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SAT Essay, Part I
Perfect scores on the SAT and 4 SATIIs
Eva is a certified admissions counselor and the founder of PrepPoint, a premier test prep company in the San Francisco Bay Area.
So in this episode we're going to be talking about the SAT essay. Now a lot people find the essay pretty threatening and frustrating but the good news is that once you're comfortable with what you're going to be asked about and what graders are looking for you'll be in great shape. So let's look at the basics here. First off you'll be given a prompt on test aid not in advance and you'll have 25 to write a draft that addresses that prompt. When you do they'll give you two lined pages to write on and finally it's worth knowing that no outside materials are allowed whether that's dictionaries other sources or spell checks you'll have to do without. As for scoring that's going to be done by two trained graders, each one will you give you a score from one to six for a total of twelve. And FYI you can get a zero but it will be hard work you'll have to be totally off topic or leave the whole page blank. And scoring is tough you might be used to saying like a six out of six is a good result of a five out of six would be a good result but the average score on the SAT essay is actually three or four out of six it's pretty incredible.
On the plus side the scoring is holistic which means the graders are looking at the big picture. So it's not the case that as soon as you miss the spelling of some word you automatically miss your perfect score rather they're just trying to see if over all you understand what good structure looks like, good evidence looks like, good analysis looks like and you can put that all together in a 25 minute draft. And lastly it's worth being aware that about one third of your writing score comes from the essay. The other two thirds is from the multiple choice and the rest of the writing section. With that out of the way let's look at your plan of attack for the essay.
So when it comes to the essay your plan of attack has four parts right here. First of all we're going to talk about what's important what are the graders expecting from you? What do they value so that you know what to give them. Next up we're going to talk about the formula what is the structure of a good SAT essay? What do you need to do to make the graders happy? Next up the time line how should you allocate your 25 minutes to make the most of that limited amount of time that you do have. And lastly what are some of the do's and don'ts to watch out for what gets people?
Let's start with number one what's important? First of all length is so important let me read you a quote that came out in the New York Times when the new writing section came out a few years ago. Here it goes 'If you just graded the essays based on length without ever reading them you'd be right over 90 percent of the time. The shortest essay is typically a hundred words got the lowest grade of one. The longest about 400 words got the top grade of six. In between there was virtually a direct match between length and grade' pretty amazing.
So now I'm not saying that you should write as much as possible if it means that you're completely incoherent, if you don't have a point, if you have no structure and certainly not if you're repeating the same word over and over again. But length is really important I've read some beautiful essays because you will get a copy of your essay back after you take the SAT. And seeing that sometimes essays are really well written but because they're so short they don't get good grades. So it's really important to have a long essay with lots of examples, analysis and then of course and intro and conclusion so keep that in mind length is so important.
You'll also need clear structure and we'll talk a lot about that during the formula part of the plan of attack. Examples are crucial and they need to be specific and relevant. Now when I say specific and relevant the opposite of that would be vague and hypothetical you should not use examples that aren't concrete. So you can draw from literature, personal experience, the movies any number of different sources but don't say well I suppose if there were a guy and then this happened to him and he responded like that, that would be an example of what I'm trying to prove, no hypotheticals keep it concrete. And then after you've got that evidence you want to do some analysis explain how that helps support your claim or your thesis.
And lastly you want to demonstrate good use of language so do you have varied sentence structure, do you have good vocabulary and are you using good grammar? Of all these this is the one you should probably worry about them the least because you don't want to be sitting there being like oh yeah what's that word? I can't remember I think it starts with an A that's going to run out the clock and you need length and examples and analysis and clear structure and so you should invest your time in that. And along the way if you can have awesome vocabulary that's great but don't waste time sitting there trying to think of the perfect word.
Now I said that I would get to what clear structure looks like and here's the formula. First of we have your intro followed by two or three body paragraphs and lastly the conclusion. This part is pretty detailed so let's go through bit by bit looking at first the introduction. Now the first thing you need with your introduction is a hook. To be clear a hook is a sentence or a couple of sentences to engage the reader. One thing you may not know is that the readers only spend two to three minutes reading each essay so believe it or not they don't have a lot of time to really ponder how clever your essay is over all. They may actually be really influenced by the first little bit that they read so you need to make it count. The first sentence or two should be really catchy and here's an example of that would serve as a good hook for an essay about say, is childhood a time of innocence? So let's read the hook together.
'Children might have wide eyes and lack worldly knowledge but they are not as angelic as they might seem at first' so that's an example of a hook. And then after the hook but also in your introduction you're going to need a clear thesis. This is so important and you'd be surprised how many people totally don't have a thesis can't recommend it. So to be clear the thesis should serve two major purposes. First of all it should state your claim so that the reader knows exactly what you think and what you're going to argue in this brief essay. In addition the thesis should include the two to three topics that will come up in your body paragraphs. So if you can't read your thesis and say okay the reader knows what I think about the issue and what I'm going to talk about in my body paragraphs, you've failed in a big way so keep that in mind. Here's an example of what a thesis should look like and here it is in the context of that same prompt is childhood a time of innocence? Childhood is not always a time of innocence as demonstrated in Lord of the Flies, A separate Peace and my own experience in middle school.
So to be clear we have a claim childhood is not always a time for innocence and we also have two to three topics in this case three. We have Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace and the authors own experience in middle school. And I want to point out that two of these sources are from literature but that's not the only place you can go for sources, history, current events, pop culture, personal experience it's all fine as long as it's relevant to the prompt. So there's the intro let's talk about the body paragraphs next. Body paragraphs should have a topic sentence and I feel a little silly even saying it but just like so many people forget a thesis, so many people also forget a topic sentence and it's especially important to have a topic sentence because again the reader is reading so quickly that if you don't give crystal clear structure it's easy for the reader to be confused and wonder what point it is that you're making again. So be sure to include the topic sentence and then concrete details and commentary. Explain a specific evidence that you have supports your thesis in the context of the topic you're talking about right there.
And finally be sure to use a summary sentence to connect the paragraph you just wrote to the thesis so you can help the reader say oh I see what all your evidence was about it's proving this point. And here is an example of that summary sentence that you should be sure to have at the end of each body paragraph. These acts of cruelty and violence that occur through out Lord of the Flies clearly show that childhood can be far from innocent. So you want two to three of these, two if you think you're not going to be able to finish three really good body paragraphs and three in an ideal world where you think you can fit them all in.
And then lastly the conclusion, the conclusion should be a brief restatement of your thesis and by restatement I mean a summary it should use slightly different words. You don't want to be totally repetitious that's not a mark of good writing. So an example here which captures the same things as a thesis, the claim and the examples but in slightly different language is right here. Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace and my middle school years all show that childhood could be full of harsh realities.
And keep in mind that in your conclusion just like with your introduction brief is okay but be sure to include it. So it is more important to have really substantial body paragraphs with great evidence and great analysis and it's less important to have really substantial interest in conclusions 'cause they're a little fluffier. But you definitely want to include them because if you don't get to your conclusion in particular 'cause you run out of time you haven't had the opportunity to show your reader I know what a good essay looks like, it includes a conclusion, here's what a conclusion looks like. So be sure to budget time for a conclusion even if it's a short one. So that's the formula.
Next up, let's look at the timeline how you should allocate your limited time. You could break it down into three steps: brainstorming, you should allocate three to five minutes to writing 15 to 20 minutes and whatever time you have left, should go to proof reading. Let's look at each of those.
When you brainstorm, there are going to be three parts. Choose your position meaning choose your claim, choose what you're arguing, choose your examples that are going to support that, the ones that are going to go in your body paragraphs and lastly write your thesis. Let me elaborate on this here. When you choose your position and this is important, you shouldn't necessarily choose the position you most agree with; you choose the position that you can best write about, so for instance, if you have one opinion on what the answer is but you have no evidence that you could talk about in detail, or you don't know how to analyze the evidence in your body paragraphs don't take that position. It doesn't matter what you think, it matters what you can effectively argue for your reader.
Another point I want to make is that you might want to start by brainstorming examples on either side of the issue and then after you see the examples you have available, then decide your position. So kind of like the last point you might want to look at your examples before you choose your position, rather than choosing your position and then struggling to come up with examples that may never come.
And then like I said, writing your thesis is the last stage of brainstorming. And if you don't know at the end of brainstorming, what your claim is and what you're two to three examples are, then you haven't got a thesis and you're not ready to write. And if you're not ready to write, you shouldn't start writing so stick with the brainstorming stage for even a minute or two longer if that's what it takes to know what you're writing about 'cause if you don't know what you're writing about, you're length is going to suffer and your structure is going to suffer and that's really going to have a negative impact on your score.
By the way, when you are choosing examples you will find that although you can pull from any number of sources, literature is are a really great place to draw from because there are lots of details in literature, lot's of plot points and they typically discuss universal themes, things like motivation, love, change, the kind of topics that will often come up on the SAT essay, because of that you may want to get back on top of the books you've read in the past couple of years and you'll have them in mind on Test day, so check up the bonus materials, I've pulled together a list of books commonly read in High School so that you can go over those have them fresh in mind and then have them at the ready, when you go in to write your SAT essay.
After brainstorming you're going to get to writing, of course you want to focus on the pieces the graders care most about and these are some of the ones we talked about earlier, you want to focus on your length so don't end early, don't just sit there watching the clock, keep writing. Clear structure and that's part of the brainstorming process and remembering the formula. Examples and analysis to support your claim. Also, don't get too caught up in word choice or spelling, those things you know ideally would be flawless but they're not the biggest ingredients when it comes to your grade getting determined by the grader. And lastly make sure you've practiced before for instance, you need to know whether you're someone who can get to body paragraphs done or three body paragraphs done in 25 minutes. And you can't, you don't want to find that out on test day when you realize you wrote about three topics in your thesis and you only got the two and a half in your essay. So definitely get practice so you can be more comfortable with the whole process, brainstorming what you can get done on the time allocated, what a conclusion should look like, the whole nine yards.
And finally, proofread, this is not a big part of the process but it is an important part, you want to just clean up any errors you noticed as you skim through your essay in the remaining moments and make sure your argument and structure are crystal clear 'cause yet again, your reader does not have a lot of time to absorb what you've written, you need to make sure you communicate it clearly and when you do look at the clarity of your argument and structure, make sure you especially look at your thesis and your topic sentences. 'Cause those are pieces that are short and yet if they're well written they can really help the quality of the structure of your essay and improve the perception of you essay in the reader's mind.
And lastly the fourth part of our plan of attack is to know the do's and don'ts here's some important do's to be aware of. First of all do answer the question. This is shocking that I have to bring it up, but so often someone will answer a question that's, just comes up in their mind as they read the prompt. But you need to answer the question being asked. Very, very, very important. Next up use your best handwriting in addition to not having much time to decode your essay, the readers also get your essay in a scanned version so the legibility is even worse so it's important that you give them an essay which will not necessarily beautiful and almost calligraphic is legible otherwise it could hurt your score.
Third if possible use transitions between paragraphs that will improve flow, flow is a characteristic of good writing that will up your score, and lastly you can use "I" and "me", however "I" and "me" need to appear in personal examples if you have any in your essay so for instance, we saw on the thesis, the writer talked about his or her experience during middle school, in that case "I" and "me," totally fine. However, don't use "I" and don't use "me" to express your claim or your opinion. Don't say in this essay, I will discuss or I think that childhood is blah, blah, blah. "I, me" those words are only for personal examples that you discuss in particular body paragraphs, if you decide to use personal examples at all.
And in addition to do's we have some don'ts. Don't argue both sides. Your thesis should have a claim and the claim should only have one claim, it shouldn't say, yes childhood is a time of innocence and childhood is not a time of innocence. Pick a side, stick with that side. That's the mark of a strong essay. Also don't overflow the space given. As I mentioned you'll have two pages to write on. So you have to make sure that you don't use too big a size of handwriting, and in addition if you're going to do something resembling an outline or some scratching notes to yourself, just do those in the test booklet, which you will have, and then when you finally get to writing, that's when you start using the two lined pages, allotted to you.
Next up don't use you and your because you don't know anything about your reader and you shouldn't be telling them what to do and you shouldn't be telling them things about themselves, you don't know them. And finally, again, don't use "I" and "me" for me opinions, only use "I" and "me" for personal examples. That's the plan of attack, now let's see what this would look like on the SAT.
Here we are with a sample prompt you would see on the SAT, let me walk you through it. At the beginning, you have your really basic instruction, it says think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below, so you have two pieces here, this is considered the excerpt and it's just supposed to get you thinking about an issue, you are not supposed to quote this, you are not supposed to respond to this, necessarily directly, it's just to get you thinking about the issue, I'll read it to you in a second, but I want to draw your attention right now to the assignment. It is in bold, that is no coincidence. It is in bold because you need to do the assignment, the assignment is the first sentence after the word assignment. You need to write an essay on this. So we'll read the excerpt, then let's look at the assignment.
"That which doesn't kill me only makes me stronger" is a well known expression. However, it is simply not true. Some trials leave us physically, emotionally, or mentally exhausted, not stronger but spent. Similarly, some disadvantages don't inspire us to strive harder, but merely discourage us from even trying. Contrary to those melodramatic movies in which a challenge drives a person to ever-greater heights, the expression should really be "That which doesn't kill me only makes me weaker."
So that good for food for thought, but it's not what you should respond to necessarily. Here it is, here's the question, Do people become stronger by overcoming challenges? That's what your supposed to address, and that's what your thesis should address. So for instance, your thesis could be people become stronger by overcoming challenges or people do not become stronger by overcoming challenges, however you should rephrase that. You don't want to just pair it back with what they gave you, but either agree, or disagree, in your own words.
And then here are some more instructions that you want to be sure to follow, plan and write an essay, planning is good as is writing in which you develop your point of view on this issue so that means have an opinion, don't argue both sides, support your position, remember that means evidence and analysis with reasoning and examples taken from your reading so that's like we said literature or maybe history, studies that could be any number of things; experience or observations so personal experience works bottom line remember that this is what you're supposed to address and this is what it will look like on the SAT, let's sum up everything we've covered in this episode.
So we've covered a lot of content in this episode but let's do a quick summary of what we've seen. First of all, you need to know what's important and that includes length especially, clear structure, examples, analysis and some good vocab and sentence structure along the way. In addition you need to know the formula, be sure to have an intro and a conclusion even if they're short, be sure to include a thesis at the beginning and a re-statement of the thesis at the end and in between have two or three body paragraphs that include topic sentences, examples and analysis and a summary of each body paragraph.
Know the time line, be sure to allocate three to five minute to brainstorming because if you don't know what you're writing about, your essay is not going to turn out well and allocate 15 to 20 minutes to the writing and lastly do some clean up at the end with your proof reading. Finally, know the do's and don'ts. Don't use "I" and "me" unless you're doing personal examples, don't use your because you shouldn't be addressing the reader and basically, that's what you need to know about the SAT essay.
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