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SAT Essay Writing Guide
SAT Essay Writing Guide
"Write a whole essay in 25 minutes?! I can't even write an introduction in 25 minutes! It took me an hour even to think of a topic for my last English paper…what the heck am I supposed to do with a measly 25 minutes with a question I've never even seen before -"

If these are anything like your thoughts when you heard about the new Essay Writing section of the SAT, take a deep breath. All is not lost! Even the weakest writer can improve significantly with practice, and you've already taken the first step by enrolling in this program. With our help and your own hard work, on the day of the test you'll be able to plan well, write carefully, and revise effectively and quickly. So let's begin.

The Basics of the Test

First of all, we'll tell you some basics about the test and how it is scored.

On the day of the test, you'll be presented with a writing prompt, and you'll have 25 minutes to plan and write your response. But don't worry! While you'll have no way of knowing exactly what the question or prompt will be, you'll soon see that there are not that many different types of questions. Also, the questions will not have a right or wrong answer; they will simply ask you to form an opinion on some broad subject and then support it with examples from literature, history, movies - anything, really, including your own real-life experiences. That doesn't sound too hard, does it?

Furthermore, you are not expected to write a perfect essay. How could your graders expect you to do that when you are given only 25 minutes to plan your answer and then write it? Probably not even your graders could write a perfect essay under those conditions. They know that you will feel rushed, and they know that you will probably make some mistakes. The graders will use a holistic scoring method. This means that the essay is judged as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. In other words, they give you points based on what you do well, instead of taking points away based on what you do poorly. That's why even a flawed essay can achieve a perfect score.

But hold on a second, before you get too excited and assume this test will be a breeze! If your essay is poorly organized, chock full of spelling and grammatical errors, or does not answer the question adequately, there's no way you can get a good score. You're going to have to learn how to write a strong essay before you can sit back and relax.

This will take time and dedication on your part. You simply can't depend on your tutor to correct all the same mistakes, week after week; it's up to YOU to learn what your tutor teaches you, and build up your skills a little more with every draft you write. Otherwise you will find, on test day, that you haven't truly learned a thing…except what a bad idea it was to waste your time - and your tutor's time - in the past few weeks.

With that in mind, let's learn a little more about what the scorers are looking for in a good essay. The following is the description of a 6 essay - 6 being the highest possible score - and it is given to scorers before they begin grading:

"A paper in this category demonstrates clear and consistent competence, though it may have occasional errors. Such a paper effectively and insightfully addresses the writing task; is well organized and fully developed, using clearly appropriate examples to support ideas; and displays consistent facility in the use of language, demonstrating variety in sentence structure and range of vocabulary."

What does all this mean? It means that there are three general areas you need to work on perfecting:
    I. Attention to the writing task (i.e., Does it answer the question?)
    II. Organization and support
    III. Language (including usage, diction, sentence variety)
These areas are listed basically in order of importance. Unless you have serious grammatical problems, which you must work on with your tutor, answering the question adequately is the most important issue to address; after that, organization and support are key. Making your language as impressive as possible is also important, but not until you can effectively address the first two criteria.

This seems to be the simplest of all the criteria, but it is also the most important. You're free to interpret the question in a number of ways, but you have to make sure that you ARE answering the question that has been posed, or addressing the writing prompt adequately.

Two important things to remember to do here:
  1. Read the question twice before you start to formulate your answer. If you start writing away without reading the question carefully, you might look back about halfway through and realize you aren't even addressing the topic. Read the question or statement twice.
  2. Be direct and clear. Once you figure out what you're going to write about, take some time to plan out your answer so that you can lay out a clear essay for the reader. To do this, you must be sure you have good organization before beginning to write. That leads us to the next category…

Before beginning to write, you should spend about five minutes sketching out what you are going to discuss in your essay. It's extremely important to do this, since you probably won't have time (or space) to do a lot of revising after you're done writing. The planning can - and probably should - be as simple as filling out the following:
  • Thesis statement:
  • 1st paragraph's topic sentence:
    1. example or support
    2. example or support
  • 2nd paragraph's topic sentence:
    1. example or support
    2. example or support
Pretty simple, right? In fact, you may not even need two examples or types of support for each paragraph. For instance, in the sample essay we provided for you, this might have been what the writer sketched out before beginning to write:
  • Thesis statement: Examples from politics, both past and present, prove that even seemingly unproductive actions can yield valuable results.
  • 1st paragraph's topic sentence: An example is Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations.
  • 2nd paragraph's topic sentence: Another example is the recent war on Iraq.
After you've quickly sketched out your main ideas, expand them when you're actually writing the essay.

1. The Introduction and Thesis Statement

In the highest scoring essays, the introduction is very short - usually one sentence, and three sentences at most. What these good introductions have in common is a direct answer to the question or statement that has been given for you to consider. These essays are unlike the essays you write for school: you shouldn't waste valuable minutes coming up with a clever opening line, or the "attention grabber" (unless you are capable enough to do it quickly and successfully). Again, directness and clarity are the top goals here, so style can be sacrificed to some degree.

The first step after carefully reading the question, then, is to formulate one opinion or answer in a single sentence. This sentence should be broad enough to write a whole essay about, but not so broad as to be vague.

EXAMPLE QUESTION Who do you think influences you more in your daily life - your friends or your family? Explain how or why.

TOO NARROW: My friend Tom influences me more than anyone else, because one time he taught me the meaning of true integrity, and I've never forgotten it. This sentence does not really give the writer enough room to expand the idea to a fully developed essay. Can you see how he/she will probably run out of things to write about once the first paragraph is written?

TOO BROAD: My family influences me more, in a lot of ways. While this statement does answer the question, the writer won't be able to address it adequately in 25 minutes - it's way too broad! Additionally, it doesn't provide him/her with a clear map of what to write about in the body paragraphs.

GOOD: Although my family influences me more when it comes to major life choices, my friends - because I spend more time with them - are the ones who influence my daily life both at school and on the weekends. This is a good thesis statement because…
  • it answers the question ("my friends - because I spend more time with them - are the ones who influence my daily life");
  • it is specific enough without being TOO specific; and
  • it provides a clear map of what the two body paragraphs will be about: how your friends influence your life at school and your life on the weekends.

2. The Topic Sentences and Supporting Details

Once you have a good thesis, your topic sentences will be what makes or breaks your essay. Topic sentences are generally the first sentence of each body paragraph: you can think of the topic sentence as a thesis statement for the body paragraph. So what we said for the thesis statement applies to the topic sentences, too - make sure it's broad enough to write a paragraph about, but not too broad. Additionally, it MUST relate clearly to the thesis statement.

The supporting details of each paragraph have to relate to the topic sentence. We can't stress that enough. So make sure that everything you write in the body paragraph makes sense when you check it against the topic sentence. Your tutor will be able to keep you on track in this department. Supporting details can usually come either from personal experience or from literature, history, current events, etc. (depending, of course, on the question and what it allows you to use).

3. The Conclusion

While it's good to include a conclusion, don't fret if you find that you have run out of time. The rest of the essay is much more important than the conclusion.

But if you do find yourself with a couple of minutes after you're finished writing and revising your essay, write a quick conclusion. The conclusion should not raise new points or leave the essay question open to further debate. It should touch briefly on the points that were raised in the essay, and then tie the essay up with a variation of the thesis statement. Because the conclusion is sometimes hard to write without repeating the thesis statement verbatim, you can turn to your tutor for more detailed help.

(If you're still finding it hard to write an essay, even after reading this guide, you should definitely take a look at the Sample Essay. This section of the web site will give you further help on how to write.)

You will have to depend on your tutor to help you with the intricacies of language. But here are four big language areas you can work on once you've gotten your organization and support firmly in place.

1. Transitions

Transitions smooth out the breaks between paragraphs and can also make sentences connect better. "However," "Not only," and "for example" are some good transitional phrases you can use. Transitions simply make your writing seem more polished, without taking a lot of time away. Once you have the basics of organization and support down, be sure to practice smoothing out your transitions - your tutor can help.

2. Good Sentence Variety

If you use sentences that are all simple, your reader will become bored:

Yesterday I fed my cat. My cat's name is Boots. Then I took my dog out for a walk. My dog's name is Spike. I took him to the park. He likes running around with all the other dogs.

You can use a variety of sentence structures to make your paragraph more interesting:

Yesterday I fed my cat, Boots, before taking my dog, Spike, out for a walk. I took him to the park because he likes running around with all the other dogs.

Even though the second version uses the same words as the first, the sentence structures make it read better. Combining sentences is often a good way to vary sentence structure, but you can also use a mixture of simple sentences with complex in order to keep things interesting. Just try not to repeat sentence structures, one after the other; your tutor can show you how to avoid this.

3. Avoidance of Repetition

Repetition weakens the quality of your writing. Try to think of synonyms when you find yourself repeating words; also, check to see that you do not start out sentences with the same words or phrases. Having a good vocabulary will help you avoid repetition.

4. Vocabulary

Vocabulary is an aspect of language that you cannot "cram" for; you should read as often as you can, whether it's mystery novels, historical books, magazines, or newspapers. Good vocabulary can enliven any piece of writing. It's not necessarily about forcing yourself to use huge, complicated words; a good vocabulary can also be about having a large body of words that you can draw from while writing your essay. The more you read, the easier this will become.