I find that the majority of points lost on essays seem to be for argument construction, not for basic writing skills. My opinion is that if a test taker spends enough time crafting his or her argument, the essay score will be higher. So to help my students prepare for the writing portion of the SAT we spend most of our time outlining arguments, rather than actually writing essays. Most SAT help books suggest 5 mins for outlines, then 20 mins for writing. I encourage my students to do closer to 10 mins for outlining, in order to solidify their arguments.
How to prepare for the SAT essay? Here's a fun, interactive way to "get set" to write. Estimate 10 minutes per question.
Choose a writing prompt (use an old test, or look up prompts online).
1 min: Have the student write out his or her opinion (yes or no), thesis sentence, counter argument, and general outcome (progress, societal good, etc).
Minutes 2-10: Have the student number the page 1, 2, and 3, and discuss three examples (with the student taking notes) that support his or her thesis sentence. These examples must come from the student, as he or she is the one who would be writing this essay! As the student thinks out loud, the tutor writes down the categories the student is thinking through (events, people, technology, personal stories, etc), and encourages the student to think broadly. The tutor asks questions to help the student think deeply about these examples:
1) How does this support your thesis?
2) What specifics are important to this example in the context of your thesis statement?
3) What things, if not mentioned, would weaken your argument? (This is the counter example part. For instance, if the thesis is that hard work is more important than education, make sure to mention that the person being talked about put in hard work, in spite of his or her minimal education.)
4) What societal (or personal) good came from this example? Directly link the details mentioned to the good that came out of it.
Once questions 1-4 have been answered for an example, move onto the next one.
After 10 minutes, the student should have a very full outline of the essay. 15 minutes is most likely enough time to put it into essay form, because all of the thoughts are already there. (25 mins is the time allowed for the whole essay).
-Think out loud
-Not allowed to use the same example for more than one essay (we are creating an example bank!)
-Not allowed use the same category (e.g sports) for more than one example in an essay.
-If you are only able to come up with 2 really good examples, just write about those two things. Don't throw in a third example if it is going to be weak, just to have a third example in the essay.
Some of my students like doing this so much that we do 2-3 of these "essay outlines" in a tutor session. I normally have my student take 15 minutes to write out one of the essays she has outlined, in order to assure her that she really can write out a good essay in 15 minutes, given a solid outline.
***Also-- having a student re-write an essay is a GREAT exercise!