Writing the SAT Essay: The First Few Steps

Posted by James Reich on 7/23/13, 8:30 AM

In the last blog post, I discussed the overall strategy for writing the SAT essay, which is based on recognizing that this essay is not like other pieces of writing. It is specifically designed to test your ability to pick a point of view on any given issue, develop it and express it with good language skills, and to do so quickly, with little time to plan or reviseNow that we're clear on what the essay is (and is not) designed to show, we can talk about SAT verbal tips and some specific tactics you can use to write the essay.

SAT verbal tips

When you turn the page of the test booklet to the essay section and begin writing, the first thing you will see is a quotation, then a question. Your job is to answer the question, which will probably be a dumb question. Don't let this bother you. Just treat a dumb question like a slow, easy pitch, and use the skills you've practiced in training to bat it out of the park.

The first thing you should do when you read the question is generate a list of specific examples that you think are relevant to the question.

These can be examples from history, literature, pop culture, or your own personal experience. The important thing is that they relate somehow to the question at hand. When you've come up with three or four examples, pick what you think are the best two. Then, try to generate a thesis statement that will allow you to discuss these examples coherently. A thesis statement is a single sentence that states what you will try to convince the reader of in the essay. Preferably, it will be a statement that is insightful, meaning that it takes an unusual, sophisticated, or non-simplistic position on the question, Has technology made our lives easier or more difficult? A simplistic thesis statement would be: “Technology has made our lives easier.” A more insightful statement would be: “although technology has given us certain comforts and conveniences, these have come at a price.” An even better statement would be: “technology is a powerful tool that can either make our lives easier or more difficult, depending on how wisely it is used.” Do you see the increasing level of insight and sophistication these statements exhibit? Insightful thesis statements will sometimes address not only the question, but the assumptions and premises on which the question is based--in this case the tacit (but incorrect) assumption that technology must either make our lives easier or more difficult, but not both. Insight is a difficult quality to describe, but it is not so hard to recognize once you gain some experience.  It is important to know, however, that according to the Official SAT scoring rubric (http://sat.collegeboard.org/scores/sat-essay-scoring-guide), whether an essay “insightfully” develops a point of view is the most important difference between a 5 and a 6.

One important thing to notice and keep in mind is that in the preceding paragraph, when I laid out steps for you to take in writing the essay, generating the thesis statement came after brainstorming and choosing examples. It doesn't need to be this way, especially if you have an immediate and clear opinion on the question that you think you can easily defend.

But it's important to recognize that, in the end, it doesn't really matter what your opinion on the question really is.

What matters is your ability to articulate and defend the position you've taken. Like a lawyer in court, your own personal belief about whether your client is guilty or innocent isn't as important as your ability to make the case you need to make. So if you have a strong opinion, by all means, express it. But if you find that you don't have an immediate opinion, or you don't think the question is very interesting, you may end up picking a position and then finding yourself at a loss for examples to use in defending it. This will cost you time. If you pick your examples first and then choose a thesis statement that will allow you to use them, you will be sure to have enough material with which to defend your position. Brainstorming examples may even help you come to an opinion about a question that you initially had no interest in.

Once you have your examples and your thesis statement, you already have the outline for your essay. Basically, you will introduce the topic and state your thesis in an introductory paragraph, spend a paragraph on each of your examples, and then state a conclusion. For the introductory paragraph, when you introduce the topic, try to "hook" your readers' interest by stating why the topic of the essay is interesting or complex. For the example paragraphs, try to write one sentence explaining how each example relates to the question. This will be the topic sentence for that paragraph.

All this should take you about 7 minutes in total. 3 minutes to brainstorm and choose examples, and 4 minutes to generate a thesis statement, an outline, and topic sentences. An SAT tutor can be very helpful in running you through these steps, giving you practice and helping you learn the difference between good and bad examples and thesis statements.

After this it is time to start writing your essay, which is just concise and specific explanation of why the examples are relevant to your thesis statement, and why the reader should believe your thesis statement. Part of your grade will depend on the insight of your thesis statement and the relevance of your examples. That has already been taken care of and shouldn't be difficult at this point. However it is also important that the graders see that you can make good transitions between topics, invoke some exotic vocabulary (no need to go crazy), and can use complex and varied sentence structures. This is different than just writing flowery or overly complicated prose.

In the next post, we'll discuss in more detail the specific things a grader will be looking for in your sentences, and how to achieve them.

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Tags: SAT, expository writing