Writing the SAT essay seems to be a daunting experience for some students, even if they have consistently aced every other section of the test. Judging from our own SAT tutoring experience with a wide range of students, there seem to be three reasons for students’ anxieties regarding the Essay:
Anxiety 1: Providing appropriate examples that support your position on a complex issue.
In both high school and college, you are typically given a paper topic, or the instructor will provide some version of a guide with possible test questions. The present version of SAT essay—that will change in early 2016—can throw you a topic about most anything, so advanced preparation a la high school or college is impossible.
So, what’s the best antidote to this particular anxiety? Read widely, regardless of whether the subject initially interests you, because we can guarantee that in college you’ll have to read and think critically about lots of subjects that you may not be interested in. Empower yourself by reading texts written for different audiences: editorials in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, articles in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and other high-quality publications. Familiarize yourself with the style and persuasive skills of effective writers so you can better develop your own skills. Of course, reading mindless texts won’t help you improve.
Anxiety 2: Worrying that the Essay grader(s) will not find the argued position to be tenable.
The College Board’s essay rubric lists the following five criteria for essay evaluation:
a) Development and support for point of view
b) Logical organization between ideas
c) The quality and variety of vocabulary
d) Diversity of sentence structure
e) Correctness of grammar, usage and mechanics
Nowhere in the above list do we see anything about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ positions. Ideally, you should have good reasons why you believe X or Y. If the issue is unfamiliar, you should make sure you understand the provided position or issue before you categorically reject it or support it.
So how do you overcome this unique anxiety about arguing ‘correctly’? As long as you follow the five criteria listed above, and as long as you think a reasonable stranger will believe you, you’ll be fine. Arguing is a game with rules, so know the rules to persuade people, and ideally persuade them not because you want to show off, but because you really believe in the position. On the other hand, if you find it easier to support a contrary position, argue that position. Follow the criteria and don’t worry about wrong positions.
Anxiety 3: Executing all of the following in 25 minutes:
- Understanding the issue or the position argued in the prompt
- Brainstorming a provisional position
- Organizing the ideas into paragraphs
- Writing and editing the essay
All of the above are legitimate concerns, but we think collectively they are manifestations of students’ real concerns about the essay: all of the techniques that usually work for the Reading and Writing sections are, to put it bluntly, useless for the essay, when you have to engage in the work of interpretation and actively compose your position.
So how do you adapt yourself to this anxiety? While you are preparing for the SAT, convince yourself that no one set of skills is sufficient for the entire test, and that the essay demands a more active stance—you have to be creative and organized while using certain rules rather than the typically reactive process of elimination and guessing.
So, don’t be daunted by the SAT essay. Composing ideas is something you do daily: on FB, Twitter, via text, and when debating with a friend or, even more frequently, when justifying your position to your progenitors (here’s an SAT word if there ever was one). If you take the LA Tutors 123 prep course or are tutored privately by one of our uber-talented tutors, you’ll never lose a debate.
Finally, do not do any of the following when responding to the essay because doing so would either be ineffective or insufferably uncouth:
a) Needlessly memorize positions from the recent tests
b) Immaturely mock the position presented in the argument
c) Carelessly use clichés throughout the essay
d) Arrogantly write an essay on a tangential position you care for
Our next blog will be on the nuances of SAT grading, so look for that next week!