3 Tips For Cracking the SAT Essay Section

Posted by Zoe Balaconis on 7/3/15 9:30 AM

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The essay section of the SAT can be a tough nut to crack. Where other sections’ scoring is relatively straightforward and predictable, the essay section can seem nebulous. What are they looking for? If you don’t know, how can you prepare? How can you improve? In this blog post, I outlined a few of the key points scorers look for, and if you work towards incorporating them into your writing, you’ll get closer to that elusive score of 6!

Use Specific Examples

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the main thing SAT scorers are looking for is your use of specific examples. Don’t say “war” when you can say “The Vietnam War.” Don’t say “modernist literature” when you can say “To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.” While reading the question and planning your essay, if you can’t think of specific examples to match your thesis, then change your thesis. You should be crafting your response around the topics that fit the question, and should have enough information about to describe specifically and intelligently. Try to double check your writing when you practice writing and proofreading your essay. Ask yourself: can I be clearer? Can I go deeper into this topic in terms of time period? Can I discuss a certain person/movement/text/event instead of using a generalization? If so, rewrite, and do it quickly!

Make Sure You Answer the Prompt

One of the most common mistakes students make on the SAT section is not addressing the question. It is easy to get carried away with an idea or lose track of time and then, wham! No matter how wonderful your prose or logic is, if you do not answer the question, you are going to lose points. A tip: after you formulate a thesis but before you begin writing, read the SAT question and simplify it so that it asks a straightforward question (this will involve cutting out all the examples and probably some extraneous words). Then, evaluate: does your thesis EXACTLY answer this question? If so, proceed. If not, you need to pivot and rewrite that thesis.

An example question:

Is listening more important than speaking when you are trying to persuade others? 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 rewritten, simplified question: Is listening more important than speaking?

Once you’ve identified this “core” question, use it to focus your thesis by making your thesis directly answer that question.

Thesis: When trying to persuade others, listening is more important than speaking.

While this thesis may seem too obvious, it is best to write a clear, direct thesis quickly so that you can get to the business of organizing and writing as soon as possible. And even if you don’t necessarily believe your own thesis, that’s okay (maybe you think speaking is more important! Fine!) -- you won’t have time for any hesitation once you begin. Choose a side and stick with it!

Use Variety in Your Writing

You are learning a ton of new vocabulary for the verbal section of the SAT -- why not use it to spice up your essay as well? You want the vocabulary to be integrated naturally and with finesse, but that can be difficult because oftentimes you’re just memorizing their definitions. During your vocabulary studying, take some time to practice integrating those new words into sentences. Knowing what something means and knowing how to use it can be two very different things!

To bring up that essay score, you need to know how to do both. Write some practice sentences! Remember, essay scorers are reading hundreds of essays, and they’re doing it quickly. If you are saying interesting things in interesting ways, that will feel like a breath of fresh air to them and your score will reflect that.

Instead of saying “there were many interesting developments during the Renaissance,” say “The Renaissance was a time of seemingly unstoppable progress in many fields.” The vocabulary I used isn’t very advanced, but the sentence structure adds variety and interest. Avoid the overused constructions of “there were,” “there are,” “it is interesting/significant/important that.” Mix it up!

Need more help with the SAT? Check out other blog posts on our site, written by our private SAT tutors in New York and Boston: 4 Vital Rules for Beating the SAT EssayACT Math vs. SAT Math: What's the Difference?Why You Should Wear a Bathrobe on Test Day. Feel free to contact us if you'd like to work with a private SAT tutor! 
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Tags: SAT