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The SAT Essay: Basic Principles

Learn basic principles and tips behind the essay section of the SAT.

In this article, you will find:

Page 1

The SAT Essay: Basic Principles

Strunk and White Would Have Bombed on the SAT Essay
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and the incomparable essayist E. B. White, is universally acknowledged as one of the best books ever written on crafting nonfiction. And while most of the advice in this slim, 85-page volume is relevant to the SAT essay, it does contain three maxims likely to lead students astray on the test:
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Avoid fancy words.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong again! (At least when you re taking the SAT Writing Test.) There's nothing natural about writing an SAT essay, you don't have the time to omit needless words, and the fancier your words the higher your score.

Remember: SAT Writing Is Different
As I mentioned in Introduction to the SAT Writing Test, the kind of writing the graders expect to see is not "personal" or "creative," but rather clear, organized, persuasive, and scholarly. SAT writing is different from the kind of writing you do naturally and informally, like writing letters to friends or journal entries.

Your SAT graders have very definite expectations—and prejudices—about the kind of essay they expect from you. The simple, concise, natural writing advocated by Strunk and White will leave them underwhelmed. (Besides, as even Strunk and White would readily admit: simple, concise writing is anything but natural. Such writing requires painstaking efforts, numerous rewrites, and lots of time to achieve—all luxuries you don't have while writing your SAT essay at breakneck speed.)

Let's get something straight: the SAT essay is not designed to test "how well you write." It is designed to test how well—and rapidly—you orient yourself to a new topic, organize your thoughts, and write the first draft of a persuasive essay.

How well the SAT essay accomplishes that task, and the relevance of that task for the kinds of writing you are expected to do in college and beyond, are matters you and I will leave to others to debate.

The Only People Faster Than You Writing Your SAT Essay Are the Graders Scoring It
You are most likely used to getting back papers from your English teachers full of carefully written margin notes applauding its graces and subtleties, and gently admonishing its lapses. It's clear that they've spent a lot of time perusing your prose.

Now it's time to wake up to the land of SAT essays! Each grader will probably take less time to grade your entire essay than you did writing the first two sentences.

According to the test publishers, your essay will be graded "holistically," which is a euphemism for very, very quickly. In all likelihood, each grader will spend at most 60 seconds speed-reading your essay. Unlike your classroom teachers, your two SAT graders don't have the time to appreciate the brilliant nuances of your thinking or to savor your wonderful prose style. Each SAT grader has dozens, if not hundreds, of essays to mark. As a result, your essay's score will be based entirely on the first impressions formed by two harried graders.

If your essay seems to be organized and well written, if your examples seem to be scholarly, then you'll receive a high mark. Does that sound unfair? Maybe. But since your score depends on the graders snap judgments of your writing, perhaps you should learn how to turn the graders haste to your advantage.

You've Got Twelve Seconds to Impress—or Disappoint—the Graders
Okay, I made that number up, but twelve seconds really is about the amount of time it will take an SAT grader to read your first paragraph and form his or her initial impression of your essay.

Did I say "initial impression?" That's not quite accurate. By the time a grader finishes reading your first paragraph, that grader will form what is likely to be his or her only impression of the grade your entire essay deserves. And once SAT readers have made up their mind about your essay, they will probably change their opinion little if at all.

Stop! Please Read This Information before Continuing
The next page contains a sample essay topic that you can do as an online RocketScore practice exercise. If you read the topic now, without composing an essay immediately afterward, you'll deprive yourself of valuable practice.

I strongly recommend that you read the sample instructions only when you have 25 minutes to write a sample essay. Use a legal pad to compose your response. When you're done, transfer your answer into the RocketScore online form to get a score.

If you don't feel like writing a practice essay right now, just skip over the directions box; you can always return to read the instructions later.

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