High School 2 College

October 5, 2012

How to Write the SAT Essay

First, I need to tell you that the SAT essay doesn’t count for much.  It’s 30% of the writing section, and the writing section is only one third of the SATs – and the least important third, at that.  The colleges know that most writers don’t do their best work with a forced topic in 25 minutes.  So promise me you won’t stress over the essay, okay?

Here’s the bottom line:  What the graders are looking for in the SAT essay is length.   They’d prefer a long, mediocre essay to a short, powerful essay.  So keep writing until you’ve used up all the space they allow you, which is the equivalent of about both sides of a sheet of notebook paper.

The best way to answer the question is to think of three examples to support your position:  an example from literature, an example from history, and an example from current events.  If you can’t think of one, double up on the other.  So if you can’t think of an example from history, use two works of literature, or two current events, or even one current event and one movie/fable/song/TV show.

Suppose the question is, “Do kids have heroes any more?”  You should be thinking, “In what book I’ve read in school (NOT Harry Potter!) is there a hero?”  What comes to my mind first is Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.  (That’s a great book to use, by the way.  It has lots of juicy themes.  If you don’t remember it, go read the SparkNotes to re-familiarize yourself.)

Then I’m thinking that George Washington is a hero (father of our country and all that), and that the first responders on 9/11 were heroes.  Add an intro that mentions all three examples in case you don’t get to finish (they’ll see where you were going), and a one-sentence conclusion if you have time, and you’ve got yourself an 8 out of 12, presuming your grammar and spelling aren’t atrocious.

8 out of 12 is pretty good, sort of like a B+.  Not amazing, not embarrassing.  Just pretty good.

How do you get better than an 8?

Make sure your examples are connected or related.  What if I picked Atticus Finch again, but this time, I asked myself, “WHY is he a hero?”  He’s a hero because he was a white man who stood up for the rights of an unfairly accused black man in a prejudiced town.  This time, instead of a history example that just happened to pop into my head (George Washington), I think, “Do I know of anyone or group of people in history who also stood up for African Americans – even though he or they weren’t part of that group?” Perhaps now I think of Abraham Lincoln instead, since he championed the freedom of blacks despite the risks to his political career and his life.

And instead of the first responders, perhaps this time I think of whites who marched in civil rights marches in the south to protest unfair treatment of blacks in education and housing and transportation and other areas.

NOW my introduction starts with that theme, that heroes are people who stand up for others who can’t stand up for themselves.  NOW my examples are connected and make sense.  NOW, if I can write a decent essay, I get a 10 or 11 out of 12.

What if the question can’t be answered with a book, a historical example, and a current example?  What if the question is something like, “Are innovations in technology always a good thing?”

If your answer includes three thematically-tied examples, you’re on your way to an outstanding essay.  You might use the railroad, the car, and the plane either as examples of innovations that were good or flawed, but they’re all transportation.  You might use the pager, the car phone, and the cell phone, but they’re all communication devices.

Let me end as I began.  The essay just isn’t that important.  But why not get as good a score as you can?  Three linked examples in a long, long essay should do the trick.

Wendy Segal



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