Writing Your Way to a High Score: The Essay - Getting the Write Answers: The Writing Sections - SAT For Dummies

SAT For Dummies

Part III

Getting the “Write” Answers: The Writing Sections

In this part . . .

The Sumerians scratched on wax and clay, the Egyptians penned on papyrus or carved on stone, and medieval monks bent over parchment. You get a bunch of green ovals and a sheet of lined paper. Welcome to the SAT Writing section.

This instrument of torture provides you with four ways to display your authorial prowess. One is an essay, which you have to write quickly under conditions that would send the best writer screaming into the night. Another is error recognition, in which you recognize, but don’t correct, grammatical faults. Next up is sentence revision: The SAT writers underline a section of a sentence and give you a selection of ways to change it, for better or worse. Finally, the testers throw a couple of student compositions at you and ask how to improve the writing.

In this part, I take you through each of these tasks, steering you away from common pitfalls and toward winning techniques that will help you do your best on this section of the test.

Chapter 7

Writing Your Way to a High Score: The Essay

In This Chapter

Responding to the essay prompt

Collecting your thoughts quickly

Drafting and revising your essay for maximum points

Evaluating your essay according to SAT standards

When you open the SAT booklet, the first thing you see is the essay-writing section, which you have 25 minutes to complete. Why do you have such a short time limit? Keep in mind that the SAT writers have to pay teachers to read and grade essays. They can’t just run the essays through a scanning machine that works 24/7 without bathroom breaks. Short essays mean less teacher-marking time.

Tiny masterpieces aren’t easy to write, but don’t worry. In this chapter, I explain how to start, how to finish, and what to do in the middle when you’re writing an SAT essay. I also explain what the graders look for as they grade your essay and show you how to score your own essay so you have a sense of how you’d do on the first writing section of the real SAT.

Answering Promptly: Writing about the Right Topic in Your Essay

The essay portion of the SAT starts off with an essay prompt — a couple of short paragraphs that act as the starting gun for the essay race. This prompt consists of one or two quotations or paraphrased statements from writers, politicians, philosophers, and the like. Following the prompt is the question, which directs you to reflect on the topic and to write an essay based on your own experience, observation, and/or knowledge that you’ve piled up during all those years in school. Check out the following sample prompt, drawn from my own feverish brain and not from anything written by the (fictitious) Mary Oxblood:

“To admit responsibility is to enter the world of adulthood, for true maturity comes from facing the consequences of one’s actions. On the other hand, Bart Simpson’s famous comment, “I didn’t do it; nobody saw me do it; you can’t prove anything,” resembles the defense of most modern politicians when faced with justifiable accusations of improper behavior.” — Mary Oxblood, “I’m Innocent”

How should people respond when they are justly accused of wrongdoing? To support your ideas, give one or more examples from literature, the arts, science, history, ­current events, or your own experience and observation.

The essay prompt is meant to mimic the sort of question a college professor might give on an exam. However, the SAT conveniently ignores two facts:

No college test is only 25 minutes long.

College professors tend to ask questions based on their coursework, not on general observation and knowledge.

Because students arrive at the SAT with a diverse array of courses and life experiences, the essay prompt has to be extremely general in order to be accessible to every student who takes the test. So although a college professor of history may ask you to discuss the causes of the Peloponnesian War, knowing that you’re supposed to have read three pounds of books on the subject, the SAT sticks to vague, abstract prompts. Look for essays on secrecy, loyalty, the future, the value of controversy, the impact of one’s childhood, and other general concepts.

Because the SAT prompts are broad, you can probably adapt any number of life experiences to the question. Plus, tons of different literary works or current events can provide suitable evidence. Before the exam, look through your high school English and history textbooks and spend some time on an Internet site or two that cover current events. That way, you have some supporting evidence fresh in your mind when you face the test.

Some students write and memorize an entire, general essay before the exam. Then when they get to the exam room, they write as much as they can remember of the prepared work and adapt it to the prompt by tacking on a new topic sentence. Bad idea. True, you can twist many different subjects and literary works to fit a given prompt. However, the fastest way to fail the essay (yes, you can fail) is not to answer the question being asked in the prompt. In fact, the principal criterion (standard; plural form is criteria) a scorer considers when grading an essay is whether or not the essay addresses the assigned topic. So if SAT writers ask you about a response to wrongdoing (see the sample question earlier in this section), don’t write about the value of democracy. Write about responses to wrongdoing in a democratic system, if you wish, but tailor your essay to the specific topic in the question. Otherwise, you may find yourself receiving a zero on this section of the SAT.

Organizing Your Thoughts — Timing Is Everything

All you get is 25 minutes — that’s right, not even a half-hour — to write one of the most important essays of your academic career up to this point. So when the SAT proctor tells you to start the essay, you should pick up your pen and begin to scribble furiously, right? Wrong. I know that my advice goes against your innate (inborn) urge to string words together for the entire time allotted. But you’ll do better if you spend 2 or 3 minutes gathering your thoughts. To shock you even more, I now have to tell you to stop early and spend the last 2 or 3 minutes revising your work. That’s right, folks. Given 25 minutes, you should write for no more than 20 and spend the extra 5 on sound writing process. (Check out the “Mastering the Writing Process” section for more details.)

Follow this approach for the best results when writing your 25-minute essay:

First 2 or 3 minutes: Read the question, gather your thoughts, jot down a couple of ideas, and then number them (first idea, second idea, third, and so on).

Next 18 to 20 minutes: Create an introductory paragraph with a strong thesis statement (the main idea you’re putting forth), write the body paragraph(s), and come to a conclusion. (For more information, read the “Writing” section later in this chapter.)

Last 2 or 3 minutes: Reread your prose, correcting spelling and grammar.

Have you awakened from your faint yet? Good, because you need to take a few moments to check out the following reasons why process is crucial when you’re writing under time and SAT pressure:

If you begin to write your essay immediately, you may end up crossing out so much that the essay becomes illegible. You have only one answer sheet and must write on it by hand, unless you’re allowed to use a keyboard because of a documented learning disability, such asdysgraphia, the fancy term for difficulty in producing readable ­penmanship.

You can’t possibly produce a good, organized essay unless you take a moment to envision the logical structure.

You risk forgetting to include the specific facts or ideas that bring your essay to life if you don’t write down your ideas before you start writing. Even though you may remember the main ideas of your example(s), some details will elude you unless you gather your thoughts before writing. While you write words on the page, you have to think about grammar, spelling, and all those other things that English teachers care about. You don’t have time to recall all the important details you wanted to include in your essay.

If you don’t leave time at the end to reread your essay, you risk not fixing the simple errors in mechanics (spelling aren’t without the apostrophe, for example, or omitting a period from a sentence) that you may make as you write your essay.

Mastering the Writing Process

Tons of famous writers have written about their approach to stringing words together. Though the individual details vary, just about everyone agrees that good writing comes from a sound process — one that allows you to gather ideas, order and express them as you write, and revise your work. Moving through this process will help you be successful on the essay portion of the SAT. The following sections explain each stage of the writing process in more detail.


Prewriting is everything you do before your pen hits the answer sheet. To illustrate the prewriting process, here’s a sample prompt (from a fictitious book by a nonexistent author):

“An ancient proverb claims that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but that step is difficult to take in scuba flippers. Nevertheless, the traveler must not be discouraged by whatever obstacles fate places in the path to glory.” — Al McCloud, How I Swam the Pacific Ocean and Made a Lot of Money Blogging about It

Many human journeys, both literal and metaphorical, nearly fail because the first step is too hard or too frightening for the traveler, but much may be gained by overcoming obstacles and continuing onward. Comment on this statement based on your own experience or literary, scientific, or historical knowledge.

You start your prewriting by zooming through the prompt and deciding what the SAT writers are asking about. The sample prompt I provide here concerns journeys and the idea that some of them almost don’t happen because beginnings are so hard. (Perhaps the test makers were thinking of essay writing itself when they chose this prompt.) After you crack the prompt, run through your mental index for journeys you or someone else almost didn’t take. Don’t forget to consider journeys of the spirit in which people take a hesitant step toward friendship, journeys of the mind in which a scientist, perhaps, takes the first step toward a discovery, and other nonliteral trips.

Don’t even think about touching the answer sheet until you have all your thoughts in order. The SAT test booklet is a fine spot for prewriting. Remember, however, that nothing you write on the test booklet counts toward your essay. Only the answer sheet is graded.

Imagine that you decide to write your essay on a “journey” you took toward the thumb-wrestling team two years ago. You almost didn’t show up for tryouts because you were afraid that your friends would laugh at you. (They were all on the chess team.) But you went, you demonstrated good thumb technique, you made the team, and now your thumb is champion of the Northern Hemisphere. After you select this idea, concentrate on jotting down a few details of that first, eventful day:

Tryouts during lunch

Wrestled five thumbs in all

Pizza day

Thumb a little sore from piano practice the day before

Didn’t know the coach

Couldn’t believe the thrill of victory

Asked to join the team

Herbie helped me find the room

Won the second and third matches

When you’re brainstorming ideas, don’t worry about putting them in the appropriate order. Just write down whatever comes to mind about your chosen topic. Remember, you’re spending only two or three minutes on this part of the writing process!

After you get these basic facts on paper, number them so you know which one to use first, second, third, and so forth. In the preceding list, I’d number the items this way: 1, 6, 2, 5, 4, 8, 9, 3, and 7. Other sequences are possible, but this one begins with your thinking about the tryouts (they’re during lunch and you’ll miss the pizza), moves to your arrival at the ­tryouts (finding the room and worrying about an unknown coach and a sore thumb), continues through your performance during the tryouts (you won two of the five matches and felt great doing so), and ends with the result (you made the team).

Setting the order of your ideas is similar to outlining a paper, which is something your grade school teachers probably made you do, although they likely insisted on a complicated system of margins and numbering. You don’t have time for that sort of outline when you’re taking the SAT. Just think about the order of your ideas, throw numbers on the scrap paper, and get ready to write.


In 25 minutes, you probably won’t be able to create a fully formed, exquisitely detailed essay (unless, of course, your name is Shakespeare). The best you can hope for is an organized, reasonably specific piece. For that you need an introduction and a conclusion, with the meat of the essay — the supporting evidence — in the middle.

When you’re referring to your own ideas and experiences, you may use I and me (what English teachers call first person) in your essay. However, when you’re writing about science, literature, history, or current events, you may be more comfortable using third person — no references to yourself, just statements about other people, events, or things. The choice is yours.

Note: As you can probably tell from the sample introduction, body, and conclusion that follow, I’m having some fun here. You, however, shouldn’t have much fun when you write the SAT essay. Yes, you want to avoid boring the essay graders to death if you can, but don’t inflict your humor on them. They’re looking for clear, fluent writing for college, not comedy clubs.

Introductory paragraph

Just a couple of sentences long, the introductory paragraph lets the reader know what the rest of your essay is about. For SAT purposes, make clear how your topic connects to the essay prompt. Also try to include something that draws the reader’s interest because SAT graders read for hours at a time and look kindly on students who take the writing even a millimeter away from terminal boredom. Here’s a sample introduction for the thumb-­wrestling essay I develop earlier in the “Prewriting” section:

The most difficult step in a journey may be the very first, as I found out the day I tried out for the thumb-wrestling team. Beset by hunger pangs and tempted by the tangy scent of pizza wafting from the cafeteria, I almost didn’t attend the tryouts. But something — perhaps a desire to prove myself and to give my thumb a chance at excellence — drove me to the door of room 221 that day. I am very glad I did.

The preceding introductory paragraph accomplishes the basic tasks. Notice the direct connections to the question in Sentences 1 and 2: “The most difficult step in a journey may be the very first” and “I almost didn’t attend.” The introduction also makes the writer’s position on the topic clear: “I am very glad I did.” The paragraph isn’t as thrilling as a Hollywood movie trailer, but it does engage the reader with a couple of mildly intriguing details — the pizza and the desire to prove the thumb’s excellence.

You don’t need to refer specifically to the quotation from the prompt in your essay, nor should you bother rewriting it. Just be sure that you address the issue the quotation and the accompanying question present. A good introduction lets the reader know what the essay is about and what position the writer is taking on the issue at hand. If the reader is puzzled at the end of Paragraph 1, you’re in trouble.

Body paragraphs

In the extremely short time frame you have to write your SAT essay, you can’t come up with more than one or two body paragraphs. Make the most of them! Present the specifics of your argument clearly and concisely. (In the example I use throughout this section, these specifics are the details of the thumb-wrestling tryouts.) Here’s a sample body for the thumb-wrestling essay:

The tryouts were held during lunch hour, and because I had missed school the previous day to attend my piano recital, I wasn’t even sure where the event was taking place. I had actually walked into the cafeteria, convinced that thumb wrestling wasn’t in my future, when I spied my friend Herbie. Herbie urged me to attend and offered to escort me to room 221. Outside the door I nearly turned back. I didn’t know the coach, and my thumb was throbbing as a result of four hours of piano practice for the recital.

The first match against a thumb at least twice as big as mine was a washout. Fortunately, the next two matches went to me. As I savored the thrill of victory, I saw the coach eyeing me thoughtfully. Next he sent over his best wrestler. I played him twice, and twice I went down in defeat. I was sure my thumb-wrestling career was over. To my surprise and delight, the coach welcomed me to the team anyway!

Okay, so it’s not Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. No matter. It includes enough detail to bring the reader into the writer’s experience. To bring the thumb-wrestling experience (or journey) back to the question, however, you need a conclusion.

Concluding paragraph

Conclusions are a real pain. When you get all the way to the end of your evidence, you just want to put the pen down and relax a little, at least until the next section of the SAT begins. Instead, you have to come up with still another paragraph. How annoying.

Without the conclusion, though, your essay doesn’t do its job, which (apart from getting you into college) is to show the reader the significance of everything you’ve written thus far. Think of the conclusion as the final nail in the poster advertising your point of view on the essay prompt. Without that nail, the poster will fall off the wall, and you certainly don’t want that! Here’s a sample conclusion for the thumb-wrestling essay:

Now I’m the North American Thumb-Wrestling Champ (high school, under 4-inch division). My sport has taken me to China, Japan, Uruguay, and downtown Peoria. None of the wonderful experiences I’ve had at thumb-wrestling tournaments would have happened had I not walked, sore thumb and all, to the tryout room two years ago. I can only imagine the number of human accomplishments that the world would be without if people allowed themselves to be frightened by the first step in their journeys.

Take a close look at what this conclusion accomplishes. It refers to the question (“first step”) and the author’s point of view (“None of the wonderful experiences . . . would have happened”). In the last sentence, the conclusion also takes the essay’s ideas 1 millimeter forward by referring to what the world would lack if others were deterred by the difficulty of the first step.

Also notice what the conclusion does not include: repetition of the material in the essay, a label like “in this essay I have proved that,” or a completely new, unrelated idea like “I love pizza days.”

Sometimes the conclusion isn’t a separate paragraph. It may be no more than a killer last sentence placed at the end of your final example. Just be sure the reader has a sense of finality — of reaching a logical endpoint.


Put the dust cloth away, but take out your best grammar and spelling knowledge. It’s time to review and revise your essay. After the whole essay is on the page, reread it at least once. Neatly cross out any errors (the grammar review in Chapter 9 helps with this task) and write the corrections legibly in the space above the line.

Don’t try to skip this step in the writing process so that you have more time for the actual writing because a grammatically correct essay (even one with a few cross-out marks) will score more points than an unedited, mistake-filled draft. Remember, anyone can make a mitak mistake, but only the smartest test takers correct their errors.

Scoring the Essay: Rubrics without the Cube

The SAT pays desperate-for-cash or have-no-life English teachers (some fall into both categories) to score the essays. The graders used to sit in windowless rooms, scoring essays until their eyeballs went on strike. Now modern technology allows them to sit in their very own living rooms, where their eyeballs still fry. An image of each essay is also posted on the Web, where colleges that you apply to can view it, warts and all (yet another reason why it’s so important to write neatly).

So what do the essay graders look for as they score your essay? Read the following sections to find out, and then be sure to try your hand at scoring your own practice essays using the guidelines provided here. (See Chapter 8 for some practice essay prompts; and don’t forget to score the essays you write during the practice tests in Chapters 20, 22, 24, 26, and 28.)

How graders score the essays

The essay graders give each essay that answers the question 1 to 6 points. An off-topic essay (one that doesn’t address the given prompt) receives no points at all. Two graders score each essay, and your essay’s final score is the sum of the two graders’ scores. In other words, you get between 2 and 12 points for your essay. If the scores for a single essay are more than one point apart (one reader gives you a 6 and another gives you a 3, perhaps), the essay goes to a super-reader, who decides your score.

The score for the SAT essay is holistic (meaning that it’s seen as one in its entirety; it isn’t broken into parts). So the graders don’t award a tenth of a point for grammar, a half-point for organization, and so on. They just read the essay and plop a number on the whole thing.

The number isn’t random or based solely on the reader’s preference, however. The SAT graders follow a rubric — a set of standards — in awarding points. They consider several factors, including the following, as they read and score your essay:

Does the essay answer the question? The answer here must be “yes,” or your essay receives no points. In better essays (those scoring 4, 5, or 6), the connection between your ideas and the prompt is easy to see. In weaker essays (those scoring 1, 2, or 3), the grader has to poke around a little to figure out how your ideas relate to the question.

Does the essay demonstrate a thoughtful consideration of ideas (what the SAT calls “critical thinking”)? A good SAT essay (a 5 or 6, perhaps) weighs alternatives and acknowledges complexity. A bad essay (say, a 2 or 1) reduces ideas to the simplest level. Thoughtfulness, of course, is a continuum (a range), not an either/or quality. Many essays fall into the middle range (a 3 or 4), indicating that the graders see some maturity but also identify room for improvement.

I once proctored a test (not the SAT but a school exam) with just one question: “Describe your ideal society.” No doubt the teacher was expecting her students to mull over the rights of the group versus the rights of individuals and other important issues. Sadly, half of the students wrote something like “An ideal society is one in which everyone is happy.” Not much thinking went into that answer, and it surely wouldn’t have scored well on the SAT!

Does the essay make a case for the writer’s point of view by providing appropriate evidence? Think of your SAT essay grader as a defense attorney, waiting to contradict (challenge, disagree with) you. You have to prosecute your case by presenting evidence. In a well-written essay (a 4, 5, or 6), you have specific examples to back up your ideas. In a poorly written essay (a 1, 2, or 3), on the other hand, you include only a little evidence, or the evidence is too general to support your assertions.

Is the essay organized? Does it move logically from one idea to the next? Great SAT essays (those that score 5s or 6s) are like guided tours; readers never have to wonder where they are or how they got there. One paragraph leads cleanly to the next. A middle-of-the-road essay (a 3 or 4) has a dead end or a wrong turn in it. A poor essay (a 1 or 2) leaves readers wandering around without a clue.

Is the vocabulary appropriate? You don’t need to plop a dictionary into your essay, but your word choice needs to show some variety (warranting a score of 4 or higher), and at least some of the words need to have more than one syllable. (An essay grade of 2 reflects elementary school–level vocabulary.)

Is the writing fluent, with varied sentence structure? An essay that scores a 6 matches sentence structure and meaning. Less important ideas, for example, show up in subordinate clauses or verbals, and main ideas appear in independent clauses. An essay that scores a 4 or 5 strays occasionally from the usual subject-verb-object pattern. In an essay that scores a 2 or 1, the sentences sound short and choppy.

Is the writing grammatical, with good spelling and punctuation? The idea here is simple: Follow the rules of Standard English, and your score rises. The better essays (those that score 4s, 5s, and 6s) have some mistakes — but not enough to make a lasting impression on the reader. Weaker essays (those that score 1s, 2s, and 3s) would draw a lot of red ink from the graders’ pens, if they actually corrected your work. (If grammar isn’t your forte, or strong point, turn to Chapter 9 for help.)

After considering each of these factors, the SAT graders rate your essay on a scale from 1 to 6 with 6 meaning outstanding, 5 meaning effective, 4 meaning competent, 3 meaning inadequate, 2 meaning seriously limited, and 1 meaning fundamentally lacking. Keep in mind that even the “outstanding” essays may have a couple of errors in them, and the “fundamentally lacking” pieces may have a few good points hidden in them somewhere. An essay’s score simply represents its overall content and quality. To get a better idea of what each score means, check out Chapter 8 for some sample essays — a 5, a 3, and a 1 — along with an explanation of how each essay earned its number.

How you can score your practice essays

Scoring your own essay is difficult but not impossible. After you finish the practice tests in Chapters 20, 22, 24, 26, and 28, reread each of your essays, keeping in mind the four main categories that follow. Start with a perfect score of 6 and then measure your essay against this scoring guide:

Mechanics: If you have only a couple of grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, give yourself full credit for this category. If you have three or four mistakes in each paragraph, deduct one point. If you find even more than three or four mistakes per paragraph, deduct two points.

Organization: Check your essay’s structure. Does it proceed logically from idea to evidence to conclusion? If so, you’re good to go. If the logical thread breaks anywhere or if you skipped a step — the conclusion, perhaps — deduct one point for each break in organization.

Evidence: You need to have at least three or four details in each body paragraph or one piece of evidence that is described at length. Your body paragraphs should be heavy on specifics and light on general statements. If you find several general statements in the body of your essay, deduct one point — not for each general statement, just one point overall. If you have strong, numerous details, give yourself full credit for this quality.

By the way, the SAT writers don’t care where your evidence comes from, as long as you provide support for your thesis. Essay graders are under orders not to give more credit to writers who cite history or literature instead of personal experience. So if you want to discuss, say, the time you peeked out the window and broke your nose, go for it — as long as it supports your main argument.

Fluency: This quality is hard to describe but easy to discern (detect). Read the essay aloud. Does the language flow freely, easily, and naturally? Can you imagine reading it in a book? Or is it choppy and disjointed? Fluid language means no deduction. Choppy or awkward language throughout the essay means a one-point deduction.

After you come up with a score, double it. That’s your essay’s total grade. A 12 means you can go dancing; a 2 indicates that you have some work to do. Turn to Chapter 8 for additional practice with scoring essays.