How To Succeed On The Essay Portion Of The SAT

The SAT writing section is unique in that it is the only part of the test that is graded subjectively. It is a 25 minute section where you are presented with a prompt (could be a quote by someone famous) and an assignment (a question about the prompt or a guideline to follow for the essay). The instructions are simple – write an essay. There is no preferred format or technical direction to follow which gives the test taker flexibility in their writing.

The important instructions are outlined at the beginning of the section:

  • Develop a point of view on an issue presented in the excerpt
  • Support your point of view using reasoning and examples from your reading, studies, experience or observations
  • Follow the conventions of standard written English

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There are a few different ways to approach this part of the test – but an effective and proven strategy is to prewrite the essay.

This may sound illogical since you do not get the prompt or assignment before the test; but you can still be prepared. Having 2 or 3 paragraphs ready to go can put you in a stronger position on test day. You know from the instructions that in order to support a point you are making you will be drawing on your own life experience. Think back on poignant moments – something that stuck with you. It could be a lesson learned from a teacher or a volunteer opportunity you took part in or a time you and your team beat a rival.

But again, you may ask – if I don’t know the question, how can I give the answer? The strategy here is transition sentences. If you volunteered at a middle school and helped a child learn how to read, you can cater this to many different topics: Charity, education, children are the future, relationships, overcoming adversity, inspirational moments, a time you were challenged, poverty in the inner city, economic disparity, etc. And once you have the transition sentence, you can dive right back into your previously written paragraph.

Another benefit of prewriting the essay is that it will give you a chance to show off your vocabulary. In your preparation, try to pepper in SAT caliber vocab words to show the graders that you have a command of these words and are able to use them correctly and comfortably. This will give you a chance to improve your language skills and review your sentences with a teacher or tutor to make sure they are as strong as possible. This way on test day, even if you have to tweak your paragraphs a little to fit into the subject, you will still have 3-4 strong sentences which will be guaranteed to impress the graders.

Practice writing these paragraphs over and over. Not only will this help you memorize and ingrain the material into your mind, but handwriting is important. If the graders cannot read what you write, it is hard for them to evaluate it properly.

Finally, with a prewritten essay, you are able to come into the test more relaxed. Once you read the prompt, you will not be searching you brain for examples or stressing about having enough material to cite. When you sit down, take a minute or two to draw up a quick outline so you can refer back to it and know where you want the direction of the essay to go. (This is a good idea no matter if you choose to prewrite the essay or not). Then, once you are ready, you will already have some examples and experiences at your fingertips and will be ready to write.