The Essay (Part 1)

25 Jul

I was among the first group of college applicants to take the “new” SAT – the one scored out of 2400 rather than 1600 – and by far, the biggest concern for me and all of my friends was this essay. Now we had to write an essay for this test? Wasn’t it already bad enough with just multiple choice? How are they even going to score an essay??

Well, like anything else on this big bad test, there is a pretty straightforward approach to cracking the essay. Yeah, it can be the scariest of sections, and yeah, it sorta sucks that you have to start with it right off the bat, but after reading this (long) post (and subsequent posts on the same topic), you’ll be a master of this section, too!

First, let’s understand how the essay the fits into the test. It falls under the Writing section of the test, and makes up 30% of your overall Writing score. The other 70% comes from your multiple-choice questions. Each essay is graded by 2 people, and they assign it a score of 1-6, making the highest possible score for your essay a 12. This post is going to give you a quick and dirty formula for scoring that 12.

The essay will always be the first section on the test, and it will always feature a short prompt followed by your actual “assignment.” I tend to skim over the prompt, and sometimes even ignore it completely, because the question that follows the “Assignment” heading is the important part. It usually asks a broad, open-ended questions, and the scorers are grading you based on your ability to take a stance on one side of the argument and defend it effectively. 

The essay often feels extremely rushed, but it’s important to take a minute or two to jot down 3 ideas for your paragraphs. Basically, you should try to construct a 5 paragraph essay – intro, example 1, example 2, example 3, and conclusion. Let’s break these down and take a look at each section.


Don’t make your introduction anything too glitzy or glamorous. If you can think of a cool hook to tie into your argument, go for it, but if not, just get right down to the meat of the matter. Take a firm stance on one side of the argument. Your intro doesn’t need to be anything more than 3-4 sentences, but make sure you take a stance early so the scorers will know what you’re trying to say. End the intro with your thesis statement, in which you take your stance and briefly mention your 3 examples. It might look something like this:

(As/Unlike) the prompt states, (take your stance here), which is shown by examples such as (historical example’s relevance to my position), (literary example’s relevance to my position), and (personal story that relates to my position).

You want to mention your 3 examples, and well as give a really quick synopsis as to how it strengthens your argument. Don’t just say  that you’ll discuss World War II, say that the Allied Powers banding together during World War II demonstrates the importance of uniting for a common good (or whatever the prompt is asking about).

Now let’s look at your main body paragraphs.


It’s important to have 3 strong body paragraphs. This is where you will really develop your argument and relate it to your examples. There is no set rule as to where to draw your examples from, but I tend to recommend choosing 1 example from history, 1 example from a novel, and 1 example from my personal life or current events. Obviously, these are up to you and are subject to change depending on your argument and what areas you’re comfortable in, but I find that there are some examples which can pretty much be used for almost any prompt the SAT will throw at you for example. World War II, for instance, has so much depth to it that you are sure to find some aspect of it that you can tie in to your thesis. It might be wise to spend 30 minutes or so brushing up on WWII or other big events in history to have at your disposal. Other big history examples might be:

Revolutionary War/Civil War/WWI/WWII/Cold War/Vietnam War
Slavery in the US
JFK assassination

Anything you learned in history class is fair game. And it doesn’t just have to be US history – pick something you’re familiar with!

Next, I like to have an example from a book to have ready. Again, there are certain books which can pretty much speak to any theme or argument that the SAT might feature, and most of those books are classics, the kinds you might be reading in English class. Think of something you know well, and be as specific as possible to clearly state how the book relates to your argument. Don’t make anything up from the book, but if you feel like your argument might be a stretch, just be confident and go with it. The scorers care more about how you support your argument than how perfect your examples are.

Finally, I like to end with a personal example (the reason I go in this order is because I start with my strongest and end with my weakest example, which usually ends up being a personal story). I was a master of BS in school, so I had no trouble making up an event that related to my argument. In fact, it really doesn’t matter if you are making up your story, too, if that’s what easier for you. Again, make sure to tie it directly back to the prompt. I like to land on the side of being heavy-handed with relating my examples to my arguments – I feel like this is more effective than being subtle since a grader won’t spend more than 2-3 minutes reading your essay anyway.


This is usually the easiest part of your essay. It can be no more than a sentence or two that wraps up your argument, and essentially restates your thesis with a nice air of finality to it. Phrases like “in conclusion” and “as the above examples have illustrated”‘ can be peppered around as you see fit.

A Few Other Things…

  • Keep an eye on that time! Make sure you don’t get caught in the middle of your third paragraph or anything like that. That would be big points off! (Practice timing yourself to get a feel for how quickly you should be moving.)
  • Mix up your sentence starters (variation shows more skill as a writer, and since your scorer isn’t spending a ton of time with reading your essay, an easy way to show mastery of writing is to change how you start your sentences)
  • Length does matter. You might think it’s the best essay in the world, but if it doesn’t even touch the second page, you won’t get a good score. Get as close to filling the given space as possible, without spilling over.
  • Handwriting and grammar matter, too. Not a ton, but make it legible, and try to leave a minute or so to give your essay a once over to see if you made any glaring grammatical mistakes.

I think that about does it for now. I’ll have another post about the essay in the future, but for now, start practicing with the basic design I suggest. I’ll be happy to answer any questions in the comments section. Good luck!


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