Wednesday, March 11, 2015

SAT March 2015 Countdown: 3 How to Write an SAT Essay


SAT Essay Prompt: Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?

Read the quote—don’t ponder the meaning of the quote, it is simply there to prime ideas.  Read the prompt, again.  THINK, for one solid minute, THINK. 

Pencils up, but don’t write your essay just yet.


It is important to know how much you can write in twenty minutes.  Yes, I know you thought you had twenty-five minutes, but it is very, very important to take one minute to THINK, two minutes to ORGANIZE, twenty minutes to WRITE, and two minutes to FIX your essay.  The time that you invest in thinking about the prompt--taking a position and narrowing your topic—will help you formulate your thesis around which you can build an effective essay.  The students who start writing immediately will usually run out of ideas half-way through their essay.  Fore-thought and organization facilitates fluency and coherence.

ORGANIZE: Sequence

After you have spent one minute thinking about the prompt, select appropriate and complementary examples which support your thesis.  Choosing a side can also affect the sequence of the examples.  Take, for example, three novels from a secondary English curriculum: Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Scarlet Letter.  If you wrote your essay solely according to chronological order, Scarlet Letter would come first; but if you focused on the protagonists’ responses to “knowledge,” Dimsdale represents the midway point between Winston Smith’s failure and Montag’s victory.

Knowledge = Power (benefit):
1) 1984: Winston Smith is liberated by knowledge, but is betrays his love;
2) Scarlet Letter: Dimsdale is liberated by knowledge and dies free;
3) Fahrenheit 451: Montag is liberated by knowledge and lives free in a new communityà ultimate victory for GOOD!

On the other hand, if your thesis proposes that knowledge is a burden, you world present evidence from the novels in a different order, building up to antagonist’s victory over the protagonist.

Knowledge = Power (burden):
1) Fahrenheit 451: Beatty holds secret over Montag, but Montag kills him;
2) Scarlet Letter: Chillingsworth holds secret over Dimsdale; however, Dimsdale neutralizes Chillingsworth power by declaring his love for Hester.
3) 1984: O’Brien manipulates both Winston Smith and Julia to betray each otherà ultimate victory for EVIL!

ORGANIZE: Two or Three Body Paragraphs?

Look at secondary and tertiary themes or topics that the novels have in common such as the characters response to technology, the environment, the government, etc.  With preparation, a quick and confident writer can easily knock out three body paragraphs of similar length and level of detail.  A slower writer, however, may forgo the second body paragraph about the “Scarlet Letter” in favor of delivering two fully-fleshed paragraphs about dystopian novels.  Perhaps, the writer would swap out “Scarlet Letter” for “Animal Farm,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Uglies Trilogy, or even the “Hunger Games.”  A good thesis, supported by the strong examples and concrete details, are critical for the Point of View rubric.

ORGANIZE: Examples

Besides from books, where do examples come from?  Some students write about stories they recently shared from Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube.  Other students look up and write about whatever is around them.  While they scribble away about the History classroom poster-boys (Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Gandhi), consider their contemporaries (Malcolm X, Delores Huerta, Harvey Milk) or recent covers of TIME magazine (Barack Obama, the “Tank Man” of Tiananmen, or Malala Yousafza of Pakistan). 

For those students who default to Hitler, I’m not going to say: DON’T; I’m going to ask: WHY?  The answer, “Because it’s EASY,” will result in the low score which your lack of effort deserves. Stalin, Pol Pot, and Nicolae Ceausescu are alternatives, but it more interesting to write about people who make ethical decisions in morally ambiguous situations: pair the protagonists in “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque with “Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.

If you don’t like novels or history, don’t use examples from your English or History class.  If you are a nerd, write about math; if you are a jock, write about sports; if you are a musician, write about music. 

  • Same rules apply: ANSWER THE PROMPT IN DETAIL. 
  • Same process applies: THINK, ORGANIZE, WRITE, FIX. 

Writer’s Block

Finally, what to do when there is nothing but BLANK in your brain and on your paper.  Quick: jot down your class schedule—what has been the most interesting project or story from each class?  Are you involved with any extra-curricular activities, jobs, or internships?  Write about something that you actually have personal knowledge about and focus on how you changed during the experience.  Although teachers applaud academic success, they feel affirmed when their students apply book knowledge beyond the classroom walls.  What would you rather read: a rehash of the Industrial Revolution or the misadventures of a robotics team?  Narrow your answer and complement it with an appropriate anecdote, book, historical event, or “passion” which you can write about in under twenty minutes. 


Introduction: Hooks are nice, but don’t get stuck.  Write a bare bones introductory paragraph:
  1. Sentence One: THESIS = OPINION (about the essay prompt) + NARROWED TOPIC.  
  2. Sentence Two: EXAMPLE 1 + EXAMPLE 2 ( + EXAMPLE 3) will prove THESIS.
    1. Also known as the ABC Thesis

Vocabulary—while you write, vary your Vocabulary: use the word that most clearly conveys your most.
1.      Mix common words with academic and technical vocabularies to display mastery
2.      Limit colloquialisms.
3.      Rarely use slang or jargon.
4.      Never use vulgarity.

Sentence Syntax— while you write, vary your Sentence syntax: use the syntax that most effectively conveys your position.
  1. Mix simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
  2. Use lists or statistics to deliver quick, concrete detail (don’t name drop--be prepared to develop facts).
  3. Use parallelism, analogies, metaphors, dialogue, and quotes carefully.
  4. Use sparingly exclamatory and interrogative sentences or rhetorical questions.

Body Paragraph 1:
  1. Write topic sentence about EXAMPLE 1.
  2. Write one or two sentences anecdote or description about EXAMPLE 1.
  3. Write two or three more sentences with concrete detail about how EXAMPLE 1 illustrates THESIS. 

Body Paragraph 2:
  1. Write a transition from Body Paragraph 1 to Body Paragraph 2
    1. OR Skip 2 lines and add Transition 1 later.
  2. Write topic sentence about EXAMPLE 2
  3. Write one or two sentences anecdote or description about EXAMPLE 2
  4. Write two or three more sentences with concrete detail about how EXAMPLE 2 illustrates THESIS. 
  5. Key: EXAMPLE 2 must develop, expand, or contrast with EXAMPLE 2.

Optional Body Paragraph 3:  Teachers and readers prefer the standard five-paragraph essay because it allows a writer to fully expand ideas and fully explore topics.  However, students can deliver a solid four-paragraph if they compare and contrast their examples in depth.  Don’t forget to skip two lines to add transition later or to expand Body Paragraph 2. 
  1. Write a topic sentence about EXAMPLE 3
    1. OR Skip 2 lines and add Transition 2 later.
  2. Write one or two sentences anecdote or description about EXAMPLE 3.
  3. Write two or three more sentences with concrete detail about how EXAMPLE 3 illustrates THESIS. 
  4. Key: EXAMPLE 3 must develop, expand, or contrast with EXAMPLE 1 and 2.

BEWARE: One possible danger of writing a five-paragraph essay is that as the students writes against the clock, details and vocabulary drop by the way-side, leaving the essay lopsided by Body Paragraph 3.  Do not binge on verbiage—write a “normal” amount: four to five sentences—the essay still needs “room” for the conclusion.  Longer is better; complete and well-balances is the best.

  1. Gather your examples and link them back to your thesis
  2. State how your thesis addresses the SAT prompt.
  3. Link your thesis through the SAT prompt to a universal theme/truth.
  4. State why your argument “matters.”


Remember: Leave two minutes to FIX your essay:
  1. Check paragraph order—are the examples developed in a logical sequence? If not, label each paragraph with the correct paragraph number. 
  2. Correct grammar mistakes, especially verb tenses and dangling participles. 
  3. Look for “to be” participles and change them to active verbs. 
  4. Scan for repetition and substitute appropriate synonyms.  Add technical vocabulary to demonstrate mastery. 
  5. Smooth transitions between paragraphs.

“Pencils down!”  Take a deep breath--there’s a whole lot more test (and life) to come. 

--How to Write an SAT Essay by Teacher Jennifer ( (updated 05/21/13)

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