If you choose to complete the SAT essay (it became optional in March 2016), you will be have 50 minutes to write one essay. The passage will be different for every exam. (Or at least it’s supposed to be.)
The prompt, however, is relatively constant and will ask you to read the passage, describe how the author built his or her persuasive argument and then cite the passage itself to support your description. We’re not sure how this is like a typical college writing assignment, which is the College Board’s assertion but, again, thanks for not shooting the messenger here!
The SAT essay test section is different from other parts of the test in that it is graded by actual human beings. Every essay is graded by two scorers, each of whom rates the essay on a scale from 1 (Incomplete) to 4 (Advanced). For more information on SAT essay scores, as well as what we really think about the optional SAT essay test and if you should write it, click here. (We don’t think the rant is too bad.)
Scorers work quickly. We believe they spend only two to three minutes on each essay on average.
Scorers are asked to rate:
1) Reading How well did you understand the passage;
2) Analysis How well did you show your understanding of how the author built his or her argument; and
3) Writing How well you wrote your essay in terms of varying sentence lengths, staying focused, taking an appropriate tone, etc.
Scorers are supposed to understand that SAT essays are first drafts and were written under pressure. They are not supposed to deduct points for a few simple misspellings or grammatical slips, or for lack subject knowledge. In fact, on that last note, limit your essay to the material presented in the passage and DO NOT pull in any outside knowledge on the subject you may possess.
Intimidated? Don’t be. Anyone who can do well on other parts of the SAT can do just as well on the essay. It just takes some preparation.
How to prepare for the SAT essay
Please note that while we are not fans at all of this essay, we still want to impart you with tips that will help you not just with this essay, but also with your future writing skills. And that can never be a bad thing in our opinion!
– Read. Reading will help you internalize the structure and ‘sound’ of written English. It will also provide you with material to use as supporting evidence in your SAT essay. Newspaper editorials and op-eds are good choices because they usually state a problem and take a position on it, in the space of about 500 words (which is probably a bit longer than most SAT essays will be).
– Write. Get in the habit of expressing yourself on paper. If you don’t keep a journal, start one. Better yet, keep an essay journal. Each week or so sit down and write a page or two about your reaction to something you read or saw. Train yourself to be comfortable with writing an essay-type passage in about 20 minutes.
– Get in touch with your inner blowhard. One of the biggest problems test takers face is complete and utter apathy on the question presented by the essay prompt. This is perfectly understandable, as prompts often deal with abstract conflicts that are hard to get worked up about. But keep in mind that you’re being graded on your ability to state an argument and to support it. You have to take some kind of stand. Train yourself to do that. If it helps, put your argument in the mouth of a fictional third person: “Some people would say x. They would cite reasons a, b, and c.” Another option is to re-state the prompt question in a way that makes it easier to respond to. (Be careful not to go too far with this, though – remember, off-topic essays get a zero.)
– Learn essay templates by heart. Another problem test takers face is wasting time on trying to figure out how to connect one paragraph to another. You can minimize this problem by learning essay templates – structures that you can plug almost any material into. The classic five paragraph essay (topic sentence followed by three supporting paragraphs followed by a conclusion) is one example. Another example is the “on the one hand – one the other hand” type of comparison. An English writing textbook will give you other ideas.
– Brush up your grammar and spelling. Look at the writing you do in your journal and for school assignments. Identify and correct any mistakes you tend to make. Minor slips in grammar or spelling aren’t likely to hurt your SAT essay score. However, a pattern of mistakes might suggest that you just aren’t competent in standard written English.
– Clean up your handwriting. Scorers aren’t supposed to mark papers down for bad penmanship, but if they honestly can’t make out what you’ve written, you may get a lower score than you deserve. Remember that you’ll be asked to write – frantically – for 50 minutes. Make sure you can do that without being crippled by arm or hand cramps.
What to do on test day
– Read the entire prompt. Don’t be in such a rush to start your essay that you risk misunderstanding the question you’re asked to respond to.
– Use scrap paper. Scrap paper is your friend. Use it to brainstorm ideas and to sketch out an outline for your essay.
– Start your essay with an introductory paragraph. It should 1) repeat the question asked by the prompt and 2) clearly state your position on that question.
– Continue your essay with supporting arguments. Try to give two or three reasons for why you have taken the position you did on the prompt question. If you can only come up with one reason, give a detailed explanation of why it supports your stand, and say why it is important enough to make the case on its own.
– End your essay with a conclusion. The conclusion can simply restate the stand you have taken, or it can make a broader point.
– Try to leave time for proofreading. Try to finish your essay early enough that you have time to read it over quickly and correct any obvious mistakes in spelling, word usage, or grammar.
How long does a SAT essay need to be?
“Write long” is the most frequently cited advice we’ve seen about the SAT essay test section. It seems based on an informal study from some time back that found a strong correlation between long essays and high scores.
We encourage you to take that advice with a grain of salt. For one thing, the study used a very small sample of essays that were scored during the first administration of the revised SAT. It’s hard to draw general conclusions from that experience. For another thing, what the study called a “short” essay meant one of as little as 100 words. The problem with those essays was more likely a lack of content or an undeveloped argument than their length.
Our advice is to focus on content instead of word count. Use as many words as you need to express your thoughts. If you practice writing essays, you’ll develop a good sense of how much you can write in the allotted 50 minutes, and of how much space you need to lay out an argument.
If you absolutely cannot come up with a coherent response to the prompt, writing long may cut your losses. At least you’ll show more of your command of written English. However, we think a complete, concise essay is always going to score higher than a rambling, long one.