading before they begin to write.

The Score

The scoring system is also new. Instead of a 1–6 scale representing a holistic judgment, the new essay will be evaluated along three specific dimensions — Reading, Analysis, and Writing — with scores of 1–4 for each of these sub-scores. Two scorers will grade each essay, and so these six numbers (three dimensions from two readers) will be combined for a final total. These scores will not be included in the old-but-new-again 1600-point final SAT score comprising Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math. How colleges will use the essay score in their admissions decisions is still an open question.

The Passages and the Prompt

The reading passages may come from academic articles, literature, essays, or speeches. The question accompanying the passage, however, will always be the same: Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds her argument and analyze how she uses evidence, reasoning, and style to support her point.

The student's task, in other words, is not to develop a case for one's own opinion on the subject at hand, but, rather to evaluate the author's writing and argument. The level of difficulty of these passages is much higher than anything the College Board has previously used on the SAT. Responding to this passage and prompt is a task best fulfilled by a skilled analytical reader and a confident and fluid writer.

5 Tips for a Top Essay

1. Study the examples.

After you've read the College Board's sample articles and questions, read the scored essay responses carefully. Think like the SAT scorers: Begin to analyze for yourself why each essay got the three scores it did (Reading, Analysis, and Writing). Focus on the higher-scoring examples and look for qualities to emulate.

2. Understand the author’s position.

When you are ready to write your first practice essay, be sure you understand the passage and the essence of the author's argument — not just the topic and your position on it. Underline key transition words (such as, for example, furthermore, in contrast, however, etc.) and think about how they contribute to the author’s overall stance. Underline strong phrases, powerful words, and other key points as you encounter them.

Think about what the author is trying to say. What supports the main claims in the passage? Is the evidence relevant and persuasive and laid out in a clear way? Are there particularly strong or weak points in the author's argument? Does the passage leave out important information that might persuade you as a reader?

3. Spend time planning.

Like fine carpentry, the construction of a great essay hinges on thoughtful and thorough prep work. Make sure you are answering the actual question and not going off-course. Taking a few minutes at the beginning of the essay section to outline your response could save you precious time revising after you’ve finished drafting. Be sure to work in each of these three components explicitly in your outline, too:

  • Reference the evidence that the author uses to support her claim.
  • Discuss the ways in which the author uses reasoning to develop her ideas and argument.
  • Address the author's use of style and rhetorical devices to engage readers and convince them of the points in the passage.

4. Be concise but dense.

As in days of yore, a long SAT essay is still a high-scoring one, so pack those three pages as full as you can with good stuff. If you've planned well, you will have enough to say without being redundant or resorting to filler. If your handwriting is too big, practice writing smaller. You should work on efficiently using all the room you have. Try not to leave any space in the margins except for indentations to introduce new paragraphs. Do not skip lines; they could be filled with your point-earning words!

5. Sprinkle some fairy dust on it.

For a high-scoring essay, don't forget to use some rhetorical flourishes of your own: big words, literary devices, and even statistics and quotations you’ve memorized as part of your test prep. Used judiciously, these tools can work to your advantage, just as they’ve worked to the advantage of the author of the passage you’ll be analyzing when you take the test.

Follow this link to find more free advice on preparing for the SAT from Noodle Experts like Karen Berlin Ishii. Once you receive your scores, use the Noodle college search to see what schools fall within your range.

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