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How to conquer the “optional” SAT essay

By Danielle Castonzo

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about surviving the SAT.

The first SAT session for 2018 is set for March 10, and one of the decisions you’ll need to make is whether you plan to take the essay portion. Although the essay is optional, most schools recommend you opt in to demonstrate your critical thinking and writing skills (and wow your grader). Many competitive programs do require you to write the essay.

A SAT essay is nothing like the lengthy papers you’ve written for English class. You’ll have 50 minutes to respond to a 650- to 750-word passage without the help of the Internet, your friend who sometimes wins poetry contests, or your mom.

But no need to stress. Even if your writing isn’t the strongest, anyone can pen a great SAT essay with some practice and preparation. Use these seven tips so you don’t spend your valuable 50 minutes staring at the clock, chewing on your pencil or dwelling on irrelevant personal anecdotes to spice up your introduction:

  1. Read the prompt. Then, read it again. This may be the most important step. Remember, you are not being graded on how strong a writer you are. You’re graded on how effectively you respond to the prompt. Underline the words that seem most relevant (are you being asked to analyze, consider or persuade?) but don’t spend too long meditating on the theme. It’s time to put those brilliant thoughts on paper.
  2. Form a plan. You wouldn’t leap out of a plane without a parachute, and you shouldn’t skydive into this essay unprepared, either. Keep it short — just words and phrases you want to include in each paragraph, rather than a rough draft. This should take no more than 10 minutes.
  3. Understand the formula. This essay is not a diary entry or a draft of your first historical fiction novel, and the graders are not looking for something new and different from you. The essay should consist of an introduction with a solid thesis, two or three body paragraphs and a concluding paragraph with a strong final sentence.
  4. Write a crystal-clear thesis. The thesis is the most important sentence of your whole essay, and it should clearly state the passage’s main idea and the points you’ll be arguing in your body paragraphs. Don’t be afraid to directly quote the prompt in your thesis. This will demonstrate that you understand what you’re being asked to do.
  5. Use effective language. Don’t repeat yourself or make grammar mistakes. Reserve the last five minutes for reading through your essay again, checking grammar and crossing out sentences that repeat information. Remember, it’s better to express your ideas in simple words than repeat the same idea in unnecessarily complex or flowery language. Save the poetry for your Tumblr page.
  6. Only use what’s in the passage. Remember that you will be graded on how effectively you use the information from the passage to support your thesis. You may be an expert in the subject of the passage, but not everyone who takes the test will be, and it will be obvious if you’re using outside information. Refrain from including personal stories or Shakira quotes, no matter how relevant they may seem.
  7. Practice. Many people have survived the SAT essay before you, and there are lots of SAT prompts available online. If you are familiar with the format of the prompts and the essay formula, you will be able to fearlessly tackle the essay on test day.

Learn more about the SAT essay: 

Inside the test: SAT Essay

SAT Essay Tips: 15 Ways to Improve Your Score

The Most Reliable SAT Essay Template and Format

The SAT Essay: Overview (article) | Khan Academy

How to Get a Perfect 8|8|8 SAT Essay Score

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