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The SAT Essay: Top 10 Do's and Don'ts

Posted in Test Prep on August 23, 2010 by

Cailey Hall is the SAT essay guru for Knewton’s SAT prep course.

As Knewton’s resident SAT essay grader, I get to read a lot of SAT essays. While every essay is different – and I always enjoy seeing how students choose to tackle the prompts – I do notice some of the same issues coming up again and again. Rather than tear my hair out every time I encounter one of these problems, I wanted to let you guys know what to do – and what not to do – on the SAT esssay.

Here’s a foolproof list of advice to get you a 6 every time:

1) Do take the time to read the prompt and make sure you understand what it’s asking. Rewrite it in your own language if that’s helpful. If you don’t write an essay that is on the topic presented, you will get a zero. Be sure you know what you’re supposed to be writing about!

2) Don’t start your essay by restating the prompt. SAT essay graders know what the prompt is. They don’t need to see it again. Instead, open with what we at Knewton like to call a “dazzler” sentence – in other words, a sentence that grabs the reader’s attention and gets them excited to read more of what you’ve written!

3) Don’t hide your thesis! Your thesis statement is not an Easter egg. Nobody wants to go hunting for it. Make sure it’s the last sentence of your introduction.

4) Do make your examples specific. The SAT essay is not the place to offer up hypothetical and/or vague examples. Save the metaphysics for when you’re hanging out in a dark Left Bank cafe with a philosophy graduate student named Fabian. Spend the first 5 minutes of the essay section brainstorming specific examples (from literature, history, current events or personal experience) that support your essay. Then choose the best 2-3 examples to turn into your body paragraphs – and make sure you only address one example per body paragraph!

5) Don’t write in the first person. Unless one of your examples is a personal anecdote – in which case, go for the narcissism – stick to the third person. Phrases such as “I think,” “I believe,” “In my opinion,” etc. should be avoided. The essay graders already know that this essay is from your point of view – you don’t need to tell them again!

6) Don’t write in a stream-of-consciousness style. Yes, James Joyce did it to excellent effect. But the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses would also get a bad grade on the SAT. Also – don’t feel like you need to write loooong sentences because they sound “smart.” More likely than not, they will just sound confusing. You don’t want to lose the reader halfway through your sentence-paragraph. Use Ernest Hemingway for inspiration — not Henry James. At the same time, don’t write sentence fragments. Make sure you’ve got a main subject and verb!

7) Donâ’t be redundant. Make your point and move on. Don’t make it twice (or three times) in slightly different language.

8) Do know when – and when not – to use a comma. While comma usage is one of the more debated topics in the scintillating field of grammar studies, the number one rule to keep in mind is: Would I pause at this point when speaking this sentence? If yes, put a comma. If no, don’t put a comma. There are plenty of other times when you should use a comma, but when you’re reading through your essay, keep this main guideline in mind.

9) Don’t introduce new material in your conclusion. I know – it’s hard! You have one more point you desperately want to make but you’re almost out of time and space. Exercise some self control and save that point for later. The conclusion is the place to restate your thesis (using new language, of course), to remind the reader of the excellent, specific examples you have used to support your thesis, and to end with a brilliant parting thought.

10) Do leave yourself time to proofread. The most common errors? Missing words, subject-verb agreement issues, and missing punctuation and capitalization. Also – watch out for verb tenses!

With these rules in mind, writing the SAT essay should be almost as easy and fun as reading (or re-reading) Twilight. Hey, I said almost.