Don’t forget to check out our schedule of Knerd Week SAT workshops here!
The SAT essay gets a worse rap than it deserves. Students often believe that it’s impossible to prepare for the essay because there’s a different prompt to answer every single time. While you certainly can’t – and shouldn’t! – write and memorize an essay to use and reuse, there are definitely steps you can take to prepare for the SAT essay.
How? Create an “SAT essay arsenal.” Much like a politician prepares talking points in order to answer certain anticipated questions, you can stock your SAT essay arsenal with examples that will work for a multitude of expected SAT essay topics. Just like the rest of the SAT, the essay loves to test the same things again and again. And again. While the specific wording of the prompt will be different every time, it will inevitably touch upon one of a handful of broad themes:
2) Independent thought/the group vs. the individual
3) Facing adversity/dealing with success
4) Technology and progress
Your mission is to write an essay that takes a specific stance (you either agree or disagree – the SAT is not a fan of the middle ground) and uses 2-3 specific examples to support your thesis statement. These examples can come from books (preferably something you’ve read in English class… but if you can use Twilight to effectively support your thesis, then go for it – and please send me a transcript), history you’ve studied, current events (avoid potentially contentious topics like various wars abroad and partisan political issues), or your own awesome life. It’s best if each of your examples comes from a different category (e.g.: write about a book in the first paragraph, and a historical figure/event in the second) to show that you have a broad range of information at your disposal.
How do I get this broad range of information, you might ask? Well, you do need to prepare ahead of time. Before you start writing practice essays – which you should also do – brainstorm 3 or so examples from each category (books, history, current events, personal experience). The key is to focus on examples that you like. What 2-3 books have you recently read and enjoyed (or at least not hated)? The great thing about the classics of English lit is that they cover a lot of the themes that appear on the SAT essay. The Great Gatsby is always a sure bet, as are dystopian hits (1984, Fahrenheit 451), or Shakespeare faves (Hamlet, Othello). Remind yourself of the main plot points, character names, and themes that come up in these books.
Do the same for historical events and figures. Love the American Revolution but can never wrap your mind around what World War I was all about? Then brush up on the key players and events in the good ol’ War for Independence and forget all about Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Trailblazing independent thinkers also make for good examples – make sure you have someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. (or his namesake, Martin Luther) in your arsenal.
Celebrities can often provide excellent, non-divisive “current events” examples. Lady Gaga makes a great case for independent thinking, while Britney Spears’ extremely public breakdown provides excellent fodder for the “disastrous success”-type questions. As you can see, not all your examples have to be effete – they just need to be specific and relevant.
Prompts that concern technology and progress cause problems for many test-takers, who end up writing vague complaints along the lines of “Kids these days play too many video games!” While World of Warcraft’s merits are indeed debatable, try to offer more specific examples. Students often get thrown by these technology-related questions because they think all their examples need to be extremely current. If you’re arguing for progress/change, historical examples such as Jonas Salk and the polo vaccine also work excellently. If you’re taking the opposite stance, you can also reference literature (e.g.: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Or if you’re just dying to rant about your peers, then you could address the potential inclusion of video game addiction as an actual mental illness in the next version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
As with the rest of the SAT, preparing for the essay does involve actual work. But if you outfit your arsenal with examples for every type of question, you’ll be in excellent shape come test day!
And remember, if you’re not a student and would like to attend our SAT workshops this week, you can sign up here!