How to Prepare for an SAT Essay

Student holding SAT books

If college is like the mansion of your future opportunities, your SAT score is like the padlock on the front door. Not to freak you out or anything, but getting a good SAT can mean the difference between being accepted at the college of your dreams or spending the next two years doing night classes at your local community school. And, while you might be able to muddle your way through the math and multiple-choice tests, you can’t fake a good SAT essay.

Here are some of the best tools and tricks to nail your SAT essay writing and get a high score. With a little hard work and preparation, you can dominate your SAT essay without even breaking a sweat.

Prepare with Literature

Before you ever step into the testing room, you need to have read some things. Not only will this help with your essay, but it will give you additional insight when doing the English part of the multiple-choice test. The more literature you’re familiar with, the stronger you can make your case. That doesn’t mean you have to read everything in the world. Simply read and understand and a handful of very versatile books and you can use them to support your essay no matter what the topic.

Some excellent books include:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare
  • Night, Elie Wiesel
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  • The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Understand the SAT Essay Rules and Format

First of all, you need to make sure that you’re following the simple rules so that your essay doesn’t get disqualified. This means:

  • Bringing a pencil to write with. All essays in pen will be thrown away.
  • Write only on your answer sheet. If you write in your test booklet, you will receive a zero.
  • Don’t cheat! The test board computer scores your tests, comparing them with 10,000 others.
    They will catch you if you cheat.

Read the Instructions

It seems simple, but it’s the area that most often disqualifies an SAT test taker. According to the CollegeBoard, “An off-topic essay will receive a score of zero.” That means that if you don’t read the prompt correctly and specifically answer the question at hand, you are flirting with a no-score paper.

Here’s a typical prompt from the SAT essay section:

You have twenty-five minutes to write an essay on the topic assigned below.
Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

“Many persons believe that to move up the ladder of success and achievement, they must forget the past, repress it, and relinquish it. But others have just the opposite view. They see old memories as a chance to reckon with the past and integrate past and present.”
– Adapted from Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation

Assignment: Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

The things to remember are:

  • You have 25 minutes to complete every part of the essay. That means, you need to complete your pre-writing (brainstorming, notes, etc) in about 5 minutes so you have time to physically write your essay.
  • You need to understand the quote. This is a quote about the value of the past on a person’s future. Start thinking now of books, stories, and ideas about the topic.
  • You need to have a point of view. That means you need to express an opinion and support it with evidence.

Write a Thesis with Words from the Prompt

You only have 10 minutes, so use your prewriting time effectively. On your essay directions page, circle the main question that needs to be answered in the prompt. Also, determine if this is an explanatory essay or an argumentative essay.

Now, write a thesis statement that will provide a guide for your essay using important words in the prompt. Circle these words quickly while you’re reading the prompt so you can find them faster. For the prompt above, a possible thesis statement might be something like:

Memories can be effective learning tools, but only if we don’t allow them to drag our behavior into the past.

Clearly, this statement answers the question using words from the prompt, but it also shows that the writer has some depth of thought and will be developing this idea for the reader.

Create Two Supporting Paragraphs Using Evidence

Now, you need to write two supporting paragraphs that develop your point of view. These need to follow the directions to the letter. That means, if they ask you for personal experiences and reading to support your ideas, you need to include both.

Introduce your evidence and then explain how it answers the question. For example, the explanation for each sentence of evidence is in bold:

When I was younger, I spent some time in jail. Although it taught me a lot about the effect a simple act can have on an entire life, I can’t spend my time dwelling on it. The past is only a helpful learning tool if you can gain wisdom without repeating the mistake that taught you that wisdom. In Hamlet, that same lesson is taught to the audience as they see Hamlet repeating the mistake to avoid taking action by avenging his father’s death. The result is not only that Hamlet doesn’t learn his lesson until it’s too late, but that his inability to learn from his past causes harm to everyone around him.

Write a Conclusion

If you leave your essay without a conclusion, it is likely to get scored far lower than you deserve. You need at least one or two sentences that sum up your ideas and leave the reader thinking. Make a statement about how this idea can affect the future, talk about the importance of the subject, or show how this topic applies to you. The idea is to be interesting, provocative, and committed to your point of view.

6 Things You Should Never Do

Even a person who does all of these things can get marked down for sloppy writing and poor writing style. Here are some things to avoid at all costs:

  1. Sloppy Handwriting. Write neatly so that everyone can read – not too small or too big.
  2. Using Ostentatious Words. That means “overinflated language.” Write like you talk.
  3. Using Slang or Cussing. So, write like you’d talk if you were in a high-profile job interview.
  4. Being Overly Creative. The goal is to see if you can write a simple essay. Don’t rap or write poetry.
  5. Writing concluding statements at the end of body paragraphs. It’s just not necessary.
  6. Overusing Adjectives and Adverbs. It’s really, superbly, undeniably, not even remotely effective.
  7. Using the Same Sentence Structure Every Time. Vary your sentence length.

If you have any other tips on SAT essays to add or want to share your experience – you are welcome to leave the comments!

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