4 Steps to Improve Your Essay Writing for the SAT and College Applications

EssayIntroduction, body paragraph, body paragraph, body paragraph, conclusion. Once you’ve mastered the basic five-paragraph format for short essays, it quickly begins to feel tiresome and overly basic. Fortunately, though the main themes of the five-paragraph essay are important to nearly all levels of academic or professional writing beyond high school. The five-paragraph essay itself becomes less and less relevant to school and work after graduation. However, there are plenty of things you can do to make simple five-paragraph essays (like the one assigned by the SAT) more impressive, interesting, and intricate. Here are a few.

1 .Become a grammar nut.

This goes beyond distinguishing between your, you’re, their, there, and they’re. Learn about the Oxford comma, the difference between who and whom, and how to use “effect” as a verb. Scroll through Grammar Girl articles, actually read through the grammatical corrections your English teacher marks on your papers, and note and correct the grammatical errors you most frequently commit. Good grammar is key to achieving strong academic or professional tone and subtle good-grammar habits, when recognized by graders, always leave a good impression.

2 .Write each body paragraph like its own essay.

In other words, be organized within each body paragraph, instead of listing details in an arbitrary order after the topic sentence. Think of each body paragraph as a tiny essay; the topic sentence is its mini-introduction, and the details are its mini-body. Organize the details within each body paragraph in a logical order, so that each logical and/or causal chain is constructed in an intuitive and easy-to-follow way. Sentence by sentence and link by link, build up to a mini-conclusion; end each body paragraph with one sentence that emphasizes the paragraph’s most important take-away idea. Use transitions between the ideas within paragraphs, not just between paragraphs.

3. Use vocabulary correctly, not just extensively.

Big words can be impressive, but correct usage is just as important as correct meaning, if not more so. Even if your definitions are correct, misusing impressive vocabulary words will make you seem inexperienced, inattentive, and desperate to impress. Sound authoritative and professional, not overeager.

4. Be concise; make every sentence as substantive as possible.

The primary function of words, including advanced ones, is to convey meaning, not to make you sound smarter. Treat each word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph as a tool, not as an end in itself. Before you write something, ask yourself: Do these words contribute something important to the main idea of my paper?If the answer is no, don’t write it. Before you write an advanced vocabulary word, ask yourself: Is there a simple word that would express my point better? If the answer is yes, write the simpler word instead. Treat each advanced vocabulary word as an opportunity to express more complex ideas in fewer words, not as a bonus point on a scoreboard.

Being efficient with your language will make your paper cleaner, more straightforward, less wordy, and easier to follow. Advanced vocabulary will strengthen your understanding of each word, adding depth to your arguments as well as developing your written voice.

If you understand structural and grammatical basics, it’s easy to write a good essay. It is considerably more difficult, however, to produce a great one. Strong structure, tone, and word usage are essential building blocks for great writing at any level and allow high school writers to add an extra dimension of quality to papers.

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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament. 

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