Search 73,688 tutors
FIND TUTORS

The SAT Essay

Written by tutor Ellen S.

The SAT has undergone a significant number of changes over the years, generally involving adjustments in the scoring rubric, and often in response to steadily-declining or increasingly-perfect test scores. When the SAT was changed in 2005, however, they made some significant changes to the test that students see. One of these changes was the addition of the writing section, based on the original SAT II subject test, which includes a timed essay. In including a timed essay on an otherwise multiple-choice test, the SAT throws a problem at students that they are generally unprepared to solve.

Because high school classes usually don't discuss timed essays, students can have difficulty when faced with the SAT essay. You'll need a different set of skills to tackle the SAT essay, and ideally a completely separate amount of time to practice those skills. In this lesson I'll give you an overview of the differences between timed essays and at-home essays, and share my tips for successfully completing a well-organized, well-thought-out SAT essay.

First, the differences. In a timed essay, you're given the prompt on the spot rather than having an idea of what the topic will be beforehand, as you would if you were writing an essay for an English class. On the SAT, you get one prompt and one prompt only, so you don't even have the benefit of choosing one that works for you – you have to write about whatever they give you. In addition you're writing everything out longhand, which eats up more time than you might think and makes it harder to make edits and corrections – particularly if you have bad handwriting and you're worried about staying legible. And just forget about rearranging paragraphs and reorganizing whole sentences – you'll never have time for that!

The Difference Between the SAT Essay and At-Home Essays

First, the differences. In a timed essay, you're given the prompt on the spot rather than having an idea of what the topic will be beforehand, as you would if you were writing an essay for an English class. On the SAT, you get one prompt and one prompt only, so you don't even have the benefit of choosing one that works for you – you have to write about whatever they give you. In addition you're writing everything out longhand, which eats up more time than you might think and makes it harder to make edits and corrections – particularly if you have bad handwriting and you're worried about staying legible. And just forget about rearranging paragraphs and reorganizing whole sentences – you'll never have time for that!

All of this means that you have to be much more organized right from the get-go than you would be in a natural writing process. You'll need to read the question, think for a few moments, and then immediately form an opinion so you can start the actual writing as soon as possible. So for all timed essays, and the SAT essay in particular, I strongly emphasize the importance of prewriting. Prewriting can take many forms, from word clouds to concept nets, but for the SAT, I recommend the basic straightforward outline – with a few tweaks. Here's my formula for SAT essay outlines.

How to Outline Your Essay

First, read the prompt through a couple of times. SAT essay prompts usually follow a set format involving the statement of an opinion, and then asking whether you agree or disagree with that opinion. Let's take an example from the January 2014 test date, courtesy of the College Board website:

Some see printed books as dusty remnants from the preelectronic age. They point out that electronic books, or e-books, cost less to produce than printed books and that producing them has a much smaller impact on natural resources such as trees. Yet why should printed books be considered obsolete or outdated just because there is something cheaper and more modern? With books, as with many other things, just because a new version has its merits doesn’t mean that the older version should be eliminated.

Assignment: Should we hold on to the old when innovations are available, or should we simply move forward? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations. (Source.)

he first thing I recommend when confronted with an SAT essay prompt is to ask yourself the question “Do I agree or disagree with the premise of the prompt?” That'll usually be the last sentence of the first paragraph in the prompt. In this case, do you agree that “just because a new version has its merits doesn’t mean that the older version should be eliminated”? Now write the phrase “I agree” or “I disagree” at the top of your scratch paper accordingly. Put some asterisks around it so you remember to keep checking back in with it during the writing. This opinion is the most important part of your essay, so you want it to be clear in your mind. Next, ask yourself “Why do I agree?” or “Why do I disagree?” The first sentence you say to yourself in response to that question is your rough thesis statement. Jot that down under the first phrase. So, my response to our example would look like this:

* I agree *
While the new version might have its merits, the original often has merits of its own.

Again, this is very rough at this stage, but on the SAT you're trying to prewrite fast, so don't worry too much about that. On to the body paragraphs!

On a 25-minute essay, you probably won't have enough time for a full five-paragraph structure with three sub-examples for each point. Two body paragraphs and two examples of each will suffice. You never want to rely on just a single example, though, or you'll likely lose points for not supporting your statements enough. Write out a template for the body of your essay that looks like this:

I. Main point 1
    A. Example 1
    B. Example 2
II. Main point 2
    A. Example 1
    B. Exampple 2

Remember, it's an outline, so no full sentences. Write only as much as you need to remind yourself of your points. So for our example, my outline would look like this:

I. The “Tangible” aspects
    A. A book never runs out of battery
    B. Can read it in the sun, by the pool or in the bathtub – places you wouldn't want to take a piece of electronics
II. The “non-tangible” aspects
    A. The smell of a new book, tactile sense of turning pages, experience of closing it when you finish
    B. Ability to get lost in a book, to lose sense of place and become the story

At this point I can see a slight revision I'd make to my original thesis statement, which is the idea that an e-book can never mimic the tactile experience of reading (smelling the book, turning pages, etc.) I'll quickly adjust my thesis to say:

While the new version might have its merits, the original offers a tactile experience that the new can't hope to achieve – an experience that can't be mimicked by technology.

Perfect. All told, your prewriting should have taken you 3 to 5 minutes, most of which was thinking. Now, on to the paper itself!

Writing Your Essay

Okay, here's my biggest timed-essay secret: don't start with the introduction. Start by skipping five or six lines down the page, leaving space for an introduction that will be inserted later. Start with your first body paragraph. Work from your outline, converting your points into full sentences and connecting them with transitions, and you should be at a good start. Once both body paragraphs are written, continue on and write your conclusion. Then, go back and write your introduction in the space you left at the beginning. That way, you'll know what you're introducing since it's already written.

I generally recommend about 15 minutes of writing time for the body paragraphs, followed by 5 minutes for the intro and conclusion. Depending on how quickly you got your prewriting done, that leaves you with one or two minutes to look it over, fixing any spelling mistakes or sloppy handwriting. Don't try to change too much, though – when you're writing everything out longhand, changes require erasing. We do so much writing on computers these days that sometimes we forget how long it takes to erase a whole sentence and rewrite it. A better tactic is to think through each sentence in your head before you write it down, making sure you have it phrased the way you want it before you put pencil to paper. But don't spend too long – try it a few times and you'll find that writing four full paragraphs longhand actually takes about 25 minutes to do – on a good day. You should expect to be writing pretty much continuously for the entire 25 minutes.

Keeping Track of Time, Staying Comfortable, and More Advice

Speaking of which, when you practice your timed essays, pay attention to how your hand feels while you're writing. The first few times you'll likely be sore; your hand might even cramp up from writing so hard. It's tiring to write for that long, so make sure you're helping yourself. Write lightly on the paper – it's easy to start pressing down super hard when you're nervous and panicking. Writing lightly will not only help stave off the hand cramps, it'll also make erasing much easier when you need to do it. Sit back in your chair while you write – you don't need to be three inches from your paper to see the words you're putting down, and hunching over will just make you press harder. Bring your attention to your breathing – are you holding your breath? Why? Try breathing deeply and slowly while you write – it'll calm your brain and help you think.

Finally, a word about the writing itself – don't forget you're on a clock here. Often, you begin to notice as you write that your opinion about the topic is evolving, changing, developing nuances and side areas you want to explore. I know this sounds weird, but you've got to try to rein that in – those are all fine things to be thinking about ordinarily, and in an at-home essay I'd say go for it, but you don't have time to change what you're writing about in this situation. Sometimes, you'll even get halfway through a timed essay and realize that you actually don't agree like you thought you did. Save that thought for later. You've got the outline of an organized essay, and that's what you should be writing. It doesn't matter at this point if you actually still agree with what you're saying, all that matters is that you state a clear opinion and communicate it well. After all, the test grader doesn't even know you – how's she to know that you don't really think this anymore? Stay confident and get your original idea out on paper.

For example, the outline I gave above is a perfectly accurate depiction of my opinion on the topic – as it relates to books. However, if we were to start talking about, say, writing essays...I'd probably say that no, I don't think we should hold on to writing essays out by hand when there are computers available. After all, I'm writing this article on a computer. I've copied and pasted multiple paragraphs of information back and forth around this lesson as I was looking for appropriate ways to introduce concepts, and that would have taken forever if I had been writing by hand. But if that thought had occurred to me midway through writing my timed essay about books, I would have acknowledged it for the briefest of moments and then disregarded it. My essay is about books. I'll just stick to that so I can keep it clean and organized.

Don't worry about the test graders thinking “But what about X?” – they know you only had 25 minutes and can't possibly fit every aspect of the argument into that amount of time – or space, for that matter. The scoring rubric focuses on what is present, not what is omitted. As long as you have a clear point of view and are communicating it well, you'll fulfill their criteria. Remember, this essay's not in the critical reading section, it's in the writing section. They're not in the business of judging the merits of your opinion, just how clearly you've communicated it and how well you've supported it.

Your timed essays will probably turn out very different than the essays you write at home for class. They might seem stiff, straightforward or brusque; with a limited amount of time you can't create the subtle, nuanced arguments that your English teachers are probably looking for. But what you can do is create a well-organized, concise presentation of a relatively straightforward point of view, supported by concrete examples that all point toward the same central concept. The SAT essay responds well to a formulaic approach, so while it may take some practice, you will eventually be able to handle a 25-minute essay prompt with confidence.

Sign up for free to access more Test Preparation resources like . WyzAnt Resources features blogs, videos, lessons, and more about Test Preparation and over 250 other subjects. Stop struggling and start learning today with thousands of free resources!