IF your teen hopes to enter a four-year college or university straight out of high school, he will probably take the SAT. This four-hour test offers one guarantee: the 25-minute essay-writing section always comes first. To score well on the essay, your student needs to understand both the test objectives and scoring criteria.
What is the SAT?
Offered seven times per year, the SAT is the most popular college admission test. Many high schoolers take the test once in the spring of their junior year, and again in the fall of their senior year. At the official website, you will find online registration (including helpful registration hints for homeschoolers), and a test-day checklist (no cell phones are allowed, so bring a watch).
To familiarize yourself with the SAT format, take a practice test well in advance. The Princeton Review suggests taking these practice tests quite seriously: time yourself, take short breaks between sections, and don’t even think about stopping for lunch!
How the SAT Essay Is Scored
The essay component of the SAT is scored on a scale of 1-6. Two readers will assign independent scores, giving you a total between 2 and 12. The essay counts for one-third of your overall Writing score, or one-ninth of your total SAT score. Familiarize yourself with the official scoring guidelines and sample essays.
All the directions and strategies boil down to one thing: the SAT essay is a persuasive essay. You must choose a point of view and support it with logical reasoning and examples. The best scores will reflect several essay components:
- an understanding of English grammar
- a variety of sentence structures
- a well-rounded vocabulary (no weak words)
- a focused and coherent main thought
- an organized progression of ideas (the five-paragraph essay format usually works best)
Use Your Time Well
Remember, you only have twenty-five minutes for essay writing. The test materials include a bit of blank space—about a quarter of a page—to “plan” your essay. Don’t get bogged down with full sentences while brainstorming. Just outline your thoughts for the thesis, two or three strong examples in a logical order, and a few key words for the conclusion. Then quickly move on to the writing. (By the way, this is also excellent practice for essay exams in college!)
Length alone will not guarantee a good score; however, the Princeton Review and others confirm that high-scoring SAT essays are long. You have almost two pages to work with, about 40-45 lines. Fill the space if you can, and write at least a page and a half. (Note: you cannot go over the space provided.)
Know Your Audience
The SAT is prepared by an organization called the College Board. You should know several things about them:
- They avoid highly controversial subjects, such as religion and politics. Words like “Republican” and “salvation” won’t appear on your SAT essay question, although you might see words like “leadership” and “hope.” Write your essay accordingly.
- The College Board is not elitist and will not mark you down for using examples from your humble personal life. If you can’t draw from heroes of British literature and American history, your parents’ high school stories or an example of a community hero might provide the perfect illustrations for your main point.
- The College Board does not fact-check essays. If you think you have your stories right, be confident and keep writing. Just be aware that any college you apply to has the right to review your SAT writing sample and compare it to your admissions essay (according to SparkNotes.com).
Collectively, the individuals who read SAT essays must grade an estimated 2 million essays per year. Write with these readers in mind:
- They are paid to read your entire essay, so you’re not obligated to “hook” or “entertain” them. In this setting, tangents are never cute: “When you think ‘SAT essay,’ think of a well-organized nightly news segment, not a convoluted soap opera plot.” ~ SparkNotes.com
- They read quickly and assign scores based on a first general impression. Make your thesis statement simple and direct so your essay will be easy to follow. (Mike at AceTheSAT.com suggests you place the thesis in the first sentence.)
- They are probably tired, so make sure your essay is overwhelmingly readable. If you include a phrase about counter-arguments or opposing views, be very clear about which side you’re on. Don’t confuse your readers!
Of course, when it comes to timed essay tests, the best advice is to start early. WriteShop II teaches many essential skills for timed essays in 9th and 10th grade. In addition, other extra-curricular activities and habits can encourage college-level vocabulary, speed writing, and persuasive arguments. Next week, I’ll share SAT essay tips and ideas for developing these abilities at home.
Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. Daniella blogs at www.waterlilywriter.com.
Photo: Andrew Mason, courtesy of Creative Commons.