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Your Strategy for Excelling on the Essay

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Your Strategy for Excelling on the Essay

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[edit section] SAT Essay Writing Guide

  1. Your Strategy for Excelling on the Essay
  2. Writing Effective Introduction and Details
  3. Demonstrating Mastery of Language

[edit section] Your Strategy for Excelling on the Essay

SAT Essay
If you are anything like the millions of students who take the SAT Reasoning Test each year, you are probably wondering (and worrying) about the new essay section. Perhaps you are insecure about the fact that it is graded subjectively or the impact it will have on your Writing score.

Your concerns are legitimate, but thankfully, you need not worry about the scoring. You should spend your time preparing for and focusing on writing a solid essay that is sure to gain many points.

What kind of essay is “solid?” High-scoring essays have the following basic characteristics:

  • Length
  • Detail
  • Mastery of Language

The best indicator of how an essay will score is its length. The College Board and most scorers will vehemently deny this, but studies have indicated that a strong correlation exists between longer essays and higher scores. Why do long essays score so well?

One reason may be because of the ability of the graders. Given the huge number of SAT essays they must score, it is impossible for them to thoroughly read and dissect each one. Rather, it lies on you to "wow" them with a great essay that not only reads well but "looks" like a long, well-planned essay. A fairly long essay length will not hurt you, and it probably will improve your score.

Also, it may just be that a longer essay length implies more detail. Detail is the “meat” of the essay and makes an essay worthy of reading. Statements like “It is better to live in freedom than in fear” must be qualified by examples, personal experiences, expertise, and so forth.

Finally, students who have a proficiency in writing in the English language tend to score high because they effectively use devices such as figurative language, transitions, and idiomatic expressions. The statement “the King was a hawk waiting to swoop down on his next prey” is certainly more effective than “the King was very harsh towards opposition.”

You should keep the big three (length, detail, and mastery) in the front of your mind while taking the writing section. Of course, applying these principles is easier said than done. How do you go about writing an essay that employs all three of the principles?

The key is time management. You are given 25 minutes to write an essay that is evaluated on a scale of 1-6 by two graders. That being said, you are given those 25 minutes not only to write the essay, but to read the prompt and create a plan. With such little time to do so much, time management is of the essence.

Your strategy to success, therefore, revolves around time management. As soon as the essay section (Section 1) begins, you should quickly read the given quote and the prompt. Spend no more than two minutes doing so. Here is an example quote and prompt:

“…a nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master and deserves one.” – Alexander Hamilton

Is it immoral to sacrifice one’s honor for one’s safety or is it acceptable to concede honor in return for guarantees of peace? 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.

The prompt always includes a quote such as the one above followed by a short question (usually given as an A OR B choice). The key to these first two minutes is to understand how the quote relates to the question and what the two options or positions you can take are. In the above example, Hamilton basically purports that “it is better to be honorable and dead than dishonorable and safe.” Now, the question asks if honor is a fair price for safety. Can you make the connection between the quote and the question?

The two choices you can choose are:

  • Honor is a fair price for safety (not supported by quote)
  • One must not give up honor for safety (supported by quote)

Note that there is no “middle ground” – the worst thing you can do is choose a “wishy-washy” answer like:

Depending on the circumstances, it could be acceptable to sacrifice honor for safety but in other circumstances it is not acceptable.

This position may actually be the one you hold, but you are not writing to fulfill your beliefs – you are writing to score high. Only a strongly-worded, persuasive response will receive high marks.

Now that you have identified the two choices for response, choose one that you feel you have the most supporting evidence for. Note that the evidence you can use is from “reasoning and examples…” meaning that you must combine both your ability to logically reason with many descriptive examples.

For the next three minutes, you should briefly plan (either on paper or in your head) exactly how you will support your response. Whether you pre-write, organize, or “brain dump,” you should have at least some idea of where you will be going for the essay.

Once you have spent the first five minutes identifying the question and planning a response, you should spend the next five minutes writing a “killer” introduction. The introduction is the first thing that the scorers will read from your essay (they do not read pre-writing) and will therefore have the most immediate impact on your score. Graders are human and are prone to being persuaded by snazzy words, especially in the opening sentence. A grader would yawn at:

“You should never sacrifice your honor for safety.”

However, an opening sentence that is powerful is more likely to capture the reader’s attention:

“Death before dishonor!”

Within the opening, you should not only grab the reader’s attention, but firmly state your position on the given question. Do NOT be wishy-washy about it.

After these five minutes have been spent, write like a banshee for the last fifteen minutes. Trust us, the time will absolutely fly, and if you are doing a good job you will probably run out of time. Pour out examples, descriptions, quotations, conversations, statistics, and anything else that will wow your reader.

When time is ticking down, at around the last two minutes or so, you should spend some time planning and writing a brief conclusion. The conclusion need not be an amazing or eye-catching piece of work like the introduction, but it does need to be there. Effective conclusions generalize the point you have made to a wider context; ineffective conclusions simply restate your response:

Ineffective: “For these reasons, it is much better to die in honor than to live in shame.”

Effective: “…and, the next time we see the ruins of a forgotten city, we can remember that the inhabitants believed in a higher and greater order than their humble existences.”

In our next two lessons, we will examine some key strategies for writing good introductions, conclusions, and above all, detail paragraphs. Remembering the three goals we are working toward – length, detail, and mastery – will help you stay on track and excel on the essay section. In no time, you should be scoring high!

[edit section] SAT Essay Writing Guide

  1. Your Strategy for Excelling on the Essay
  2. Writing Effective Introduction and Details
  3. Demonstrating Mastery of Language

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