The SAT essay may be technically “optional” now, but don’t put away your number two pencils just yet. This goes double for anyone eyeing, say, West Point or any of the colleges in the University of California system — the essay is still required at these universities. It’s also recommended at even more schools, including top options like Amherst and Stanford. All in all, it’s still better not to skip it.
If you’re stressed out by the thought of writing an analytic essay in 50 minutes flat, don’t be: the College Board isn’t expecting Pulitzer-worthy perfection. Instead, approach it as an opportunity to show off your chops as a college-ready reader and thinker. Take it from me: as a high school student, I hated writing under timed conditions, and I’m still a slow, fussy scribbler by nature. But my SAT essay ended up with a perfect score, which helped me get accepted to schools like the University of Chicago, Stanford, and Yale, where I ultimately ended up.
I didn’t pull this off by virtue of my naturally fast and flawless prose. On the contrary, I’m the kind of writer who tends to agonize over synonyms and overthink the implications of any metaphor I’m tempted to deploy. But I familiarized myself with the process of writing a standardized test essay, which is really its own genre, with its conventions and demands.
Eventually, writing a timed essay became second nature — and even kind of fun. At the end of the day, the SAT Essay is just as much about thoughtful reading as it is about writing. To help you out on your journey to college acceptance, here are 6 crucial dos and don’ts for writing the SAT essay.
Since you’ve got less than an hour to write your SAT essay, you might be tempted to white-knuckle your pencil and start scribbling as soon as the proctor hands out the answer booklet. But don’t get carried away: the time you spend planning will translate directly into time saved when you start actually writing.
The last thing you want to do is to issue forth a panicked stream-of-conscious monologue, only to find at the 40-minute mark that nothing you’re saying makes sense and you’ll have to redo all of it. To avoid furious rewriting at the eleventh hour, invest in clarifying the structure of your essay from the get-go. That way, you’ll have a coherent roadmap to follow when you start stringing sentences together.
The SAT Essay section will provide you with a passage to read and analyze. Spend some time with it: your understanding of the passage will be the cornerstone of your essay, so don’t just skim it!
The passage you’re analyzing will make an argument, and it’s your job to break down how that argument works. So while it’s important to figure out exactly what the essay is saying, you can’t stop there — you’ll need to identify the techniques it deploys to sell its argument. So keep an eye out for the literary devices and rhetorical flourishes that enhance its persuasive power.
The readers evaluating your essay will expect you to cite concrete, specific evidence to back up your claims, so be sure to use some direct quotations. Instead of talking in generalities about the author’s “strong, emotionally charged word choices,” point out exactly which words you’re talking about.
A word of caution here: don’t rely on enormous, paragraph-long block quotes — focus on short, highly relevant extracts instead. The point here is to use evidence from the passage to support the points you’re making, not to pad your essay with quotes. So be selective, using only the words and phrases that really help you make your point.
Say the passage you’re given covers something you’re totally unfamiliar with — for example, the history of artistic gymnastics in post-war Poland, or a controversy surrounding Pekingese dog health. If you’re worried about having to weigh in on a topic you’ve never encountered before, don’t be! Nobody expects you to have prior knowledge of the subject your passage covers.
Think of it this way: if you’re given a passage about Polish gymnastics, you’re not actually being asked to write about Polish gymnastics at all — you’re being asked to evaluate a piece of writing that just happens to be about Polish gymnastics. Your lack of familiarity with the subject of can actually be an asset: it allows you to zero in on the words in front of you, without getting distracted by outside knowledge.
It might be tempting to interlard your essay with ten-dollar words in an effort to sound sophisticated. But doing that can easily trip you up. At worst, you’ll introduce embarrassing — and avoidable — errors into your writing. At best, you’ll sound stilted and try-hard, like a text badly translated from the Latin.
Writing a strong SAT Essay isn’t about baroque rhetorical ornamentation, it’s about clarity — about finding the right word, not the most obscure word. Even if you do feel secure in your knowledge of some decasyllabic vocab item, think long and hard about whether it’s really the best word for the job. Is “latitudinarian” really what you’re going for here, or do you actually just mean “permissive”?
It’s not the end of the world if you end up dashing off your last sentence right when the proctor calls time. But it’s best to give yourself a little wiggle room so you can look over your essay before you submit, just as you would for the other sections on the SAT.
This quick proofread doesn’t mean an extensive rewrite. But it does give you the opportunity to double-check your spelling, comb the text for comma splices, and make sure every opening quotation mark has a closing quotation mark after it.
This part is all about putting the final touches on your essay. And if you followed these tips, you should be all set to turn in a strong, persuasive piece of analytic writing.
Written by Lucia Tang