The SAT essay is daunting for many reasons: the time limit, the fact that prompts aren’t revealed until the test begins, and the significance of the SAT Writing score. While it’s important to address all of these obstacles (and to remember not to stress too much about them!) it is equally important not to forget about the core element of the essay itself: writing well. Here are a few SAT-customized tips to keep in mind.
1. Write naturally. Flow and tone are key to good writing. Unfortunately, since the SAT essay calls for academic writing, students who are uncomfortable with academic tone attempt to artificially professionalize their natural writing voice. The result is choppy, stiff, awkward prose that ends up detracting from the essay. To avoid this, try imagining that you are explaining something important to a highly attentive and interested politician. (This shouldn’t be hard; most SAT prompts discuss serious subjects, from morality to global concerns like technology and the environment.) Write as you would speak and check your grammar as you go.
2. Don’t incorrectly incorporate complex vocabulary. Complex vocabulary is impressive if you know how to use it. However, if you are at all unsure how to appropriately integrate a complex vocabulary word, don’t use it. From a grading perspective, there are few clearer signs of an inexperienced or unskilled writer trying to fake it. If you are learning vocabulary for the sake of improving your SAT score, make sure to learn the words definition but also the correct usage.
3. Read sample essays available online on the College Board website. Why did high-scoring essays achieve the scores they did? What could low-scoring essays have done better? Sample essays can be instrumental in gaining a more complete understanding not only of what constitutes good writing, but also what the College Board identifies as good writing—a great standard to keep in mind while crafting your essay.
4. Become a grammar nut. Great writing requires great grammar, perhaps the strongest building block of good writing (no great sentence ever mixed up “your” and “you’re”). Ask your English teacher whether he or she has noticed any specific grammatical errors in your writing. You can also take a Veritas Prep SAT course or read books and news articles to improve your grammar.
5. Get good at writing quickly and well…at the same time. This is difficult, but far from impossible. One good exercise to improve the quality of your speed writing is stream-of-consciousness journaling. Pull out a piece of paper and write as well as you can about anything you like—your day, your dreams, your dog—make sure your hand never stops moving. After a few minutes, stop writing and read what you’ve written. This is a great way to identify the types of mistakes you are most likely to make when crunched for time during the SAT essay. Practicing SAT essays is also helpful. Therefore…
6. Practice writing timed SAT essays. This is the best way to improve your SAT writing, since there is no point in learning about elements of good writing unless you incorporate them into the way you write. The only effective way to do this is by developing good habits, which can only be achieved with good practice.
7. Revise your practice essays the day after writing them. A little distance can make it easier to spot your own mistakes. Note what you have done well and recognize areas in need of improvement.
8. Ask others to help you revise your essays—people who you know you. Think English teachers, parents, or friends in higher grade levels. Their input will give you a fresh perspective on your writing. If you’re anything like me, knowing that your essay will be read by someone whose opinion you value will motivate you to write better essays.
The best SAT essays are set apart by excellent writing. Practice and plan in order to become a better student to develop your writing skills and—of course—to write the best SAT essay you can.
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.