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How to Write an Outline for the SAT Essay

Posted in Test Prep on October 30, 2010 by

The SAT essay requires you to produce a 4 or 5 paragraph essay in a mere 25 minutes, a feat you will likely never be called on to repeat again (I can’t remember ever having less than an hour for a college essay test of comparable length). In this painfully short amount of time you will be asked to form an opinion about a topic, come up with two specific examples to support that opinion, and lay out a formal argument for it.

Believe it or not, the best way to ensure that you have time for all of this is to spend 2 or 3 minutes drafting an effective outline.

“But Jesse,” I can already hear you saying, “we only have 25 precious minutes and you want us to waste 2 or 3 of them writing things down that we’re just going to have to write again?! What sort of madness is this?!” Think about it for a second, though.

I’ll bet if you added up all of the time you spent, halfway through a paragraph, tapping your pencil furiously against your desk, bouncing your knee up and down and thinking “Oh geez, oh geez, what to write next?” it would total more than 2 or 3 minutes. A well written outline should eliminate this sort of waste almost entirely and save you time in the long run (not to mention the fact that it will surely prove less annoying to your neighbor).

The trick is, first of all, to remember that no one but you is ever going to see your outline – so write as little as possible as long as you can understand it. If you can write “gdi>sm>psve fc adv” and remember a few minutes later (not the next day or even a few hours later, just a few minutes) that it means “Ghandi’s salt march was an example of perseverance in the face of adversity,” more power to you. (And your teachers told you that all those text-message abbreviations would hurt your writing!)

Second, be sure to write all the important info (your basic position on the question, your two supporting examples, your evidence connecting them to the questions, etc.) and none of the fluff. Feel free to write down information as it comes to you even if it’s not the order in which you want it to appear in the essay. Once again, nobody ever has to look at the outline except you.

Not only will an outline ultimately save you time and ensure that your essay has structure, it will help you produce an essay in which the structure is obvious. Essay graders don’t like to spend a long time poring over your essay and trying to make sense of your unique writing style. They want to be able to plainly see an introduction, thesis statement, body with specific examples, and conclusion within a 30 second glance at the page. Taking a few minutes to construct an outline before you start writing will help your essay achieve this clarity and structure.