This guest post from the folks at Launch Education Group contains crucial information about how to prepare and write an outstanding essay for the SAT.
Just the letters “SAT” can make high school students tremble as they think about this high-stakes standardized test. That feeling can become downright terror when you tack on the word “writing” to those letters. Writing essays for school is hard enough. But to do so under pressure and a time limit is many students’ nightmare.
Still, before you go wake up screaming at night, you should know that, like with any test, the secret to performing well on the SAT writing section is to know what to expect and prepare for it. By knowing the answers to a few simple questions, you’ll find that this test can become the least of your worries.
1) What are test evaluators looking for?
The key to writing a perfect SAT essay is not to write the most brilliant essay of your life; rather, you need to write an essay that meets the requirements perfectly. SAT graders are writing or English teachers. Who are given a specific rubric and told to look at an essay for only three minutes before assigning it a score. That means that, within three minutes, your essay has to convince the graders that you could meet the requirements. Your best bet is to stick to those requirements as closely as possible.
To familiarize yourself with these requirements, check out the instructions and the grading rubric for the essay, both of which are available at the SAT College Board website. Reading these before the test will help you prepare and save you time during the test.
When the graders examine your essay, the criteria they will look for are a strong position, clear organization, and well-written sentences. Of course, the only way they will be able to find these quickly is if your writing is legible and clear.
While you may be used to writing essays that try to take a new perspective or see the gray area, you should stick to the basics here and argue one side of the argument. This essay isn’t about which argument you choose: it’s about how well you support the argument you choose.
Once you pick an argument, you want to organize your essay clearly using three strong examples to prove your point. The writing prompts are fairly broad questions, so there are always plenty of examples to choose from.
While evaluating your content, the graders will also be critiquing your grammar and spelling. You only have twenty-five minutes, so no one is expecting a perfectly proofread article. However, you can ensure your grammar and spelling are the best they can be by avoiding fancy words or sentence structures that you are not entirely sure how to use. Being simple, direct, and correct is preferable to making unneeded mistakes. Leaving a few minutes to review each section will also help you catch errors and awkward sentences.
2) How should you divide up your time?
Twenty-five minutes may seem like an intimidating deadline, but with calm and intentional division, those minutes will be all you need. When the test begins, skip the instructions (you’ve read those online already) and read the prompt. When everyone starts writing furiously, use your first seven minutes to carefully construct your argument, three examples, and conclusion. By preparing and organizing your thoughts, you ensure that your writing time will happen exactly as you want it. Use the next fifteen minutes to flesh out your outline into the full-fledged essay. Use your remaining minutes to review your writing and check for mistakes.
If you run out of time, drop one of the examples. It’s better to have less well-formed thoughts on the paper than many half-formed ones. Always make sure you have time to write a conclusion.
3) What should the structure of your essay look like?
Again, this is not the time to be fancy. Using a basic outline for the structure of your essay will ensure that you have time to include all the most important parts. Begin your introduction with a hook or attention grabber, something to pull your reader (grader) in. From there, you should transition in your thesis. (If you’re having trouble with your thesis, simply use parts of the prompt in stating your answer.)
As you provide each example, start each paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces the example. Continue to analyze the example in the following sentences, then conclude the example by connecting it to your argument.
Your conclusion is essential in leaving the grader with a positive impression. Be sure to summarize your arguments, restate your thesis as you connect your arguments, and end with a sentence that provokes thoughts about the greater implications of the prompt.
4) How do you persuade your audience?
This may be a basic, formulaic essay, but you should still do your best to convince your audience (graders) of your point. Doing this means choosing your examples carefully. First of all, brainstorm your possible choices for examples that could support the prompt. Make a list that includes as much variety as possible. You will evaluate which examples you should choose by several criteria.
First scan the list
Which of these examples do you know the most about? Examples are much stronger when they are specific and include plenty of detailed information. Using Abraham Lincoln as an example of a successful man is more effective if you know the specific names of the laws he enacted. Using specific details will make your example more credible, thus making your argument more valid.
Secondly think about ethos, pathos, and logos
These are the different rhetorical methods of persuasion that can help strengthen your essay.
Ethos refers to getting your audience to trust in the credibility of the speaker. So to use this in your essay, you may refer to the opinion of a well-known or respected figure, like using Mother Teresa’s opinions to support your point about giving.
Pathos is a method where you play on the emotions of your audience. To do this, you could choose an example that is shocking or sad, like telling the story of a starving child to push for more aid going to Africa.
Finally, there is the logos method where you use logic and reasoning to convince your audience. This example would use specific facts to make your side seem like the obvious choice, like using stats about the amount of food Americans waste that could be used to feed others.
Varying up your examples with these rhetorical methods will help provide a broad support for your argument.
5) How do you stay calm and focused?
Really, the key to writing your essay boils down to your ability to remain calm and focused during your writing time. Staying on task and preventing panic means that you will spend more time focusing on a quality essay.
Being prepared is the first step to staying calm. Read the directions in advance, know the outline you will follow for your essay, and decide how you will break up your time. Knowing all of these things in advance will give you a structure to follow when the test begins, which will help keep the panic down. Next, don’t be intimidated by the actions or pace of those around you. Using their methods won’t ensure your success, especially if their methods are created by their own panicked state.
Finally, remember that the goal of this essay is not to write the most brilliant piece of writing you’ve ever done. It is simply meant to demonstrate that you have the necessary critical thinking and writing skills. Aim for a consistent, well-written article instead of a brilliant one and you won’t drive yourself crazy. Who knows? It may just become the best essay you’ve ever written, but even if it doesn’t, you’ll still score well.
Launch Education Group was founded in 2007. We offer one-to-one, in-home quality tutoring programs for SAT and ISEE prep in the greater Los Angeles and New York City area. Follow Launch Education on Facebook.