The SAT essay calls for a more formal and academic tone of writing than some students are comfortable with. Over my two and a half years as an SAT instructor, I’ve received an extraordinary number of questions about what formal tone should look like. Far too often, students mistake complexity for formality, misuse of advanced vocabulary or simply focus too much on tone that they forget the importance of strong content. Here are a few of the most common errors I’ve seen regarding SAT essay tone and how to avoid them.
1. Remember the assignment. Your job is to write an essay that expresses and explains a point of view. In other words, your job is to communicate with your reader in an understandable way. Clarity is always more important than tone; an informal sentence is always preferable to an incomprehensible or grammatically incorrect one. Do not modify the tone of a sentence if doing so will compromise its clarity or correctness.
2. Academic writing does not need to be complex. The first sentence of this tip had a formal and academic tone, but was still very simple and understandable. To achieve an SAT-appropriate tone, simply avoid contractions, omit slang, keep your analysis as objective as possible, and avoid writing in first or second person. Ensure that nothing you write could come across as offensive, and unless you’re writing proper nouns, only use words that you are sure you could find in a reputable dictionary. Flowery language, needlessly long sentences, and overuse of allusions do not improve tone; usually they only inhibit a reader’s ability to understand your main idea.
3. Advanced vocabulary is only helpful if used correctly. Advanced vocabulary can leave a good impression on a reader, but misused advanced vocabulary is considered an error. Every grammatical error detracts from your credibility as a writer and can badly damage the tone of your essay. Before incorporating an advanced vocabulary word, be sure you know both its definition and its usage. If you are ever unsure about either, use a different word.
4. Read your practice essays aloud. Could anything that you’ve stated come across as offensive or biased? Would you feel comfortable speaking in that manner to a judge, an employer, or a government official? Do you sound respectful and confident? If not, you may have an inconsistent or informal tone.
5. Have someone read your essay to you. Ask a friend to read your practice essay to you, and ask yourself these same questions. Sometimes it’s easier to recognize tone problems by listening rather than speaking.
6. Identify words you would use in a speech. Imagine that you’re the President speaking to a classroom full of high school seniors. What words would you use, and how would you present your argument? The tone you’re imagining—both formal and understandable—approximates correct SAT tone.
Be aware of vocabulary, read your essay aloud, and know how to be concise and clear. Following this advice and you’ll be a master of academic tone on the SAT essay. Happy Studying!
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.