SAT Tip of the Week: 5 Easy Ways to Ace the Essay

SAT Tip of the Week - FullThe essay begins the SAT and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a five paragraph essay in 25 minutes, but there are a few steps that can make the essay a piece of cake!

1.  Make An Essay Template

The time spent figuring out how to structure an essay on the SAT is time wasted.  This may sound counter intuitive as structure is a big part of what the SAT graders are evaluating, but it is this reason exactly that makes the structure of the essay the first thing that can be systematized and recycled. The essential make up of a five paragraph essay is simple. There is an introduction which presents the topic, states the thesis, acknowledges the opposition, and lays out how the essay will argue its point, three body paragraphs which use examples to support the thesis, and a conclusion which restates the thesis and briefly reminds the reader what it has just read.

This is all a five paragraph essay is! Because it is so formulaic in its structure, and because the topics are always essentially taking a side on some issue, the majority of the essay can be “written” beforehand in the form of a template. By plugging in this formula, it is easy to essentially create a template for what to say.  Here is an example introduction using a template:

“The notion that [Assignment] has been demonstrated in numerous contexts to be [true/false] (Thesis). Though there are some who would argue that [whatever opposition might say], this perspective does not adequately reflect the intricacies and complexities of [topic] (Acknowledgment of opposition). ([General statement about why topic is important or why thesis is true]). Three demonstrations of [thesis] are [Example One], [Example Two], and [Example Three] (How Thesis Will Be Defended).

The entire essay can essentially be sketched out in advance.  By determining the structure in advance, more time can be dedicated to showing how the examples demonstrate the thesis.

2.  Skip The Directions

This is true throughout the SAT, but is especially important on the essay because time is so limited. There is a lot of information on the directions page, but it can all be boiled down into the instructions “write an argumentative essay”, which will not change from test to test and can thus be assumed.  EVERYTHING ON THE PAGE, the quote, the parameters for writing a good essay, the amount of time given for writing, all that stuff is a waste of time EXCEPT the ASSIGNMENT.  The assignment is the question that is being asked and it is the only thing necessary to attack the essay.  If the assignment asks “Should people care about others outside their own borders?”, this is all that is necessary to make the template a real introduction.  Given this assignment, the template becomes:

“The notion that people should care for those outside of their own borders has been demonstrated in numerous contexts to be true. Though there are some who would argue that it is most important to concentrate resources on those who are closest in proximity and in culture, this perspective does not adequately reflect the intricacies and complexities of the interconnected world of today. Neglecting those outside of our own borders, not only isolates people from analyzing and alleviating hardships that they themselves might one day face, but also creates a feeling of isolation which runs counter to the current trend toward a more interdependent and interconnected world.  Three demonstrations which exemplify the importance of caring for people outside of our own borders are the Indian independence movement, the American revolution, and the events of the second world war.”

As is demonstrated above, there is still some room to word things creatively, but any excess time and brain power can be allocated to making these variable sections really pop rather than on reading directions.

3.  Study Potential Examples Beforehand

Because of how broad the questions on the SAT can be, virtually any topic with a lot of substance to it can be applied to a number of potential SAT questions.  Questions like “Is it more important to be decisive or to consider things carefully?” or “Should people put family first?” can be argued using nearly any work of literature or historical event that involves decisions or family (which pretty much includes all of history and literature).

To “study” for this section pick ten or so potential examples (books, historical events, current events) that have already been covered in classes and review the main points of these examples.  The better these examples have been prepared, the more uses for them will present themselves.

4.  Relate Topic Sentences Back To The Thesis

At the beginning of each body paragraph, each topic sentence should relate back to the thesis.  Here is what not to do:

“The Indian Independence movement showed the resilience of the Indian people in the face of the tyrannical British.”

This isn’t factually false, but it doesn’t show the thing that is being argued.  Every paragraph exists to argue for the thesis; therefore each topic sentence should relate the example to the thesis.

“The power of the international community in aiding the Indian Struggle for independence clearly illustrates of the importance of caring for those outside of one’s own borders.”

This second example states what the example is and that it demonstrates the thesis.  Now all the test taker needs to do is to explain how this example shows the importance of caring for people abroad.  The test taker will likely state how foreign pressure was instrumental in forcing the British to reduce their brutal repression of non violent protests and in humanizing the Indian people in their struggle.  With this stated, he or she can just rinse and repeat this same strategy with the other two body paragraphs.

5.  Keep The Conclusion Simple

The work is done by the time of the conclusion.  The introduction shows the structure of the essay, the body paragraphs show how the student’s knowledge can be applied to argue a point of view, but the conclusion is really just to restate the thesis and what has already been argued.  Keeping with the topic of caring for those outside of one’s own country, a sample conclusion might look something like this:

“The importance of caring for those outside one’s own borders is clearly demonstrated in both the Indian and African American struggles against tyranny and in the global struggle of World War Two.  It is in conflict with the demands of the interconnected world that humans inhabit to attempt to cloister oneself away and not participate in the struggles of those outside of one’s own country. Only by caring for those in faraway lands can people hope to create a world where all human beings are safe and able to pursue their own happiness.

This conclusion isn’t trying to do too much.  It essentially parrots back the stuff that was stated in the introduction and relates all the examples back to the thesis.  This is all the conclusion needs to do.  When students get into their desired college and they write their honors thesis they can use their conclusions to draw important connections between examples and put their own unique spin on all the information already provided, but for the SAT, keep it simple.

By using these steps students can ace the SAT essay and start off the test feeling successful.  All the work for the SAT essay is done in advance so study some examples and write a few essays to develop a template that works.  Happy studying!

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David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.