Eva Holtz

Harvard University
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.

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SAT Essay, Part II

Eva Holtz
Eva Holtz

Harvard University
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.


Welcome to the second episode about the SAT essay. In this episode we're going to talk about three essays written by real students and look at what they did well and what they could have done better so that you can learn what an SAT essay should ideally look like and do your best on test day. Let's start out with a recap of what serves an SAT essay well.
First off, you want clear structure: intro, conclusion and two or three body paragraphs in between and don't forget the thesis and the topic sentences among other things. Next up, you need to use examples that are specific and relevant to your prompt and your thesis. Also be sure to explore those examples with analysis that will help support what you're arguing and finally, have good use of language, varied sentence structure, nice vocabulary and so on. With that in mind let's check out our three examples.
So here we have an essay that got a three from each of the two graders for a total of six out of 12. That might sound pretty bad and technically in school it would be an F but it's actually just the low side of average on the SAT. Let's check out the assignment and then the essay and see what we can learn from it. This right here is the assignment so let's look at that first.
People are often told to obey the rules. In reality these rules are not permanent: What is right at a given point in time may be declared wrong at another time and vice versa. The world changes so rapidly that rules are out of date almost as soon as they are created. People cannot rely on established guidelines to determine what they should and should not do. Okay keep in mind that's just food for thought 'cause the assignment that you're actually supposed to write on comes up next.
Assignment: Are established rules too limited to guide people in real life situations? Okay that's the topic. Are established rules too limited to guide people in real life situations? And then this part you will see every time, 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. So with this prompt in mind, let's have a look at the essay. As kids grow up, their parents and teachers constantly express the need to unique by simply saying, be yourself. That's a pretty good hook although you'll notice that the word 'be' in 'to be unique' is missing here. That's okay, they understand it's a draft so it's not a huge deal; the nice thing is there's a natural hook here.
But too often a child cannot completely develop his personality because of established rules in his community and life. Growing children as well as others around the world are hindered by many guidelines that in reality do more harm than good. Now the quality of writing so far is pretty good but I do notice a couple of things. Number one, starting a sentence with 'but' is a little brave just like you're not supposed to start a sentence with 'and,' it is not a mark of great writing and you wouldn't want to press your luck on the SAT so try to avoid that. In addition you'll notice that this thesis doesn't quite address the prompt. The prompt says that a lot of rules or guidelines aren't very helpful in making our real life decisions and this thesis is a little different, it says the guidelines, not that they can't help us whether they're not specific enough hinder us so this student has slightly misunderstood the prompt and that probably cost her a little bit.
Let's look at the second paragraph. Back in third grade; a girl sits in her art class. She does not color inside the lines and she definitely does not use the blue crayon to color the sky but instead chooses purple. She has a free spirit and does what she pleases. Not surprisingly the girl's artistic style is not quite what the teacher expects from her students. The teacher failed the girl in art because someone's broken rule states that children must color inside the lines. For years after third grade, the girl refused to create art because of a pointless rule. Now the quality of writing here is pretty solid and it's engaging but there's something wrong here, and that's that we said that hypothetical examples, you should try to avoid. This is not a real person, it's also not from a book or from history, it's just a made up example so that really weakens the quality of the essay right there. Try to be specific with your examples and analysis, remember.
Next up, guidelines hinder not only children but also people of all ages. Now that's a nice transition, it shows how we're going from the last paragraph to this new one so that's nice. For example, before the civil war, slavery was common and even encouraged in the South. As some from Northern states realized the problem of slavery they are tempted to help slaves escape, however, the laws of the time did not allow this freedom. Years later we look back on slavery and understand how wrong the rules of the time were. Slavery proves not only that rules can cause serious harm, and that's where the essay ends. Now this was a pretty good paragraph, we're getting more concrete because we're talking about the civil war and slavery and that's going to help your score but running out of time is a big liability.
Remember to get enough practice that you know what you can and can't get done in the allotted 25 minutes and always make time for a conclusion even if it's a brief one, it's really important that you have a fully formed essay in order to maximize your score. So that was two threes for a total of six out of 12, let's look at another example that got two fours for an eight out of 12. That's the higher side of average. Again we're going to get some food for thought and then the actual prompt down here. Let's have a look.
Many people deny that stories about characters and events that are not real can teach us about ourselves or about the world around us. They claim that literature does not offer us worthwhile information about the real world. These people argue that feelings and ideas we gain from books and stories obstruct rather than contribute to clear thought. Adapted from Jennifer L. McMahon, The Function of Fiction.
So that's good food for thought remember, but let's look at the assignment. The assignment says very specifically, can books and stories about characters and events that are not real teach us anything useful? And then after that we have the standard text, again 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. So again the prompt is, can books and stories that aren't real teach us useful stuff? Let's have a look at this essay.
Opening paragraph: Many claim that stories about fictional characters and events serve only to entertain; however, literature can often portray not only an interesting story but also useful information and lessons.
Now that's a reasonable hook, you'll notice the super short intro but that's okay. The SAT essay is not a normal essay and so if it takes making a short intro in order to allocate time to substantial body paragraphs which matter more, that's a great choice. The thesis is pretty good, it's clear that literature can impart useful information and lessons. The thesis would have been a little stronger if the student had mentioned the two topics that were coming up in the two body paragraphs as well but so far so good. Let's look at the first body paragraph.
In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, one of the narrators, Victor, tells and warns of the quest for great knowledge. After discovering the secret of life and creating a monster, Victor reveals that he's horrified about what he has done. Throughout the entire novel, Victor tells the reader about his feelings and about the dangers of seeking and discovering too much knowledge. Though the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation is obviously fiction, the reader is able to grasp the idea that with great knowledge comes great consequence.

Now the writing here sounds pretty good and unlike the last essay, it's really nice that we have a specific example, it's from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. So that's good. It could be at the same time be a little stronger, what the writer chose to talk about was still a little general for instance, Victor tells the reader about his feelings and about the dangers of seeking and discovering too much knowledge. That's kind of general, what are the dangers? What are his fears? Why is this so bad and how could the reader generalize this to his or her own life? So it's a little vague, could be more specific. Still it's a good example and a good start. And there's another body paragraph to look at.
Continued, Yet another fictional story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, teaches a very different lesson. That's a pretty good transition that says we're dealing with another bit of fiction but has a different lesson. The novel tells of Ivan Ilych's childhood and life. On his death bed, Ivan reveals that he was unsatisfied with his own life; Ivan allowed work and money to take the place of friends and family. Throughout this fictional story, the reader is able to understand Ivan's feeling and learn a valuable lesson about life from Ivan. The Death of Ivan Ilych shows readers how disappointing life can be in the end and encourages readers to live their lives to the fullest.

Again, pretty good writing and this is a pretty good job right here of tying back to the thesis and explaining how this book impacts readers and their way of thinking about life. So that's good. At the same time, this is a little vague here, right? The most specific we ever get is saying Ivan allowed work and money to take the place of friends and family. If there had been more specific examples that the writer had included, that would have made this a stronger essay and a longer essay. And remember length is a really good predictor of score. Let's look at the conclusion.

Many students may wonder why they read numerous novels in high school but the answer is clear: stories of characters and events can teach valuable lessons and important ideas about the world. We're able to gain a deeper understanding of "the real world" and of ourselves. That's a good tight conclusion, pretty brief but that's not a big problem. I would say that it would be nice here to briefly mention the two examples used in the two body paragraphs to tie it all together. So pretty solid and sure enough it's the high end of average, again it's an eight out of 12. Now let's look at what a perfect scoring essay looks like. We have one more prompt here, check it out.
Change is a necessary part of the human experience but a part that we naturally resist. As creatures of habit, we fear the unknown: we question unfamiliar paths and silently wonder whether we will be able to handle this brave new world. While we often proudly claim to be open-minded and flexible, the fact is simply that humans are wired to cling to the familiar, no matter how crucial change may be. And the assignment, we always have to look at the assignment 'cause that's basically our prompt. Assignment: Do people naturally cling to the familiar no matter how crucial change may be? And then of course we have the standard text, write an essay, use examples, etcetera. Let's have a look at this one.
Over the course of time, people have always had an urge to improve the way in which they live their lives. Innovations have been created time and time again in order to improve both quality of life and the healthcare available to the world's population. The passion to overcome obstacles had led to the desire to bring about great change.
I think you can tell this is a pretty good writer and there are nonetheless a couple weaknesses here. First of all the student does mention one topic coming out from the body paragraphs, but there's another one that's not mentioned here and that's about transportation, the second body paragraph. So all of the students should have mentioned that, I will point out that you can get a perfect score without making no mistakes. The student definitely made a mistake.
In early times ailments were through to be; now that is a spelling error. That should be the word 'thought' but even the perfect essays can have mistakes and spelling is not something that the readers care too much about, as far as these things go. In early times ailments were thought to be the result of evil spirits in the body. The practice of bloodletting was a common practice, that's interesting, 'practice' and 'practice' is repeated. That's not ideal but it's not the worst transgression. Bloodletting was a common practice in medieval Europe. In ancient South and Central America holes were often ground into patients' skulls in order to release the evil spirits. Here's another small error, the word 'patients' here should be possessive but there's no apostrophe so again you can get a perfect score and not be perfect, but there's still a lot of strengths in this essay we'll talk about momentarily.
Both of these practices often led patients to become even more sick and in many cases caused death. Thinkers began rethinking, okay that's a little repetitive, right? Thinkers began rethinking medical practices and the use of antiseptics was one innovation that saved many lives. Scientists such as Hooke invented devices (the microscope) in order to examine the microscopic world. It wasn't until much later that scientists discovered microbes such as viruses. The abandonment of the spontaneous generation theory by Louis Pasteur led to the standard practice of boiling water before drinking it. Much later the creation of useful medicine such as penicillin in 1947, were an accident yet the significance of this discovery can be seen in the near elimination of bacterial infections as causes of death in developed countries. The use of vaccines to fight such diseases as small pox, polio and measles has been a source of great relief in developed countries. The appearance of such diseases is rare nowadays and with all the medical innovations, many with the exception of small pox are easily treatable.
Wow! That's some paragraph. There's a lot going on here, I would say the two greatest strengths are the length because length is a huge predictor of score, so important. And also lots of specific details, we're talking about antiseptics and Hooke and the microscope and Louis Pasteur and the spontaneous generation theory. This kid clearly knows this stuff and he uses all those details to drive length, so that is really fantastic. And again, he does that even as he makes some mistakes along the way. And I think it's good that he is willing to risk a few little mistakes in order to get that length up because length is so important and believe it or not, there's still more to the essay.
Next paragraph: Many inventions have helped improve the way every person lives his/her life. When the first horses were tamed by human beings, it made it easier to hunt and kill food, especially larger game. The invention of the saddle further improved the use of horses for vehicles by making riders more comfortable and providing stirrups in which to place their feet. The creation of some illegible word by the Assyrians allowed nobility to sit in the lap of luxury while being driven around. The modern day car is available in some shape or form to the entire population of developed countries, making it easier to get around and making the journey more comfortable.
That's a pretty solid paragraph but you'll notice that it doesn't have much in the way of a transition from the last paragraph, or topic sentence. For instance saying something to the effect that human kind has also been driven to innovate in the field of transportation. Something like that would tie this paragraph into the thesis more strongly. Similarly it might have been good for the writer to do something along those lines at the end of this paragraph and that would have bumped it up a little bit. But still very strong and here's the close.
Whether in the world of medicine or transportation, okay that's a great way to sum it up, he hits on the two topics covered in the body paragraphs. Whether in the world of medicine or transportation, the passion to make great changes has always pushed human experience to great heights.
Wow! That sounds pretty poetic, not bad for 25 minutes. While humans didn't need many of the transportation related innovations to survive, vehicles allowed people to migrate to new places and to travel. Medicines on the other hand have allowed people to live longer, healthier lives.
So that's a pretty fabulous essay and that's a thing to aspire to but remember the take home message is, you don't have to be perfect but you should really look for specific details and good length in order to maximize your score. Let's tie them all together with a recap of what we've talked about.
So remember the important parts of a strong SAT essay we've covered in the past few minutes, first up, clear structure, an intro and a conclusion even if they're short and don't forget to include a thesis and a restatement of a thesis and in between two or maybe even three strong body paragraphs. In addition, be sure to have examples that are specific and relevant to your thesis. Don't be hypothetical like that example with the girl who liked to color outside of lines, but instead use specifics from history or literature, even your own personal experience. The more data the better 'cause your argument will be more convincing and in addition that will drive your length, which is as you know a really big predictor of a good score. Beyond that, be sure to analyze your examples so that you can really explain to your reader how those examples support your thesis and finally use good language. Varied sentence structure, nice vocabulary and solid grammar to maximize your score. Keep all these tips in mind and you'll do fine on the SAT essay.

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