How to Score Perfectly on the SAT Essay

Posted by Zoe Balaconis on 10/28/15 9:00 AM

Avoid doing these things on test day by learning and practicing these six steps! 

Many cite the essay section of the SAT as their least popular part, their hardest part, their most confusing part. Students have trouble with it because unlike the rest of the test, it’s open-ended. It seems vague and provides very little in the way of helpful directions. It can be hard to succeed if you don’t understand the expectations, but if you follow these six steps when you get your prompt, you can stay calm and, with practice, perfect your SAT Essay score. For this post I’ll be giving you those steps, then showing you how to use them on a specific prompt.

What Graders Are Looking For

First, a little mythbusting. The SAT Essay isn’t vague at all. The readers are looking for very specific things, so as long as you show them those things, you’ll do great.

What they’re looking for:

A clear thesis, an organized essay, integration of good vocabulary words, and specific examples. 

What they’re not looking for:

Length is not important, nor is the types of examples you use. While these things may be crucial for other essays you write, they aren’t for the SAT. As long as the content is clear and detailed, length doesn’t matter.

Important: If you take the SAT before March 2016 you will have to complete the essay section. If after, you’ll take the new SAT, which still includes an essay section, but with some differences. I’ll address those in my next post.

The 6 Steps:

1. Pick a side, and do it quickly! You don’t have time to debate the question with yourself. Even if you don’t believe it, pick a side and stick to it!

2. Write your thesis by directly answering the question.

3. Brainstorm examples and outline your essay. Choose the side that uses the best examples.

4. Make a quick outline. It doesn't have to be pretty; it only has to be focused.

5. Tie every paragraph back to your thesis.

6. Proofread!

The Prompt:

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

Some people say that leaders are most effective when they are unwilling to compromise. Leaders who refuse to yield are likely to gain the respect of others because they stay true to their beliefs despite fierce opposition. Other people say that leaders are most effective when they are willing to compromise. Leaders who are willing to compromise, they argue, find better solutions to problems because they can understand different perspectives.

Assignment: Are leaders more effective when they are willing to compromise? 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 6 Steps in Action:

1. Pick a side! I choose: Pro compromise. I think this side is easier will be easier to prove because I can think of better examples off the top of my head.

2. Write your thesis by directly answering the question. The question asked in the assignment is: Are leaders more effective when they are willing to compromise? My thesis will answer this directly. Thesis: Leaders are more effective when they are willing to compromise. Don’t shy away from using exact language from the prompt. Feel free to quote it in your essay!

3. Brainstorm examples. For this step you want to write down as many examples as you can think of (at least four) so you can choose the best two or three. If you write about any more than three, your essay will lack depth. Reminder: choose the side that has the most ready examples. My examples: when my senior class president compromised with the faculty over the dress code; Abraham Lincoln’s compromises that led to the ending of slavery; the compromises of the Congress of Vienna. These are three very different examples -- I wish they were more related -- so I’ll have to do more work with my transitions to make this essay flow smoothly.

4. Make a quick outline. Emphasis here is on the quick. You only have 25 minutes, so your outline does not have to be pretty, it just needs to keep you focused or remind you of where to go next. Remember, your essay preparation plays no part in your score.


I.  Introduce the conflict (between compromising and not compromising) + state thesis: Leaders are most effective when they are willing to compromise.

II.  First example (topic sentence: The compromises that Abraham Lincoln made were difficult, but he knew they would lead to emancipation in the years to come.)

III.  Second example (topic sentence: While it hardly had the global impact of emancipation, when my senior class president demonstrated the ability to compromise, she became a role model for the student body.)

IV.  [I find out that I don’t know enough about the Congress of Vienna, so I’m going straight to the conclusion.] Tie two examples together, and hammer home thesis.

5. Tie every paragraph back to the thesis. I’m going to start and end each body paragraph by stating how the example proves that leaders who compromise are more effective, but I’ll have to get creative about how to do it without being repetitive. Example: While the example about my school president seems inconsequential compared to the Civil War, it’s in these small moments that we learn how to be a strong, yet understanding leader. (This is an example of a way I can link and wrap up my body paragraphs).


6. Proofread! Be sure to leave at least three minutes at the end of your 25 minute session to read over your essay and make any necessary corrections. You shouldn’t be making organizational changes at this point (outline before you start writing so you don’t have to), but instead focus on catching little grammatical errors and inserting stronger, more interesting vocabulary.

If you follow these 6 steps every time you write an SAT essay, you’ll be sure to improve your SAT score. But it takes practice. The more practice essays you do, the more solid examples from history, texts, and your life you’ll have on hand for when the real test day comes. Ideally, in the four weeks leading up to your SAT test day, you will devote at least one hour per week writing one SAT essay (you can find prompts here) and scoring yourself. You should also make an effort to read more in the days leading up to your test (try reading the newspaper every morning) to help improve your facility with language and your vocabulary. Good luck!t

For more tips and tricks on writing, check out these other blog posts written by our writing tutors in New York and Boston: The Vital Importance of Writing Badly, Transitioning From One Paragraph to the Next, and How Do I Write a Good Thesis? Looking to work with an expository writing tutor on your essays? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.

Click here to sign up for a free SAT consultation!


Tags: SAT