You don’t have to be a robot to write the SAT essay, but it helps.
The SAT essay asks students to break down a ludicrously broad philosophical question and come up with both a specific point of view, expressed through a structurally-perfect, well-written essay—and all in just 25 minutes. As an SAT writing tutor in New York, I find that to many of my students this seems impossible. How can they come up with a persuasive argument, convincing evidence, and then write an entire essay in less than half a typical class period? In less time than a TV episode of “Community” about a class period?
The answer is simple: The SAT essay is not like any other kind of writing you’ve ever done before. It’s not a school test, state test, or an AP test; it’s in a category all by itself. While other in-class essays and standardized test essays will help you, you need to know both the rules of the test and the tricks of the trade in order to write the essay in the time allotted.
Rule 1: Pick a side and stick to it
The essay asks an extremely open-ended question, such as: “Is the world changing for the better?” or “Is it necessary for people to imitate others before they can become original and creative?” Your first task is to take this general question and make it specific, and to stick to one consistent argument. The world is full of gray area, but there isn’t always room, or rather time, for gray area on this essay! Never hedge!
Rule 2: Come prepared
It is very hard to think of the perfect example or piece of evidence off the top of your head, especially while the clock is running. This is especially true on this essay, where your entire grade hangs on your ability to come up with not one but two solid examples. Instead of wasting time coming up with examples on the spot, you can come prepared with a list that works for every question!
Make a list of five different types of examples that you can use for the kinds of “big idea” philosophical questions that appear on the SAT, including a book, a movie, a play, a historical figure/event, and a personal story. Don’t choose examples that seem “literary” but that you don’t actually know very well, or you won’t be able to use them properly. Instead, choose examples you know well inside and out, so that you can discuss them without having to look up authors, characters, or details. Examples from science or nature may also be very useful, if you know what you’re talking about. (Historical examples may not seem useful, but they are particularly important for questions about change!)
Practice using these examples for different sample essay questions—you’ll be surprised how well you can make them work! You don’t have to use these examples, and if you think of a better one on the spot, you should use it. The prepared examples are there to create a safety net so you don’t waste time or get stuck.
Rule 3: The facts don’t matter
One of the biggest differences between this essay and other essays for school and other tests is that factual accuracy doesn’t matter. You can’t make egregious errors, like identifying Abraham Lincoln as a member of the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century, but you don’t have to be accurate about small details about dates or facts. The goal is measure how you can persuade someone with evidence, not if you remember specific historical dates.
However, don’t fall into the trap of making entire examples up from scratch. Once students know that facts don’t matter, they often try to make up the perfect example—the made up book or personal anecdote—that magically fits the situation. Why is this a bad idea? Because creative writing is hard! If it’s been a while since you did any creative writing, you may have forgotten just how hard it is, but you can end up wasting a large portion of your time crafting this “perfect” example. Making things up is easy—making those things believable is not. It is always faster to use a real example than to create one from nothing.
Rule 4: A different kind of writing
The last thing to remember about the SAT is that it is not a measure of how good you are as a writer. It’s a measure of how good you are as a writer of 25-minute essays! The SAT essay also has a very specific rubric, with requirements about length, diction, and syntax variation in addition to content. However, this essay is not the only exposure colleges will have to your writing. You will have to write an essay, or rather many essays, for applications that you will edit and revise and edit again, over the course of many weeks. This process is arguably an extremely important part of writing, and it is not included on the SAT essay.
The thing I tell my SAT tutoring clients in NYC is, the most difficult thing about this essay isn’t writing it. It’s pretending for 25 minutes that the question you’ve been asked isn’t hugely nuanced. This is actually one of the many reasons the SAT will make the essay optional in 2016. Unfortunately, if you’re applying to college this year, you’ll just have to get through it. So if you struggle with the SAT essay, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a great writer. It just means that you need help with a very specific type of writing, with its own rules and strategies. If you need help with the SAT essay, Cambridge Coaching’s private SAT verbal tutors in Boston, NYC, and online are expert writers with the experience and knowhow to help you get the score you need!