Sunday, April 01, 2012

Top 10 SAT Essay Tips

Examine the sample essays in any SAT test prep book, including the College Board’s own publications, and you’ll find, despite all the hot air to the contrary, that the single factor most obviously correlated to high SAT essay scores is ... LENGTH!

It’s a fact: all else being equal, long essays get much higher scores than short essays.

Of course, it helps to be an award-winning writer who can pen a remarkably solid, insightful, and moving essay in his sleep ... but honestly, how many high school students (or award-winning writers, for that matter) can be counted on to produce such a work in the short 25 minute period allowed for the essay on the SAT1?

Remember, above all ... it’s about LENGTH!


Top 10 SAT essay tips:

1. You simply MUST write a long essay, if you expect to earn a high score. How long is long? More than one and a half pages of the two pages provided to you on which to write and submit your essay (ideally, you’d finish within a few lines of the very end of the last page).

2. In addition, your essay needs to be properly structured. That is, it must have 4-5 distinct paragraphs: an introduction, 2-3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. A representative of the Princeton Review told me that SAT essays are initially scanned by computer to see how many lines are written on (again, it’s about length) and how may paragraphs there are (i.e. how many indented lines there are); essays that are too short or unstructured (i.e. not enough paragraphs) are assigned low scores (1-3) by a computer, and not even read by a real human being!

3. Therefore, you should "super indent" each paragraph. If your paragraphs are not well indented, the computer scanning your essay may not realize when you’re beginning a new paragraph, and assign a low score to your essay because it appeared to lack the required 4-5 paragraph structure. You do NOT want that to happen. So, make SURE the machine will recognize each of your paragraphs by using super-sized indents. I recommend using a huge two-inch indent (at least one full thumb-length) on the first line of each paragraph, just to be absolutely sure (this also adds a little bit to the overall length of your essay).

4. Spend the first two to three minutes writing a very short outline for your essay, in which you answer the following two questions: 1. WHAT do I believe (your thesis), and 2. WHY do I believe it (convincing examples that prove your point, ordered so that the best example comes last and the second best coming first).

5. Then, write furiously for about 20 minutes, sticking to your outline, and be SURE to finish writing your conclusion before time is up (so you'll have at least some time left over to quickly proofread your essay). Time is very short – you really do have to hurry – and any essay submitted without a conclusion will not (of course) be given a high score.

6. Finally, take two to three minutes to proofread your essay, making simple corrections and edits, improving overall neatness and appearance, etc.

7. Write legibly, keeping your left margins neatly aligned. SAT essay readers have hundreds of essays to read in a single day. This means that your essay will not be carefully read, and the overall "impression" it leaves after a single reading is extremely important. You do NOT want to make someone who's reading her 258th essay that day have to deal with sloppy margins or work really hard just to decipher your handwriting!

8. In each body paragraph, make your point clearly and succinctly in the topic sentence that introduces it. Each topic sentences should essentially be a customized restatement of the essay's thesis (which should be clearly and unambiguously stated in the introductory paragraph) written in terms of the particular supporting example forming the basis of that body paragraph. Then, in the rest of the paragraph, your job is to elaborate on the topic sentence, showing clearly and simply how this particular example supports the thesis of your essay.

9. The conclusion, which should be the shortest paragraph in your SAT essay, restates the thesis in completely different words, offers a final comment or two, and ends with a thoughtful or uplifting “kicker” line.

10. Perfectionist? Not today. You simply don't have time to write a really excellent, polished essay. Do NOT expect to produce your best work here! Don't get bogged down. Just complete the essay in the allotted time (you MUST get to the conclusion before time is up; essays submitted without a conclusion will get a low score), do a decent job, and read over the entire essay to catch and correct any obvious mistakes. Remember ... on SAT essays, quantity is FAR more important than quality (although, naturally, it’s best to have both). This fact stands in stark contrast to the essays assigned by your teachers – which WILL be carefully read, for which you’re given days or weeks to do the necessary thinking, writing, and polishing, and in which quality is always more important than quantity.

A final word of advice:


Unless you are well accustomed to this kind of lightning-fast writing, you will almost certainly not finish on time the first time you write an SAT essay. You certainly don’t want your first attempt to be the one that gets scored! It is absolutely essential that you practice writing SAT essays, incorporating all 10 tips listed above, until you are quite comfortable doing so in under 25 minutes. Get essay prompts for practice essays from the internet (google “SAT essay prompts”), or take them from published SAT workbooks.



In a March 4, 2005 article in the New York Times, M.I.T. testing specialist and director of undergraduate writing Dr. Les Perelman discussed the striking positive correlation between length and scores on SAT essays, and came to the same conclusion – that, basically, it's all about length and structure, not content or quality. In fact, Dr. Perelman was able, with 90% accuracy, to immediately guess the score given to an SAT essay with just a quick glance at its length and shape (i.e. structure). The article also mentions that SAT essay graders are instructed not to lower an essay score due to the inclusion of factual errors. Apparently, citing blatantly incorrect facts such as "the beginning of the World War I in 1903," or "The Road Less Traveled by poet T.S. Elliot" does nothing to diminish one's score on an SAT essay (the First World War began in 1914, and Robert Frost wrote "The Road Not Taken").

From the article:
"I would advise writing as long as possible," said Dr. Perelman, "and include lots of facts, even if they're made up." This, of course, is not what he teaches his M.I.T. students. "It's exactly what we don't want to teach our kids," he said.

Read the entire article here.


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