For many hopeful college applicants, the essay can feel like one of the most stressful portions of the SAT. It is not simply that it is the first section of the SAT, which is certainly stressful, or that so little time is allotted to complete the essay, another legitimate concern, but also that there is no way to know the question that will be posed and thus no way to know if the right example will pop into the brain of the nervous test taker while he or she is taking the test. These are all valid concerns for all the college hopefuls out there, but all of these concerns can be addressed by studying for the essay in the right way, and yes, you can study for the essay! Here are three tactics that can help alleviate some of the stress of this section and prepare students to rock the SAT essay.
1. Study Potential Examples
The idea of preparing examples for an unknown prompt is baffling to many students, but it is absolutely true that students can have examples prepared in advance of the test. The SAT tends to ask very general questions. It would be out of character for the SAT pose a prompt like, “What are the strongest ways to increase the market-share of a digital product using open-source platforms?” I’m sure that this is an important question to someone, but there is no way to ensure that all high school students have been exposed to the necessary information to answer this question.
The SAT is NOT looking for the single correct answer, they are looking to see if students are capable of making an argument in writing. The SAT, therefore, asks very general questions that can be addressed by a number of different examples. An example of a potential SAT question is something more like, “Is it necessary for people to sacrifice individual wants for the group to succeed?” The general nature of this question allows it to be addressed in varied ways. Most books, historical movements, or current events, which are the best examples to use to support a thesis on the SAT, are complex and contain at least one aspect that can be used make a general argument. Pick ten of your favorite books, historical figures or movements, or recent events and study them in detail. World War II is one that I have used, and it can be applied to nearly every SAT question I have ever encountered. In the above example, the sacrifice of individual soldiers, the rationing of resources for the war effort, and the use of women in the factories to produce the materials of war, which contributed to the US success in the war effort, show how individual sacrifice is necessary for the success of the group. I would fancy up my wording a little bit, but that is all the information I need for an entire paragraph of my essay. The test makers get that this essay must be completed in 25 minutes, so they are not looking for Shakespeare. If a student can pick an example that is on topic and say HOW it supports the thesis, he or she is already doing ninety percent of what they need to.
2. Time Your Practice
The essay is supposed to be completed in 25 minutes, which is significantly less time than many students are used to. It is important for a student to get a feel for what 25 minutes is so that he or she does not get overwhelmed on the day of the test. Though it doesn’t sound like a lot of time, 25 minutes is plenty of time to accomplish the task of writing a simple argumentative essay, especially since the examples are already primed and ready to go. The real benefit of doing timed practice is that it teaches students not to get too bogged down with one particular paragraph or idea. Always err on the side of clarity over style. As long as the argument is clearly supporting the thesis, the essay will be in a good place. Don’t be afraid to state explicitly, “ this [example] clearly demonstrates [thesis].”
3. Make An Essay Template
This is the real key to preparing for the essay. 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 of view. There are three body paragraphs which use examples to support the thesis. Finally, there is 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 (*Note: the function of the sentence within the introduction is in (), and the information to be added is in ):
“The notion that [Prompt] 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 in the same way as above. By determining the structure in advance, more time can be dedicated to showing how the examples demonstrate the thesis.
By using these techniques to study for the SAT essay, students can virtually guarantee that in the moment of taking the SAT they will be able to focus all their brain power on clearly showing how the prepared examples show their thesis and not get caught up in the paralysis caused by stress. Happy studying test takers!
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.