The 25 Minute Time Limit: How to Conquer the SAT Writing Section

The 25 minute limit on the SAT essay is understandably intimidating. After all, 25 minutes is about the time it would take to watch a single episode of How I Met Your Mother. The first time I took the SAT, I was barely able to complete two paragraphs. Nearly every student I’ve taught has cited this time limit as the primary obstacle in the SAT Writing section.

Fortunately, like any other part of the SAT, the time limit can be conquered by practice, dedication, and good test-taking strategies. Here are a few…

1. Understand what is expected of you.

It is unlikely that any high school class will ask you to write an essay within a time limit as short as 25 minutes. The types of essays you are generally expected to produce are far more complex. SAT prompts are in the form of simple yes-no questions because they are designed to be answerable in a simple 25-minute essay. To get a good idea of the kind of essay you should write (and to be reassured that it is completely doable within 25 minutes), check out the scored sample essays on the College Board website. This is no excuse not to write a good essay. It just means that you don’t need to write a complex one.

2. Be prepared.

Now that you know what kind of essay to write, prepare some examples that you can draw on to support whatever stance you take on the essay prompt. Read classic works of literature (To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Scarlet Letter—anything that your English teacher might assign to you) and note major details like the full names of the main characters, the author, and the setting. Follow some current events, major actors, and developments. Pay attention in history class. These will all support you in preparing for the essay prompt.

3. Don’t second-guess yourself.

You’ll write more quickly if you stop hesitating. Overcome perfectionist instincts by keeping in mind that you are turning out a short and relatively simple piece of writing. Your essay will be just one of more than 1.5 million essays that College Board essay graders must work through; it will be nearly impossible for you to write anything that the graders have not seen before. If it is grammatically correct and supports your thesis, just write it. Provided that you have practiced diligently, you can be reasonably sure that your writing will be effective.

4. Practice writing timed SAT essays.

This is by far the best way to build confidence and improve your writing. In the context of the SAT, it comes with two additional benefits. First, you will become more comfortable with the “feel” of the time limit. 25 minutes feels very different depending on the situation: whether you’re waiting for a late bus, chatting with a good friend, or writing an essay that will influence your college admissions. The only way to really understand how it feels to write a SAT essay in 25 minutes is to actually sit down and do it—preferably many times over. Second, you can develop essay templates, which are specific phrases and structures that you will reuse in each essay. Since all SAT essays are based on a simple yes-no prompt, you should always have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion template that you can apply to different essay prompts. Templates allow you to write quickly since they reduce the need to come up with new phrasing while under the pressure of the clock.

The SAT essay time limit is only as scary as you allow it to be. 25 minutes may not be a lot of time, but with some practice and planning, you’ll be ready to conquer the writing section!

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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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