Cracking the SAT

Part IV

How to Crack the Writing Section

Chapter 18

Essay

The Essay section will always be the first thing you see on the test. You will have 25 minutes to write a coherent response to a given prompt. Although you probably have written essays in the past, you may not have had to write one quite like this before. In this chapter, we will show you how to address the prompt, brainstorm ideas, and write a high-scoring essay in the scant time given.

We’ve finally arrived at the last part of your SAT prep, which is the first part of your SAT—the essay. The Writing section is not about writing a great essay that would bring a tear to your Language Arts teacher’s eyes or be published in a literary journal. For that kind of writing to be worth the trouble, there would have to be someone carefully reading and evaluating your essay. Don’t worry: With readers spending only a few minutes on each essay, that won’t really happen on the SAT.

ETS says the essay is graded “holistically.” That means essay readers look at the overall impression that the essay makes and give you a score accordingly. However, because there are so many to get through, each grader spends an average of only two to three minutes for each essay. In that short amount of time, what sort of impression can you, as a student, make? Well, with the right approach, a very good one.

In this section we’ll give you some tips about what you should concentrate on for the SAT essay, and how to pick up the most points possible.

First let’s read through the instructions and a sample assignment.

The essay gives you an opportunity to show how effectively you can develop and express ideas. You should, therefore, take care to develop your point of view, present your ideas logically and clearly, and use language precisely.

Your essay must be written on the lines provided on your answer sheet—you will receive no other paper on which to write. You will have enough space if you write on every line, avoid wide margins, and keep your handwriting to a reasonable size. Remember that people who are not familiar with your handwriting will read what you write. Try to write or print so that what you are writing is legible to those readers.

Don’t Read the
Instructions

The instructions for every
single SAT essay will look
like this, or very close to
this. Once you’ve read
the instructions once,
you won’t have to read
them again. The only
thing you will need to
read is the assignment.

• A pencil is required for the essay. An essay written in ink will receive a score of zero.

• Do not write your essay in your test book. You will receive credit only for what you write on your answer sheet.

• An off-topic essay will receive a score of zero.

• If your essay does not reflect your original and individual work, your test scores may be canceled.

Although you can’t write
the essay itself in the test
booklet, the test booklet is
a great place to jot down
notes before you write
your actual essay on the
answer sheet.

Here’s a sample essay topic:

You have twenty-five minutes to write an essay on the topic assigned below. DO NOT WRITE ON ANOTHER TOPIC. AN OFF-TOPIC ESSAY WILL RECEIVE A SCORE OF ZERO.

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


In his poem “In Memoriam,” romantic poet Alfred Lord Tennyson expresses his view that loss is an unavoidable consequence of love. Yet, rather than shunning love because of this, Tennyson resolves to accept both the experience of love and the pain that inevitably comes with it. As he writes in his often quoted passage, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Adapted from James R. Kincaid, Tennyson’s Major Poems


Assignment: Are people unwise to pursue love even when they know it will cause them pain? 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.

DO NOT WRITE YOUR ESSAY IN YOUR TEST BOOK. You will receive credit only for what you write on your answer sheet.

You’ll notice the instructions tell you to “think carefully about the issue being presented,” and “plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue.” How much time do you have for all of this planning, developing, AND writing? Twenty-five minutes. That means ETS is not expecting a polished work on par with Hemingway; in fact, your essay will be graded as if it were your rough draft (which it is). So you should really take a couple of minutes to figure out your viewpoint and to jot down a few examples before you begin writing.

You will read a quotation or short passage that states an opinion on some generic topic and you will then write an essay discussing your position or viewpoint on that opinion.

Two people will read your essay, and each will give it a score on a scale of 1 to 6 (6 is the highest). These two scores are added together and multiplied by a mysterious conversion factor that translates the raw score so it equals about 30 percent of your overall writing raw score. It’s added to the raw score from your multiple-choice Grammar section, and then this total raw score is converted to the familiar 200–800 scale. If, by some chance, the readers differ by more than one point (and this is very rare) a third “master” reader will be called in to score the essay.

The essay, which is
graded by two people,
is scored on a scale of 1 to
6 (low to high).

ETS publications tell you that readers are encouraged to look at what has been done well, rather than what hasn’t been done. According to ETS the highest score of 6 is reserved for an essay that “effectively and insightfully develops a point of view”; “is well organized and clearly focused”; uses “clearly appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position”; and “demonstrates meaningful variety in sentence structure” and “a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary,” though it may have “minor errors.” Even an essay with a score of 6 does NOT have to be perfect. As long as your essay is well organized with fully developed ideas, you can make a couple of errors and still get a 6. On the other hand, a low score of 1 goes to an essay that “provides little or no evidence to support its position,” “is disorganized or unfocused,” and “contains pervasive errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics that persistently interfere with meaning.” (Visit www.collegeboard.org to read the entire set of essay-scoring guidelines.)

Think about your high school English teacher and how long he or she takes to get writing assignments back to you. Days? Weeks sometimes? Well, imagine that your teacher had to grade 10 times as many essays in one-tenth the time. Suddenly the time he or she might have to look at your essay is shortened to a few minutes. The ETS reader (who is most likely a high school or college English teacher in real life) is in that crazy situation—he or she may be reading 100 or 200 essays in one sitting. Careful scrutiny under these circumstances is simply not possible. As a result, there are very few things the reader will really have time to look for, and we’re going to tell you all about them.

Your essay counts for
about 30% of your overall
Writing score.

It means “don’t sweat the small stuff,” but do sweat the structure and develop your thesis. It means that one or two misspellings probably won’t break your score, so a missing apostrophe is not a cause for alarm. On the other hand, you’ll want to make sure what you write is relevant and that you start with a strong topic sentence and conclusion. Our techniques will help you write an essay that will earn you a solid score.

ETS graders focus on three major things when looking at your essay.

1.     Clear Point of View
Every essay should have a clear thesis. In other words, the essay should say what you think. The essay directions even tell you to state your point of view. So make sure that the grader knows exactly what your point of view is.
You have only 25 measly minutes to write your essay. You may be tempted to argue every single side of the issue that you can think of, and show why both sides have valid points. Although in the real world it’s certainly good to think reasonably about both sides of an issue, you don’t have time or space enough to argue both sides convincingly here. So pick a side and stick to it. Don’t straddle the fence.
You may not feel comfortable arguing forcefully for one side. If so, don’t worry about it. Remember: This essay exists solely to get you a decent Writing score. Even if you don’t think that “people are unwise to pursue love if it causes them pain,” it’s an easier essay to write (and grade) than an essay whose thesis is “there are many possibilities, really.” The SAT is asking you a “yes” or “no” question. Don’t answer “maybe.”

2.     Support Your Position
Go back and look at the directions for the essay from a couple pages ago. Notice that they tell you to support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations? That’s the meat of your essay. It’s not enough to just say “yes” or “no”; you have to explain why you think yes or no.
In addition to having an example, you need to show the grader how that example proves your point. It’s not enough to say “Gatsby from The Great Gatsby shouldn’t have pursued love because it caused him pain”; we want to know what, exactly, happened with Gatsby. The more you support your position, the more convincing your position is.

3.     Have a Logical Structure
You may have written five-paragraph essays in school. Those essays start with an introduction, have three body paragraphs, and then end with a conclusion. You won’t have the time or space to write a full five-paragraph essay and explain each example, so we’re going to limit ourselves to two good examples, rather than rushing through three mediocre ones.
Having a logical structure will help the rushed and uncaring grader locate your main points easily, but it will also help you as you write. What’s your first paragraph? The introduction! What do you have to do? State your thesis, and mention your examples. What are your next two paragraphs? Examples. Explain each example, and connect it to your thesis. And last, of course, is the conclusion paragraph. Restate your thesis, and you’re done.
Is it a boring essay if it’s always the same like that? Sure, it can be. But do you care about being exciting in any other portion of the SAT? Do you ever change your answer to an SAT math question because your answer is boring? Nope. So why would you do it here? Your goal with the essay is to make it easy for the grader to see how great you are. A logical structure can help do exactly that.
If you love writing, all this may seem like the wrong way to focus your attention. But our purpose is to help you raise your SAT score, and it will help to know what the College Board readers are really looking for. Don’t forget, this essay is about getting your point across in the best rough draft possible.

Ready for some practice?

Let’s take a look at a couple of sample essays written on the following topic:


In his poem “In Memoriam,” romantic poet Alfred Lord Tennyson expresses his view that loss is an unavoidable consequence of love. Yet, rather than shunning love because of this, Tennyson resolves to accept both the experience of love and the pain that inevitably comes with it. As he writes in his often quoted passage, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Adapted from James R. Kincaid, Tennyson’s Major Poems


Assignment: Are people unwise to pursue love even when they know it will cause them pain? 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.

Think Like a Grader

The best way to
understand what is
required of your essay is
to step in the shoes of
the graders. They want
organization, clear and
concise thoughts, and
good examples that fit the
thesis.

Give yourself two minutes to read each essay. Take a second to jot down the good and bad points of each.

Essay One would have received a 3 from each grader, for a total score of 6 out of 12. Although it has two examples, both examples are very vague. The first example, about Romeo and Juliet, doesn’t really connect with the thesis. How do we know that Romeo’s love for Juliet was worth it? The second example is incredibly vague, and just rambles about love and sports for a while.

Essay Two would have received a 5 from each grader, for a total score of 10 out of 12. Although there are definitely small problems with this essay, such as spelling mistakes, and saying “cause” rather than “because,” overall it is very clear what the author thinks and why she thinks it. All the details from each example directly connect to show why the author thinks that love, even with pain, is worthwhile.

The prompt is there to help you understand the context for your essay, but you don’t need to mention the given quotes. You can if it will help you to launch yourself into the essay, but the real task that you’re given is in the assignment and that’s what graders are looking to see if you have accomplished.


Modern ethics is suspicious of those who serve only their own self-interest and instead praises the selfless among us for their dedication to the greater good. However, this distinction is less clear in the context of a capitalist society, where each individual citizen is responsible for his own welfare, and cannot rely on society to help him in times of need. Indeed, one must sometimes act in selfish ways to survive.

Adapted from C. S. Parker, “No Big Macs in the Kalahari”


Focus on the
Assignment!

Make sure you read
the assignment.
And pay attention to
“plan and write” and
“support your position.”
These are what the
graders will be looking for!

Assignment: Is it better to focus on your own good or that of 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.

What’s your point of view on the previous topic? What would your thesis be? Remember: You’re not graded on your thesis alone, but this is the launching pad for your essay. Make sure that it clearly states what position you’ve decided to take.

Don’t Straddle!

Make sure you’re not
straddling the fence.
Pick one side of the
argument and show that
you’ve clearly done so in
your thesis.

You’ve chosen a side and a thesis. Great! Now you need to come up with some good, concrete examples that specifically prove your point.


Choose examples that are

·        real (not hypothetical or made up)

·        specific

·        related to a topic you’re familiar with


Your turn. Brainstorm on the above prompt. What examples can you come up with? Don’t stick to three. Come up with as many as you can in the next three minutes.

Now that you know your thesis and your examples, it’s time to start writing. The general structure for the essay should be as follows: introduction, two examples, and conclusion. If you have two really solid, detailed, relevant examples, stick to those. Don’t throw in a third because you think you have to.

With your introduction, you want to state your point of view clearly. Your entire essay has to connect back to your thesis, so make sure that your thesis is stated directly. Your goal is to state that you agree or disagree with the opinion or issue put forth in the assignment.

Don’t just state that you agree or disagree, of course. Restate “I agree” or “I disagree” as a full sentence, such as “You should focus on your own good, which can help others,” or “It is better to focus on the good of others rather than on yourself.”

Once you’ve stated your thesis, you can elaborate a little bit. You’ll use specific examples later on, so for now just explain why you believe what you do. Something such as “People know what is best for themselves better than they know what is better for others,” or “Civilization is built on the fact that people help others over themselves.” Emphasize the point you’ve made with your thesis; don’t confuse it.

You want to finish your introduction by previewing the examples you’re going to talk about. This shows your reader that you’ve organized your thoughts. Otherwise it looks as though you’re just rambling on without evidence, and maybe without a point!

Write out your introduction for our original prompt:

You’ve given the reader a roadmap to the argument you’re going to make. Now, let’s argue! Remember: Although you’re going to write three examples if you can, it’s more important to have two really specific, well-developed examples than to include three examples that you rush through and don’t examine in enough detail.

In writing your body paragraphs, you need to supply the readers with everything they need to know, and nothing else. You want your body paragraphs to give enough detail to show that you know the subject you’re discussing and demonstrate how it helps to prove your thesis. And that’s it. Don’t put in random facts to prove you know your subject if it doesn’t help your argument!


It’s All About Transitions

You’re going to have to transition from your introduction into your first body paragraph, from first body paragraph to second body paragraph, and so on. Make sure that your essay flows smoothly from one paragraph to the next. You can accomplish this through the use of transitions. Transitional words and phrases show your intentions to your reader. They’re like signs on the side of the road of the journey on which you’re taking your reader.


After writing a concise, detailed, fat-free body paragraph, you must explain why it supports your argument. Don’t assume that your readers understand the connection between the two. Explain yourself.

You know all those books you had to read in English class? All of those make great examples. First off, you’ve read them (hopefully), which always helps. Second, your teacher probably explained many of the big ideas and themes of those books in class, which makes it easy to reference those big ideas in your essay.

History examples can also be great. Avoid big, vague examples like “World War II” or “The Crusades.” Instead, use specific examples, like “The Titanic,” “Landing on the Moon,” or “The Battle of Gettysburg.” Specific examples will give you more details to use, which will give you more to connect to your thesis.

You don’t have to be an expert in your examples, you just have to know enough to write three to five sentences about them. Try to focus on the details that connect directly to your thesis. Everything you write should exist only to support your opinion.

Let’s talk for a moment about the personal anecdote example. ETS doesn’t care where your examples come from, and it doesn’t penalize students for using personal anecdotes rather than, say, Hamlet. However, make sure you don’t get caught up telling your story; instead focus on explainingwhy your experience is relevant to your argument. Here are some ways to use your personal examples most effectively.


·        Make sure your example supports your thesis.

·        Don’t pad your example with irrelevant details. Stay on topic!

·        Explain very clearly why this example supports your argument.

·        As a guide, remember that it’s an appropriate example if you were going to write about it for your college essay.


Return to your introductory paragraph to refresh your memory. Now write your first body paragraph. Make sure to transition smoothly from your intro into this paragraph.

Always leave yourself a couple of minutes to write a conclusion. Your conclusion doesn’t have to be long, but make sure you wrap up your argument. Refer back to your examples and your original thesis. Sum up what you’ve said and answer the question, “Why do you see it this way?”

Write a conclusion for your essay:

One of the hardest things about the essay is balancing your time. You have 25 minutes to write, which is not a lot. Here’s a rough guideline to help keep you on track:

First 3 minutes: Think. Organize. Take a point of view. Brainstorm, and write down the examples you’ve picked.

Next 17–20 minutes: Write. Try to balance your time between the intro and body paragraphs.

Last 2–5 minutes: Conclusion. If you haven’t done so already, begin writing your conclusion.

Take a breath. You’re done!

Give yourself 25 minutes and see how you do on this essay topic.


History has shown us that liberty is not a guaranteed, natural possession. The great landmarks of liberty, such as the American Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation, were all gained only through the sacrifices of many visionaries and patriots. We should be ever mindful that freedom, if we are to preserve it, must be safeguarded with our lives.

Adapted from Bernard L. Berzon


Assignment: Do you believe that one should sacrifice life for liberty? 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.

You now know all you need to know to write a great essay. Here are a few tips that may help you get that extra point.

·        Use big words only if you know how to use them.

·        Avoid overly casual writing. You’re writing for an adult, not for your peers. Your own voice should come through, but it should be your best voice.

·        Create a mix of long and short sentences.

·        Write legibly.

·        Don’t start two sentences the same way. Variety matters.

·        There are two graders who grade your essay on a scale of 1 to 6. They have only a few minutes to read each essay. A great way to help with your essay is to learn to think like a reader.

·        Focus on the big three.

·        Present a clear point of view.

·        Support your position.

·        Have a logical structure.

·        Pick a side. Make sure you have a point of view and stick to it. Remember there are no right answers, so feel free to pick an unpopular side. Just make sure you can support it.

·        Brainstorm ideas before picking your best two or three examples.

·        Your introduction should foreshadow the examples you’re going to use to prove your point.

·        Your body paragraphs should contain concrete, detailed information that is appropriate to your argument.

·        You need to finish your essay with a solid conclusion, even if it means using only two great examples rather than three mediocre ones.

·        Keep in mind some helpful hints:

·        Don’t use big words you’re not comfortable with just to sound smarter.

·        Avoid overly casual writing.

·        Create a mix of long and short sentences.

·        Write legibly.