The SAT Prep Black Book
The SAT Essay
Recommended Step-By-Step Approach to the SAT Essay
This process is an effective way to organize your thoughts and write a response that closely imitates known high-scoring essays. Feel free to use it or adapt it to fit the situation—but make sure any adaptations you make are still in line with the rules for the SAT Essay in this book.
1. Watch the clock from the beginning.
You only have 25 minutes to plan and write an essay. If you kill just 5 minutes day-dreaming or panicking, you’ve wasted twenty percent of your time! Do NOT let time get away from you here. Remember that it’s crucial to fill as much of the given space as possible, because the single largest factor in your score will be the length of the essay. So plan to hit the ground running.
2. Develop a one-word response to the question.
Before you can write this essay, you have to know what you’re going to be saying. It sounds simplistic, but you need to focus yourself before you can make effective, efficient use of your time.
This one-word answer will often simply be “yes,” “no,” or “maybe,” but it could just as easily be anything else. Remember that there is no correct answer to an SAT Essay question—you can’t get this step wrong. The goal is simply to focus your mind on the point you’re trying to make in your essay.
3. Find or make up three facts that illustrate your position. Use personal experiences if you want.
Remember that the SAT scorers don’t care whether the examples that illustrate your position are factually true or false, or whether they’re academic or personal. All they care about is whether you can put together ANY example at all that would support your point.
So if you decide to make these examples up out of thin air, then be sure the relationship between the examples and your position is clear and direct. Don’t invent an example that’s only vaguely related to your answer. This is a blank check—come up with something relevant. It will make your score higher, and make the rest of your writing easier.
In general, test-takers seem to have an easier time using personal examples than academic ones. But if academic examples are what come to mind more naturally for you, then feel free to use them—just make sure they’re relevant (if they’re not, feel free to change the facts until they are).
4. Begin your essay with a one-sentence statement of your answer to the prompt.
The SAT scorers aren’t big on subtlety. Start your essay with a flat statement of the point you intend to prove. (For examples of top-scoring essays that did this, see pages 123, 197, and 200 of the College Board book The Official SAT Study Guide.) Refer to your one-word answer in Step 2 if you’ve forgotten what you were trying to say.
5. Fill in a sentence or two that relate to your thesis.
At this point, we’re really just trying to add some length to the essay. If you know what your examples are likely to be, then feel free to refer to them. If you’re not so sure, then just expand on the thesis a little.
6. Finish the first paragraph with a sentence that gives a strong introduction to your examples.
Make the last sentence in the first paragraph a simple transitional sentence that introduces the examples you thought of in Step 3. To finish the imaginary first paragraph that we started in Step 6, we might write a sentence like
Three episodes from my personal experience serve as compelling examples of this fact.
See? Nothing too fancy. At this point, you’re finished with the first paragraph—the groundwork has been done, and the hardest part of the essay is behind you!
7. Begin the second paragraph with a general statement that introduces your first example.
This first sentence of the second paragraph serves to introduce your first example. Make it something general. See the sample essay on page 200 of the College Board publication The Official SAT Study Guide for an example—the first sentence of its second paragraph isSometimes deception occurs in the form of white lies, and then the rest of the first paragraph is a (probably made-up) example from the author’s life in which deception took the form of a white lie.
8. In 3-5 sentences, tell the story that goes with your first example.
In the middle of the second paragraph you’ll insert the story that goes with your first example. Don’t draw any lessons or anything at this point—just set the stage and explain what happened. Make sure the story is clearly relevant to the thesis.
9. Use a sentence or two to relate the story of your first example to the thesis.
Now that you’ve told the story, you need to re-connect it to the first sentence you wrote so you can close out this paragraph and move on. So write one or two sentences in which you point out the way the examples demonstrate the thesis—and make sure it really relates to the first sentence in your essay!
10. Repeat these steps for the third paragraph with your second example.
The first example is out of the way. Now you’ll just go through the second example in the same way, and that will provide your third paragraph.
11. Repeat the steps for the fourth paragraph with your third example.
Remember, we’re just cranking out paragraphs that illustrate our main point. Don’t forget to relate everything back to the main point at the end.
12. Begin the final paragraph with a sentence that relates all of your examples back to the thesis.
At this point you’re starting to close the essay, so you want to wrap everything up. The first sentence of your last paragraph is going to put your three examples back into the context of the main point you’re trying to make.
13. Finish the essay with a sentence that rephrases the first sentence in the essay.
The last thing that remains is to cap off your essay with a sentence that re-establishes the main point of your essay. Of course, you probably don’t want to use the exact same wording that you used in Step 4, but you do want to make roughly the same point with this sentence that you made in Step 4.
Believe it or not, this simple process will help you crank out winning essays with just a little bit of practice. You’ll notice that it doesn’t give you much room to be creative, but creativity isn’t the point. All we want is a reliable, predictable way to get a top score every time.
You’ve probably also noticed that this formula is very repetitive—it restates the main point of the essay often. Don’t let that bother you. The readers go through your essays so quickly that they won’t even notice you banging them over the head with the same point. And besides, as the high-scoring sample essays in the Blue Book demonstrate, this is the way the SAT rewards you for writing anyway.
Now that you’ve seen that the SAT Essay doesn’t reward the same kind of writing that you’re expected to do in school, let’s take a look at the multiple-choice questions on the Writing section. You’ll see that they don’t necessarily reward the same things that your teachers in school reward, just as the type of essay-writing you do for high school also turned out to be bad for the SAT. In fact, this is a common theme that you’ll observe in all question types as we proceed.