The SAT Prep Black Book

The SAT Essay

An Analysis Of Top-Scoring SAT Essays From The Blue Book

              Since there are a wide variety of ways to address the SAT Essay while still respecting the rules and patterns, I think one of the best ways that we can see what a top-scoring SAT Essay really does is to analyze the four SAT Essays in the Blue Book that are provided as examples of the “perfect” SAT Essay. These essays appear on pages 120, 123, 197, and 200 in the Blue Book.

The Essay From Page 120 Of The Blue Book

Length

This essay is provided with the original handwriting, and it takes up all of both pages, which is typical for an SAT Essay that receives a score of 6 out of 6.

Thesis

There is no real thesis statement in this essay, with the arguable exception of the last two sentences in the entire essay (“So is perfectionism a vice or a virtue? It depends on whom you are talking to”). This is very abnormal for an SAT Essay that scores a 6 out of 6. It shows that SAT Essays can succeed without having a thesis statement clearly articulated in the first paragraph, even though the majority of top-scoring essays do have clear theses.

Structure

This essay has no real structure, which is also abnormal for a top-scoring SAT Essay. Most of them use a variation of the 5-paragraph format as I explained earlier, but this essay demonstrates that it’s possible to score high with a loose narrative structure.

Type of examples

The examples in this essay are purely personal, and might even be made up. This is something we regularly see in top-scoring SAT Essays.

Vocabulary

All of the words in this essay are used appropriately, which is normal in a top-scoring SAT Essay. The words are fairly basic, which is also normal in a top-scoring SAT Essay. The only long words in the essay are “dumbfounded” and “perfectionism,” which aren’t very advanced.

Grammar

The grammar in this essay is okay but not great, with several noticeable mistakes, including the use of “which” instead of “that,” switching from “one” to “his or her” in a sentence, and incorrectly using an apostrophe in a word that’s not a possessive or a contraction, among other things. It’s very normal to see that top-scoring SAT Essays occasionally have a few mistakes like this.

The Essay From Page 123 Of The Blue Book

Length

This essay is presented in a standardized handwriting font, so we can’t see exactly how long it was in the actual test booklet. But we can compare it to the other essays in the Blue Book and see that it’s among the longest in there, which suggests that it probably filled up most or all of the allotted two pages on test day.

Thesis

The first sentence in this essay is a direct reaction to the prompt, and a clear thesis statement that the rest of the essay will support. This is the way that I recommend you begin your own SAT Essay, because a large percentage of the top-scoring SAT Essays I’ve seen have used this kind of opening.

Structure

This essay uses what we might call a modified 5-paragraph format. It includes very obvious introductory and concluding paragraphs, but the four paragraphs in the middle provide an extended historical example with a lot of “howevers” in them, rather than providing a series of unrelated examples. Overall, it’s fairly typical for what we’ll see from top-scoring SAT Essays, though the example paragraphs in other top-scoring essays tend to be unrelated to one another.

Type of examples

As I just noted, this essay uses an extended analysis of a single historical event. It’s common to see top-scoring SAT Essays draw their examples from history, but a large portion of top-scoring SAT Essays also draw their examples from other types of sources.

Vocabulary

The words in this essay are very well-chosen and perhaps a little more advanced than they will tend to be in most top-scoring SAT Essays. Still, the only really advanced words in the essay are “embryo” and “ameliorated.”

Grammar

For the most part, the grammar in the essay is quite sound. There are a couple of missing commas, but nothing major. Like the vocabulary, the grammar is probably slightly above-average relative to most other SAT Essays, even ones that would score a 6 out of 6.

The Essay From Page 197 Of The Blue Book

Length

This essay is provided in the original handwriting, so we can see that it takes up both pages available in the test booklet. This is typical for top-scoring SAT Essays.

Thesis

The first sentence of the essay is a direct response to the prompt and also a clear thesis for the rest of the essay. This is very common in SAT Essays that score a 6 out of 6.

Structure

This essay uses a slight variation on the typical 5-paragraph format that we’ll find in most top-scoring SAT Essays, because it only uses two example paragraphs instead of 3. Remember that the number and type of examples don’t really matter; all that matters is that the examples are relevant and that the essay takes up both pages.

Type of examples

Two examples are included—one historical, and one literary. This is a common thing to see in top-scoring SAT Essays, though we also see plenty of top-scoring SAT Essays that avoid historical or literary examples. There’s also a one-sentence mention of Enron in the last paragraph, but it’s so short I wouldn’t be surprised if the graders didn’t even see it.

Vocabulary

The vocabulary in this essay is pretty unremarkable, with the exception of the words “protagonist” and “mendacity.”

Grammar

The sentences in this essay are fairly simple and straightforward. This is pretty typical for top-scoring SAT Essays: nothing remarkable in terms of grammar or sentence structure, but the sentences are generally well-executed.

The Essay From Page 200 Of The Blue Book

Length

The essay is presented in a standardized handwriting font, so we can’t see exactly how much of the two pages in the test booklet it would have taken up. But if we compare it to other essays in the Blue Book we can see that it’s pretty long compared to them, which is a rule for scoring high on the SAT Essay.

Thesis

The first sentence of the entire essay is its thesis, but this thesis is a little bit more grammatically complex than many of the thesis statements we’ll see in top-scoring SAT Essays.

Structure

This essay uses a structure that’s closer to the classic 5-paragraph structure typical of many top-scoring SAT Essays: introduction paragraph, three example paragraphs, and conclusion paragraph. In this case, the last example paragraph is more of a list of hypotheticals than a single episode.

Type of examples

The examples in this essay are all personal, and sound like they might also have been made up. Remember that the SAT Essay-graders don’t care if your examples are academic or personal, or even if they’re factually accurate. All the graders care about is whether your examples would support your thesis if they were true.

Vocabulary

All of the words in this essay are pretty basic, but they’re used properly. This is typical for top-scoring SAT Essays.

Grammar

The last sentence of the essay is grammatically incorrect (the word “a” needs to be removed), but otherwise the essay is free of errors. It’s normal to see an SAT Essay receive a perfect score like this one did even if it contains a couple of small grammatical mistakes.

Conclusion

We’ve just analyzed the four SAT Essays from the Blue Book that each scored 6 out of 6. Looking at the evidence like this makes it clear that most of the SAT Essay-writing advice out there has no basis in reality. The only consistent feature in all top-scoring essays is their length. Essays that use personal examples can make perfect scores, just like essays with more academic examples. The basic 5-paragraph format, or some variation of it, will be found in most top-scoring SAT Essays. Top-scoring essays typically don’t demonstrate advanced vocabularies or flawless grammar.

So the next time somebody tries to tell you differently (and people will), have them look at the actual top-scoring essays in the Blue Book :)