In order to obtain a high score on the essay, it is important to first understand how the essay fits into the context of the exam and how it is approached by CollegeBoard graders.
- The SAT Essay is a fraction (about 1/3) of the overall Writing score - the bulk of the score is determined by a student’s performance on the two Grammar Multiple Choice sections. Nevertheless, the essay can be a terrific area for students to rack up points, particularly for those who are not “grammatically inclined.”
- The Essay is always the first section of the exam and lasts 25 minutes.
- The Essay is evaluated on a scale from 2 to 12. Two essay graders are assigned to review each essay and select a score from 1 to 6 based on their “holistic impression” of the writing. In other words, essay graders are more concerned with the overall content, organization, and cogency of the writer’s argument than minor mistakes in grammar, mechanics, or spelling. As a caveat, an accumulation of these mistakes can hinder a score if they obscure the clarity of the argument.
- The Essay prompt is not revealed until students sit down and take the exam; however, the prompt is broad enough to allow students to develop well-supported arguments within the allotted time.
- For an in-depth look at the scoring rubric used by the CollegeBoard, click here.
- Take a stand! Perhaps one of the greatest mistakes students make when writing the Essay is refusing to take a definitive stance on the prompt. Although advanced English students are typically rewarded for writing arguments that synthesize opposing viewpoints, this is NOT the case on the SAT. Students should save themselves the hassle of thinking too far outside the box and pick the side of the prompt that they feel most comfortable writing about. A well-defined argument forms the crux of a high scoring essay.
- Include two or three strong supporting examples! Another key to an exceptional score lies in the writer’s ability to pick relevant, specific supporting examples and expound. A common trap that students fall into is choosing supporting examples that sound “academic” that they actually know very little about. Although the plot and character development of Jane Eyre might be more palatable to an academe than, say, the events on the latest installment of “The Bachelor,” both of these things may provide grade-A fodder for a high-scoring SAT Essay. As long as the supporting example is detailed and well-linked to the argument, the source of the example is inconsequential.
- Create an Idea Bank! The number one complaint volleyed at the SAT Essay is the unknown-nature of the question; nonetheless, there are things a student CAN do to prepare himself before the tumult of exam day. With my past students, the best way to improve an essay score was to come up with an Idea Bank of potential supporting examples. As I mentioned earlier, the best supporting examples do not need to be drawn from scholarly sources. Many of my previous students who scored 11’s or 12’s on their essays had written about their favorite movies, books, television shows, or tabloid magazines (I am particularly reminded of a student who connected the proliferation of internet-based social media to the fall of Britney Spears. Brilliant!). The purpose of an Idea Bank is to devise five or six well-researched supporting examples that can be instantly recalled and connected to various essay prompts. Even the most glaringly “un-academic” sources (e.g. Jersey Shore, Twilight, SpongeBob) can be parsed for sophisticated themes (e.g. the perils of excess, the volatility of romantic love, the bliss of total ignorance). On test day, it is the student’s job to determine which examples in his Idea Bank can be manipulated to address the concerns of the prompt.
- Make it up! As a last resort, it’s better to improvise supporting evidence than to omit it entirely. Be creative and come up with a believable personal anecdote or an “imaginary” novel. Graders do not have the time to fact-check your essay. I was once fooled by one of my students who had written a fascinating account of her pilgrimage to the South American pyramids. Said pilgrimage NEVER happened, but the tale perfectly aligned with the prompt and her developing argument. I gave her a high-five.
And there you have it. Although daunting, the SAT Essay is totally beatable AND can be prepared for in advance. Test-takers should feel empowered to write about what they know rather than what might “sound good” to essay graders. Craft an Idea Bank and practice connecting supporting evidence to a variety of potential essay questions prior to exam day.