The Essay

Writing an essay by hand in less than half an hour is a challenge. Even professional journalists, accustomed to working under the pressure of deadlines, would be hardpressed to produce a good essay in twenty-five minutes. But take heart! The essay score is just one piece of data on your college application, and no one taking the SAT will have a nanosecond more than you to complete the assignment. If you’ve been a reasonably proficient essay writer in the past, be confident that you’ll perform equally well on the SAT. In fact, you may do even better than usual because you’re likely to be pumped up to do your best work.

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The goal of your essay: To organize your thoughts and express them clearly, interestingly, and correctly.

When writing the SAT essay, you must condense into a few minutes all the steps that other writers, enjoying the luxury of time, might stretch into hours or even into days. Chances are you’ve done it before. An essay test in social studies, for example, may have required you to fill up a blank page quickly with all you knew about the Reign of Terror or causes of the Civil War. The numerous in-class essays you’ve produced over the years have no doubt trained you for the kind of instant essay asked of you on the SAT. In your classes, of course, success was based partly on how closely your ideas resembled those that the teacher had in mind. That’s not true on the SAT. You can’t cram for this essay the way you can for a test in physics or Spanish. Because you don’t know the topic, you must quickly process your thoughts and get them onto paper.

Ordinarily, an essay writer takes a long time to think about ideas and write them down. The verb essay, in fact, means to assess thoughtfully: not on the SAT, however. The time limit forces an almost instant response and limits leisurely reflection. If you manage to come up with one or more profound insights, more power to you, but keep in mind that the objective of an SAT essay is more mundane—to show colleges that you can organize your thoughts and express them clearly, interestingly, and correctly.

The answer you write in response to the question is not predetermined. What you need to know is already lodged inside you. The task you face on test day is to arrange your ideas and put them into readable form on paper. It is not a measure of what you know but rather a demonstation of what you can do.

More precisely, the essay will measure your skill in elaborating a point of view on an issue. You must first think critically about the issue presented in the essay assignment, forming your particular perspective on the topic. Then you must develop that point of view, supporting your ideas with appropriate evidence. An essay completed in twenty-five minutes is bound to be shorter than most essays required in high school or college courses. It won’t be as polished as a piece written over a period of hours or days. But it represents what you can do during the initial phase of the writing process, and twenty-five minutes should give you enough time to prove that you have what it takes to write a respectable first draft.

The topic, called the prompt, consists of a quotation or a short passage followed by a question asking your opinion about the content of the quote or passage. Although no one can predict the subject of the prompt, you can be sure that the directions for writing the essay will always say something like:

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following quotation and the assignment below:

“People rarely stand up and speak out for what they truly believe, particularly when their views will not be popular among their peers. Rather than oppose accepted beliefs, they remain silent, finding it easier to simply go along with the majority.”

Assignment: Do people generally avoid expressing unpopular beliefs? 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.

Based on these instructions, you must write an essay explaining whether you accept or reject the proposition that people seldom express beliefs that differ from those of the majority. An essay agreeing with the statement would argue that most people choose to go along with the crowd rather than create controversy by voicing an unpopular view. On the other hand, an essay that adopts a contrary point of view would develop the idea that people in general prefer to have their voices heard even when they disagree with prevailing beliefs and values. A third possibility, of course, is that circumstances determine whether a person speaks out or remains silent.

What you say in the essay is completely up to you. There is no wrong or right answer. You won’t be penalized for an unusual or unpopular point of view unless it is based on a faulty premise or pure fantasy. Once you’ve decided on your perspective, present your case. Concentrate on expressing your thoughts coherently and correctly. All parts of an essay should work together to make a single point. If the evidence you provide wanders from the main idea or raises additional issues that you don’t have time to discuss, the effect of the essay will be diluted. Above all, you don’t want readers to reach the end scratching their heads over the point of the essay.

Once you have decided on your position on the issue, develop your thoughts clearly and effectively. Developing your thoughts means nothing more than backing up your opinion with illustrative material, drawn from virtually any source you wish: from your reading inside or outside of school, from your courses, from personal experience, or from observation. In short, you may use facts, statistics, common sense, historical background—anything, really, to demonstrate that your opinion is grounded on something more solid than a feeling or a personal preference. Remember, the kind of writing expected on the SAT is rational discourse, not emotional blabbering.

The assignment urges you to plan your essay before you begin to write. For some students, that means using an outline, but for others, just jotting a few notes on a piece of paper. Whether you prefer to write lists of ideas or just think about an approach before committing words to paper, on the SAT you must write an essay—not a play, not a poem, not a short story, not dialogue, not a fable, just an essay. Your essay need not follow a prescribed format, but you’ll probably get the best results with a straightforward, no-nonsense approach consisting of some sort of introduction, a body of material that supports your main idea, and an appropriate conclusion. Variations are possible, but twenty-five minutes doesn’t give you much time to be inventive.

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The content of your essay is more important than its length.

The directions for writing the essay don’t tell you how long it should be. That’s because the number of words is up to you. Just remember that quantity counts less than quality. A single paragraph may not give you the chance to develop your ideas completely. Two paragraphs might do, but three or more suggest that you have the capacity to probe pretty deeply into the subject. Plan to write at least two or three paragraphs. Three, in fact, may be preferable to two, although that’s a generalization that doesn’t apply to every essay. (We’ll talk more about that in Part III.) In the end, the number of paragraphs is less important than the substance of each paragraph. Even one paragraph can demonstrate that you are a first-rate writer.

A plain, natural writing style is probably best. Think of your readers as everyday folks who appreciate straight, plain, everyday language. Readers will be turned off by formal, pompous, or overblown prose. Elegant words have their place, of course, but use them sparingly to avoid sounding pretentious or foolish.

As SAT day draws near, review these suggestions for writing an essay. Knowing what to do ahead of time will add to your peace of mind and enable you to start work immediately when the proctor says, “Open your exam booklet and begin.”