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Note: This article is focused on the *old* SAT Essay format. Click here for our current complete strategy guide to the SAT Essay!
Dos and Don’ts to Turn Your SAT Essay from Boring to Brilliant!
Is anything more stressful than a timed SAT essay? They’re always a source of anxiety, and the one which constitutes a portion of the SAT might be the nastiest of them all, with its 25-minute time limit, weird and boring prompts, and the knowledge that there are literally hours of testing afterward. Because of this pressure, nearly every single SAT essay follows the same 5-paragraph form consisting of intro, point 1, point 2, point 3, and conclusion, perhaps with more or fewer points.
Nothing is wrong with this formula as an essay structure, but I think that this formulaic way of writing also leads to a formulaic way of thinking. In fact, I think some students might even be afraid to write anything “weird” because they don’t want to risk a lower score! So, here are 4 big pitfalls I’ve seen in students’ essays (and my own!), each followed by an alternative way of thinking.
Don’t: Take an Overly-Simplistic Stance on the Prompt.
Let’s start at the beginning: the prompt. This is the biggest unknown factor on the entire test: what if the prompt is weird, or vague, or something you’ve never really thought about? What if you can’t think of anything to say? One of my biggest beefs with the prompts is they seem so binary! When faced with a question such as “Is the world getting better?” it seems like the only valid response is either “yes, duh,” or “no, of course not.” But beware! If you, in an attempt to save time, immediately decide on a simple yes/no answer to the prompt and then starting planning your essay, you’ll frequently find it difficult to find anything interesting to say, or to come up with good supporting examples. Plus, a simplistic stance is boring and unlikely to stand out from the crowd or communicate anything unique about you as a person!
Do: Be Nuanced.
With a little bit of cleverness your essay can go beyond a simplistic yes/no argument into much more engaging territory. Let’s use an example! Just now, I opened a book of practice tests and looked at the very first one (I didn’t pick a certain one, to mimic how in a real test environment you can’t pick your prompt). The prompt, minus introductory text, says: “Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority?” So, the obvious “yes” answer would be something like “yes, because people in authority can be incompetent or corrupt, and it’s good to question everything.” Alternately, you could perhaps say “no, because, people in authority have expertise you don’t, and questioning them is disrespectful and disrupts societal order.”
But now let’s try to go beyond that. A good place to start is to consider the premise of the question itself. To whom does “people in positions of authority” refer? Parents? Elected officials? Teachers or those in federal service jobs? What about other nations whose structures of power differ from those in America? And what does “questioning” entail? Private disagreement, writing letters, open protest? Perhaps ideas can be questioned, but decisions must be respected or vice versa! Of course, some of the things I just said might be silly or over-the-top, but I’m simply showing that there are many things you can discuss beyond a basic interpretation of the question. I bet a really good essay could discuss not whether some authority figures should be questioned, but rather which ones, with solid reasoning for each.
In the end, your essay must still take a solid stance. You can’t be wishy-washy or vague about your position, but that doesn’t mean the position can’t be nuanced and thoughtful! So take a teeny bit of that 25-minute timer and dedicate it toward coming up with a truly unique thesis.
Don’t: Use Unoriginal References.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an SAT essay in pursuit of a good score, must be in want of a literary reference. But before you decide to support your argument with a passage from Beowulf, The Great Gatsby, or 1984, consider the person who is to read your essay. How many essays has he or she read already today? And how many of them also referenced Beowulf, The Great Gatsby, 1984, or another of the tiny subset of all literature which forms the high-school canon? Using these incredibly common works as sources will make your essay utterly forgettable and boring, so I would advise against it!
Do: Use Something Fresh!
Newsflash: there are more books out there than anyone can read in their lifetime. Not only that, but it’s the year two-thousand-dang-fifteen: I’m pretty sure we as a culture have stopped pretending that books are the only worthwhile source of valid ideas. What if, instead of Doctor Faustus, you alluded to Walter White? Or instead of 1984, The Hunger Games? I bet someone out there could find a great use for the latest Kendrick Lamar album. Moving away from the standard repertoire of allusions can spice up your essay and showcase your creativity and ability to think outside the box. In high school, I once referenced the opening monologue of the videogame Metal Gear Solid 4 in a round of UIL extemporaneous speaking, and I totally advanced! Use references you actually care about, and have fun!
Don’t: Waste Your Conclusion
“In conclusion, because of blah blah, blah blah, and blah, x is clearly y.” Oh my goodness I am about to die of boredom! I could be reading an otherwise stellar, 6-point essay, and then the conclusion pulls something like this and puts me right to sleep! What does this sort of conclusion communicate, besides “my teacher said I have to have a conclusion paragraph”? Now, I know it’s important to “wrap up” your ideas, and remind your reader of the two or three main points which support your argument, but here’s the thing: your essay is two pages. The reader doesn’t need to be reminded of points they read literally 15 seconds ago, at least not in such a simplistic way. When writing your essay, ask yourself this question: “if my entire conclusion were deleted, would this essay lose anything of value?” More often than not you may find the answer is no!
Do: Drive Home the Conceit
So what should a conclusion do? Rather than a simple regurgitation of already-said information (aka 100% wasted words), a conclusion should drive home the point of the essay by providing a new focus. This focus can take many forms! It could be a personal anecdote or literary allusion, a hypothetical musing, or a presentation of an opposing viewpoint (which you then counter, of course). Whatever it is, a conclusion should recontextualize everything that has come before it and provide an emotional throughline. Film Crit Hulk says “the ending is the conceit,” and this is as true of a 4-page SAT essay as it is of a 2-hour movie! If your “body paragraphs” are designed to make the reader think, then the conclusion should make them feel.
Sidenote: this problem also happens with introductions. A great way to bore a reader is to start your essay with “Some people think/say that x. But y!” The conclusions are much more of a problem, in my experience, but make sure to be creative with your introduction as well! A good idea is to introduce some framing device in the introduction, then bring it back in the conclusion.
Don’t: Just Write Because You Have To
All the pitfalls I’ve just mentioned communicate the same thing to the grader: you’re only in this for the grade. You take a hardline, binary stance on the prompt, use traditional and safe references, and deliver a perfunctory conclusion because you know that following all the “rules” properly will get you a solid 5. And y’know what? You’re probably right. But an essay written as if on an assembly line will read like it came from an assembly line. If you want your essay to have that extra push into 6 territory, you have to do more than follow the rules. You have to care.
Do: Believe You Have Something Worth Saying
You are a human being with unique emotions, experiences, and ideas. No one else has lived your life. You may think you’re “just” a high-schooler, or “just” an athlete or nerd or socialite, but you nevertheless have a unique voice; you just have to find it! But is it really possible to find a unique voice and point of view and express it clearly in just 25 minutes? It’s not easy, but it is possible.
And besides, it’s not like the graders will be expecting Tolstoy. They know you have to work with a pre-selected prompt in a short amount of time while probably under a lot of stress about the rest of the exam. But this still doesn’t mean you can’t write something interesting or poignant, something they’ll remember when they go home that evening! So before you start scribbling away in a race against the clock, before focusing on paragraphs and references and conclusions and all the things we’ve covered above, think: what can you offer the world today? And then do it.
Review and Conclusions
You’ve probably noticed a few recurring themes in these tips. Perhaps at the risk of breaking my own rule, I’ll summarize them here, because although I’ve covered many things already, and there are many more things left to be said, it all really just comes down to two objectives:
- Don’t Be Boring
- Make The Reader Care
If you can focus on these two goals throughout your entire essay, from your intro all the way to your conclusion, all while making correct and effective use of grammar, sentence structure, and paragraph development (all topics for another day), you’ll be able to write something truly special.
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Remember, this article is focused on the *old* SAT Essay format, so click here for our updated strategy guide to the SAT and ACT Essays!