Writing a "good" essay on the SAT is different from writing a good essay in your English class. Even if you get a 100% on the multiple choice part of the Writing section, a mediocre essay can bring your score down about 50–70 points. Lucky for you, here is a guide to reach your optimum essay score.
First, know that you only have 25 minutes to write a "12" essay, and it can only be written on the lined paper given. Since it is mandated to use a #2 pencil on the test, be careful not to smudge your writing; if the grader has trouble reading your essay, he or she will not even bother grading it. Remember, these graders want to see you succeed, so help them help you.
Make an essay template that works for you and stick with it
Once you create a template that will always work for the essay, you won't have to waste time during the actual test to think about how to write your essay. Some people include two supporting paragraphs and some people include three, so it is really up to you. However, make sure those paragraphs are strong enough to support your argument. If you write three mediocre supporting paragraphs, the person who wrote two strong supporting paragraphs will still score higher than you. Remember, the more comfortable you are in writing the essay, the better you will most likely do.
Have a set list of examples you can choose from
Because essay prompts are similar, you can basically plan your essay before even seeing the prompt. Prompts tend to ask for your argument on individuality, success, heroes, and progress. The books you read in English class are almost always good choices for examples. List a few books you enjoyed reading and list all the themes found in a book. When you practice writing your essay using that specific example, notice if it is difficult to write about for that specific prompt. If it is, do not use the example when you come across a similar prompt.
Details are important
Finding an example that works is the easy part. Now you must extract important details from the example toward your argument. Try not to stray from what the prompt is asking you. Focus on how your example works to support your argument rather than why you chose this specific example. Three to five detailed sentences are ideal in supporting an example.
Cut what is unnecessary—you only have 25 minutes!
You do not need four sentences explaining the plot of the book you’re using as an example. Combine it all into one clean-cut sentence. Characters can be introduced in the topic sentence. Do not embellish your essay with superfluous SAT vocabulary words; they will seem out of place. I suggest taking 22 minutes to write your essay, and use the extra three minutes to proofread and make sure you have at least five SAT words in your essay.
Best of luck! For more on-on-one help acing the writing section, check out Testive’s SAT prep resources.
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Earlier, I wrote a post with a sample new SAT essay prompt and an example on how to annotate the text to look for evidence while you are reading it. Today, I’m going to give you an example of how those annotations were used to write a perfect, 8-point essay. This is part one of a series of four attempts to answer this essay prompt. So, try it yourself and evaluate your essay based on our examples. For even more essay fun (because it’s super fun, right??), you can also check out another prompt here.
A few reminders
About essay scoring: The new SAT essay has a different scoring rubric than the old essay, which we go over here. For more of a complete understanding of what each point means for each area of scoring (reading, analysis, and writing), you can check that out on The College Board’s website.
About comparing essays: Writing an 8-point essay can be really, really hard to do, even for capable writers. As Elizabeth referred to in this post, 50 minutes is not a lot of time to read and analyze a text and then write a beautifully articulate essay about it. So if you find yourself not at the level you want to be after comparing essays, don’t be down! It’s really all about practice and always keeping track of how you can do better next time.
Example 8-point Essay
In the New York Times article “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that although expressing gratitude is important, particularly toward those that deserve our thanks, in practice, gratitude has evolved into a rather selfish act. Ehrenreich reasons through concrete, real-world examples as well as appeal to pathos to convincingly reveal that the common practice of gratitude has definately become about the self as opposed to about others.
In one example, Ehrenreich discredits the popular practice of gratitude by pointing out the hypocrisy of a foundation that has a prominent role in spreading this ideology. Ehrenreich reveals how the John Templeton Foundation, which plays a significant role in “gratitude’s rise to self-help celebrity status” for funding a number of projects to publically spread the message of gratitude, does not provide funding to improve the lives of poor people. Ehrenreich forces the reader to question The John Templeton Foundation for preferring to fund projects that “improve…attitudes” as opposed to more philanthropic aims, which is the purpose of most foundations. As delivering this example required a bit of investigative journalism on Ehrenreich’s part, Ehrenreich also impresses the reader with her well-researched knowledge about the practice of gratitude, which lends more credence to Ehrenreich and her views.
Ehrenreich also paints a lucid picture of the selfishness of gratitude in practice by referring to an example of gratitude advice from a well-known source. In a CNN article, a yoga instructor posits gratitude advice, such as “writing what you give thanks for on a sticky note and posting it on your mirror” or creating “a ‘thankfulness’ reminder on your phone.” In the next line, Ehrenreich then offers her analysis: “Who is interacting here? ‘You’ and ‘you.’” By analyzing the excerpt of the gratitude advice itself, the audience can see Ehrenreich’s point for themselves, in which popular messaging about gratitude is inherently self-serving. Furthermore, isolating Ehrenreich’s pithy analysis of the advice serves as an effective stylistic technique to ensure that the reader truly focuses on the central argument.
Finally, Ehrenreich artfully uses appeal to pathos to draw a distinction between how gratitude is practiced and how it should be practiced. Ehrenreich is ultimately arguing that we should not do away with gratitude but rather we should practice “a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now.” She then lists the menial labor done to ensure one has food on the table and emphasizes that those who enact the labor are actual people with “aching backs and tenuous finances.” These descriptive details of these jobs and the workers serve to generate compassion and perhaps even guilt in the reader—who, as an NY Times reader, is likely a member of a privileged class—for not considering a more inclusive practice of gratitude. These feelings surely heighten Ehrenreich’s point that gratitude in practice has not been focused on those who truly deserve it. Erenreich then goes on to show specific examples of how one can show gratitude to these individuals, beyond just saying thanks, which highlights the selfishness of the current state of gratitude.
Therefore, it is evident that through relevant and real-world examples, reasoning, and appeals to emotion, Ehrenreich provides a cogent argument regarding the selfishness of how society, as a whole, practices gratitude.
Why this essay would receive an 8
This is a really solid essay. Let’s break it down by category.
- Reading comprehension: The writer’s thorough understanding of the essay is shown not only by their understanding of Ehrenreich’s central claim, but also in effective paraphrasing of her words. The writer also skillfully incorporates quotations from the original source only when it adds to their point* and stays away from simply summarizing the article, which can be a pitfall if one is not careful.
- Analysis: This essay would probably receive full marks for analysis because it clearly identifies concrete rhetorical elements in Ehrenreich’s essay that support her central point and the purpose of these elements as well as providing a lot of original reasoning for why they were effective (a lot of students might struggle with the latter).
- Writing: This student is clearly a talented writer, using fancy and well-chosen vocabulary (like pithy, cogent, artful). The writer also gets A+ for varying sentence structure and essay organization, in which there is a solid intro and conclusion** and each rhetorical element has its own paragraph in the body. There are minor errors in spelling (the dreaded misspelling of definitely), word choice (enact doesn’t really mean carry out, which is what the writer seemed to intend; perform would be a better choice), and grammar and punctuation, but nothing that interferes with meaning and quality.
*Seriously, annotate! If you refer back to the annotation of the original text, you will notice that the writer mainly used quotations that were underlined in the annotations. That’s why underlining important parts of the text, as you read, is a great way to easily refer back to the most relevant quotes that you can copy in your essay.
**The College Board doesn’t seem to care if your intro and conclusion basically say the same thing. As long as you succinctly summarize your central claim in the intro and switch up how you say it in the concluding paragraph, you should be good!
About Anika Manzoor
A former High School blogger, Anika now serves as the editor for Magoosh's company and exam blogs. In other words, she spends way too much time scouring the web for the perfect gif for a given post. She's currently an MPP candidate at Harvard University and wants her life back, so if you ever find it, please let her know.
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