Improving Your SAT Writing Essay Score

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The SAT Reasoning Test is the main standardized test that high school students applying to US Universities take.  In olden days (when we all used dial-up), the “Writing” section was under SAT II (now known as SAT subjects tests).  Today it appears together with Math and Reading under the main reasoning test (formerly known as SAT I).  So if you’re applying for an undergraduate place at an American college, you will most likely cross paths with the SAT.

“Writing”, which tests you on grammar and argumentative issues, takes up one third of your SAT score.  It has two multiple choice sections and a short essay.  So basically you’re looking at the essay taking up one third of your Writing score.

The essay questions naturally vary, but they are argumentative (you have to present a reasoned opinion in response to a prompt) and philosophical.  For example, the January 2013 test questions discussed issues such as imitation vs originality and the role of money in our lives.  The College Board, which administers the exam, regulary posts sample questions from the most recent round of tests.

Two graders will mark your essay with a maximum raw score of “12”.  The 25 minutes that you have to write the essay (right at the start of the SAT) can go by really quickly, so here are 5 things you should look to do in order to get the best score you can.

1. Structure

The filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard reportedly said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”.  Unfortunately, we don’t have that much creative license on the SAT essay, so we’ll just stick with a beginning, a middle and an end, *in that order*.

What this means is you’ll have

  • An introduction, where you answer the question, give a reason for your answer, and preview the examples you will use to justify your stand.
  • Anywhere from one to three paragraphs in the middle, where you describe and analyze examples that prove your point.
  • A conclusion, where you wrap up and affirm your stand.

While this is hardly rocket science, it is important to convey this structure clearly to your graders, and to transition smoothly from one section to the next.

2. Commitment

Philosophical questions are by nature open-ended, so it can be daunting to take a stand.  Gee, does money make a life better? Whose life? Your average working family sure could use more… but what about all those stories about people who get by with less and fallouts that wealthy dynasties experience? Err…

You might be tempted to second guess yourself, and feel the need to qualify, evaluate and “balance” everything.  While there’s a time and place to be reasonable, your goal here is to convince your grader that you can put together a reasonable argument.  You won’t be expected to take into account all possibilities, so don’t give yourself pressure over that.  The best way is to just COMMIT to one side of the argument and write a fair, well-substantiated response to that.

3. Examples

The great thing about the SAT essay is you’re given a fair bit of leeway to choose examples to back up your case.  While class assignments in English or other subjects tend to be very source-oriented, your SAT essay examples can draw on

  • History
  • Literature
  • Movies
  • Sports
  • Personal life experiences

Feel free to make good use of the education you’ve had so far, and introduce people and events from your history, science and literature classes.  That should help get you started on a list of examples you can draw on regardless of topic.

The one kind of example you don’t want to use is a hypothetical one.  These tend to begin with “imagine if you were in such a situation…”. These examples are usually not as illustrative, and will likely cost you on your score.  Often, examples that draw on personal life experiences tend to read like this, either because memories fade or because you may forget that your grader has not experienced the same thing and may not see the situation as clearly as you do.

Your examples should have detail and relevance to the topics.  If you’re not good at creating these on the spot, be sure to check out sample SAT essay prompts, and use them to prepare suitable examples before you actually take the test.

4. Explanation

In addition to detail, your examples need to be linked to the essay questions.  It is not enough to simply describe a situation that is related to the prompt and then hope that the grader will “get it”.  You need to say pretty clearly why your example fits, after you’re done describing it.

So let’s say your topic is on “whether we should follow the road less taken and pursue unconventional opportunities”.  You might expect that there will be many stories of people who defied conventional wisdom, followed their own passions and became successful.  But in addition to listing a couple of these examples, you would also need to say why they suggest we should follow in these footsteps.  The final, “rosy” outcome alone is insufficient.

Maybe you only grow by stepping out of your comfort zone.  Maybe things change so quickly in modern life that there are fewer “sure things” and at least you’re happy doing what you love.  Maybe being “unique” is important to a sense of identity and will leave you with fewer regrets later even if you fail.  Find what it is about your examples that relate to the question and drive the explanation home.

5. Thesis

Finally, we have the “thesis”.  In argumentative writing, the thesis usually contains the answer to the question and the overall reason supporting it.  It is not quite enough to say “I support this side because I can think of ten examples that illustrate it”.

Think about what’s common to all your examples.  Is there an underlying essence they speak to?  If so, you’ve found your thesis.

Following on from the two sample questions above, a thesis can be as simple as:

  • “money cannot possibly be the main determinant of quality of life because you can’t take it with you when your life is over and it often creates more problems than it solves”.
  • “we should not follow the unconventional path as there is strength in numbers and too many lives have been wasted chasing fool’s gold”.

Once you’ve found your thesis, be sure to insert it in your introduction, and link back to it when you’re explaining your examples in the middle paragraphs.

We’ll have more on the SAT essay in future posts, but if this is your first time attempting the SAT essay or you’re just looking to improve your score, the checklist above is a good place to start.


2 thoughts on “Improving Your SAT Writing Essay Score”

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