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SAT Writing

Since 2005, the SAT has included a writing portion. Writing a complete essay in 25 minutes may seem like a daunting task to many students, but with patience and practice, it can become much less intimidating. The SAT is the place to show off what you’ve learned about writing an essay.

The SAT Question

Students taking the SAT will be given a statement followed by a question. Here’s a sample question taken from the CollegeBoard SAT website:

Many persons believe that to move up the ladder of success and achievement, they must forget the past, repress it, and relinquish it. But others have just the
opposite view. They see old memories as a chance to reckon with the past and
integrate past and present.

Adapted from Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and

Assignment: Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

What the SAT Score Means

Graders score the SAT essay on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the highest score. Because two graders score the essay, the highest possible score is 12 (with both graders assigning a score of 6). Here is what a score of 6 looks like:

An essay in this category demonstrates clear and consistent mastery, although it may have a few minor errors. A typical essay:

  • Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position
  • Is well organized and clearly focused, demonstrating clear coherence and smooth progression of ideas
  • Exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate and apt vocabulary
  • Demonstrates meaningful variety in sentence structure
  • Is free of most errors in grammar, usage and mechanics
  • Originally posted on the CollegeBoard SAT website

Based on this information, here are the important aspects of a good SAT essay:

  1. Good critical thinking
  2. Appropriate support
  3. Good organization
  4. Skillful use of language
  5. Sentence variety
  6. Good editing skills

Let’s look at each of these areas to see how you can develop these important skills.

  1. Good critical thinking
    Critical thinking comes with age and experience–and with practice. Try to think outside the box. If the question gives two options, try to think of a third option that’s not mentioned.
    Here’s an example:Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?

    The question asks if memories hinder or help. These are the only two options given. Well, maybe they do both! Or maybe some memories hinder and some memories help. Try to think of other options when deciding on the main idea for your essay. This will show good critical thinking.

  2. Appropriate support
    Having good examples is critical in this essay. Avoid giving generic or hypothetical examples like this one:
    Every day people try to succeed at something, but they are often hindered because of something they did in the past. They keep reliving an event or experience that they can’t get past. They need psychological help.
    The problem here is that no specific support is given. There’s no specific example from the student’s reading, studies, experience, or observations. Instead, the student should use a specific example like this one:

    One time my stomach was growling as I was lying in bed. I couldn’t help but
    remember the chocolate chip cookies my mother had baked just a few hours
    earlier. I sneaked down the stairs as quietly as a mouse, pausing at my parents’
    door to see if they were sleeping. I snatched a cookie and ran back to my room,
    gulping down the stolen goodie between pants. The next day, my mother told me
    that she had packed an extra cookie in my lunch because I had been behaving so
    well. I hoped she didn’t see the guilt on my face as I kissed her goodbye and got
    on the bus. During my spelling test that day, the memory of that stolen cookie kept
    distracting me, and I couldn’t concentrate. I ended up with a D on the test.

    Do you see the difference? Always aim for specific examples. If you can’t come up with an example from your reading, try writing one from your own personal experience. If nothing comes to mind, you can make up an example. Just make sure that it’s interesting and that it supports the point you’re trying to make!

  3. Good organization
    An SAT essay needs to be well organized. One of the easiest ways to organize the essay is by using the five-paragraph essay structure. Click to read more about essay structure. Graders will be looking for some sort of structure to your essay, so be sure to organize it well!
  4. Skillful use of language
    The SAT essay is a great place to show off your language skills. However, don’t get so fancy that your meaning gets lost. Be sure to use words that you understand well enough to use correctly. Chances are, if you use a big word incorrectly, the grader will know! These graders are high school and college teachers, and they’re good at what they do. Stick with what you know–and study hard in English class!
  5. Sentence variety
    To keep the grader from falling asleep, vary your sentence structure once in a while. Instead of saying, “I snatched a cookie and ran back to my room,” you might try one of these variations:
    In a hurry, I snatched a cookie and ran back to my room.
    Hurriedly, I snatched a cookie and ran back to my room.
  6. Good editing skills
    Save the last few minutes of your time to edit your essay. This is the time to polish up your work and make it shine. If you’re not very good at editing your own work, then you will need to practice these skills before taking the SAT test. Learn how to recognize sentence fragments and run-on sentences, and be diligent about eliminating them from your writing. Don’t skim when you’re editing–read each word carefully. Do you see any misspelled words? Do you know where to put commas? Did you use too many exclamation points? Work on becoming a good self-editor.

In Conclusion

Here are some hints to develop your own writing to get a good score:

  1. Read, read, read! Reading helps develop your vocabulary and also gives you a variety of examples to write about. It can also help you see how other authors use sentence variety.
  2. Write, write, write! The more you practice writing an essay, the more easily you’ll be able to do it.
  3. Plan, plan, plan! Planning is extremely important when trying to develop a coherent essay. The more you plan, the less your writing will wander, and the less time you’ll waste trying to think of where to go next while writing.

It’s a good idea to practice writing a timed essay in pencil several times before taking the real essay since that’s exactly how you’ll have to write the essay eventually.

Happy writing!

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