Speedwriting 101: Tackling the SAT Essay

Speedwriting 101: Tackling the SAT Essay

By | 2017-05-22T07:10:37+00:00 July 3rd, 2014|ACT, College Admissions, SAT, Test Prep|1 Comment
SATEssay

Tackling the SAT Essay

The SAT essay measures your ability to

  • develop a point of view on an issue presented in an excerpt
  • support your point of view using reasoning and examples from your reading, studies, experience, or observations
  • follow the conventions of standard written English

If you look at the sample essays on the College Board’s Web site, such as this one , you’ll notice that there is no one formula for writing a high-scoring essay. One student might spend the entire essay explaining one extended example. Another student might give several reasons to support his opinion, with examples and explanation for each. The most important factor in the essay grade is your writing skills, not whether you follow a certain template. The best way to develop writing skills is with hard work over time, but it is also important to understand the assignment and practice writing in the limited time that you are given (25 minutes for standard administration).

In its current format, the SAT essay will present you with both an excerpt and an “assignment” (AKA question). The excerpt is someone else’s writing that usually expresses a point of view. The assignment is a question that asks you to take a position on an issue. Looking at sample prompts, you’ll notice that almost all of them are broad, philosophical ideas. You don’t need to have specific knowledge about one event or issue to do well on the essay because each question lends itself to numerous examples and experiences that could all lead to a high score, if you demonstrate superior writing and reasoning skills.

Before you start planning your essay, think carefully about both the excerpt and the assignment and make sure that you understand them. You do not, however, have to agree with the prompt in your essay. Take the position that you believe is the easiest to support. If you agree with one side but find yourself thinking of more examples for the opposite argument, it’s okay to choose the position that is easiest to write about. You only have twenty-five minutes, so that doesn’t leave much time for internal debate. You will be judged on the quality of your writing, not on whether the essay grader agrees with your ideas.

State your position clearly in your first paragraph, and make sure that your evidence all supports your thesis statement. Your thesis must be an arguable claim and not a simple statement of facts. For example, “The earth’s temperature has increased by two degrees Celsius over the past 50 years” is a fact, but it isn’t a good thesis. I could, however, use that fact as one piece of evidence to support the thesis “Climate change is a serious problem that our leaders need to address.” You may choose to write your essay in first person (“I”) or third person (“it, he, she, one”). It is best to avoid writing in second person (“you”), because this often results in a sentence with an unclear subject.

A high-scoring essay uses a varied vocabulary and sentence structure, with correct grammar and punctuation. Don’t be afraid to use your SAT words (you’ve been studying them, after all), but don’t include a complex word solely to show off your vocabulary, and definitely don’t include an impressive-sounding word if you aren’t sure of its meaning. Choose the best word that fits what you are trying to say. Concentrate first on expressing your ideas clearly, before you consider the complexity of your words and sentences. Vocabulary and sentence structure develop over time, so diligence and repeated practice are the best ways to improve these important writing skills.

Rather than panic about the demands of the Essay, keep in mind that the College Board knows this is a short, timed composition. Although repeated errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling will hurt your score, a couple of minor errors are to be expected from even the best writers given the time limit. Students who make a couple of small errors can still get top scores if they demonstrate strong overall writing and reasoning skills.

Now, let’s explore one sample essay. I am going to imagine that I am the test taker and walk you through my process as I plan and write this essay.

The following prompt was used at the May 2014 SAT and taken from the College Board’s Web site.

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

Excerpt: We place far too much emphasis on experience and achievement in our society. We tend to judge people based on what they’ve done rather than on what they can do. But looking only at someone’s experience and achievements ignores how that person may develop or what that person may become.  We can only determine people’s true worth by what they are capable of doing, not by what they have already done.

 Assignment: Does a person’s character determine that person’s success in life? 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.

Step 1: Read and consider the prompt

First, I read the prompt and think carefully about it. The excerpt says that we should judge people by “what they are capable of doing, not by what they have already done.” The question asks me if a person’s “character” determines success in life. I believe that “character” plays an important role in people’s success, but I also know that not everyone has equal opportunities. In fact, I can think of several examples that show that opportunities are more important than character. Since I can think of these examples more easily than the other point of view, I’m going to argue that opportunity is more important than character.

Step 2: Formulate a thesis, quickly brainstorm, and plan an argument

First, I’m going to form a thesis statement that answers the question. I’ll use: Opportunity, more than character, determines a person’s success in life.

Now, I need to think of examples to support my ideas. During the test, I can jot down quick notes that only I can understand, but I’ve tried to make them understandable here:

1) The book Outliers– Children born during the Depression are more successful, Bill Gates had access to one of the only computer labs in the country while growing up

2) My friend Ana was smart and hardworking, but was able to succeed because she immigrated to the United States from El Salvador, got her green card, and got a scholarship

3) Young people who graduated from college during the last recession still make much less money, on average, than people who graduated during the years before them, even though they are just as smart and hard working

My examples come from four different sources: a book I read, my friend, the news, and my personal experience with recent graduates. Since I have limited time, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to use all of these, but I have them ready if I need them. If you can only think of one example to support your idea but you can extend it to make a well-written essay, that’s okay, as long as you show strong writing skills.

 Step 3: Write the introductory paragraph

Now, I’m ready to write my introduction. I need to introduce the idea of the prompt and clearly express my argument. If you can think of clever or catchy introduction, go ahead and write one. You might start off by asking a question or sharing a surprising fact. Since you have a short time, however, don’t get stuck on the introduction if you don’t think of something right away. For my essay, I’m simply going to use the language of the prompt and assignment to craft a clear first paragraph:

Many people in our society judge people on what they have accomplished rather than on what they are capable of. Not everyone in our society, however, has the same opportunities. Opportunity, more than character, determines a person success in life. 

Since this is a short essay, I’m going to leave my introduction there and move on to my supporting paragraphs.

Step 4: Provide evidence and examples to support your ideas

Now, I get to elaborate on my examples to prove my point.

The importance of opportunity to success is illustrated in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. After examining extensive data, Gladwell determines that people who were born during the Depression experienced more educational, financial, and professional success than people born at any other time in recent history. Did these people have more worthy “characters” than anyone else? No. Were they harder workers and more intelligent? No. Though many of them were intelligent and hardworking, the main reason why they succeeded was because they had more opportunities because of a low birthrate during the Depression. When they wanted to go to college, it was easy to get accepted because there were fewer students in their generation than the ones before and after them. When they wanted to get a job, there were fewer applicants. In addition, children of the Depression were too young for World War II too old for Vietnam, so they did not have their professional lives interrupted by the draft. Then, when they were ready to enter the workforce, they entered during the 1950’s, a time of great economic prosperity and growth. Thus, opportunities, not character, led children of the Depression to live “successful” lives.

My friend Ana provides another example of how opportunity leads to success. Ana immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when she was in sixth grade. When she arrived, she did not speak English and had not been to school past the first grade. Through hard work and good teachers, she was able to learn English and catch up to her peers by the time she graduated from high school. Though she was not able to go to many colleges because she was undocumented, she was accepted to Cal State Long Beach because California state schools are open to all students, regardless of immigration status. While there, she was able to get help with the immigration process and obtain green cards for herself and her family. Once she got proper documentation, she earned a scholarship to help her pay for law school and today is a successful immigration lawyer. While Ana is certainly an intelligent, hardworking person of excellent character, she would not have succeeded without opportunities. If she had stayed in El Salvador, she would probably not have gotten past high school, if she wasn’t killed first in the Civil War from which she escaped. If she hadn’t gone to a state with a liberal school admissions policy, she would not have been able to go to college. And if it wasn’t for student loans and a scholarship, she would not have been able to go to law school. Opportunities, more than character, allowed Ana to live the American Dream.

I had a few more examples in my brainstorm, but I didn’t have time to write about them all. That’s okay! I’m going to stop there, so I have time for my conclusion and proofread.

 Step 5: Wrap up the essay with a strong conclusion

It’s okay for the conclusion to be short, but I should try to do more than exactly restate my thesis. I’m going to leave the reader with some final thoughts and advice about the topic:

If we assume that “character” is revealed through one’s past accomplishments, we fail to recognize the potential of millions of people who may not have had opportunities for success. The best way to bring out the best character and ensure the success of all people is to strive to give everyone the opportunity to succeed.

Step 6: Proofread and review your essay

Try your best to leave at least a few minutes at the end to proofread for errors.

Here is my essay in one piece for me to proofread and review. You’ll notice I found a few errors (even test tutors are not perfect), which I show below in red.

Many people in our society judge people on what they have accomplished rather on instead of what they are capable of. Not everyone in our society, however, has the same opportunities. Opportunity, more than character, determines a person’s success in life.

The importance of opportunity to success is illustrated in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. After examining extensive data, Gladwell determined that people who were born during the Depression experienced more educational, financial, and professional success than people born at any other time in recent history. Did these people have more worthy “characters” than anyone else? No. Were they harder workers and more intelligent? No. Though many of them were intelligent and hardworking, the main reason why they succeeded was because they had more opportunities because there was due to a low birthrate during the Depression. When they wanted to go to college, it was easy to get accepted because there were fewer students in their generation than the ones before and after them. When they wanted to get a job, there were fewer applicants. In addition, children of the Depression were too young for World War II and  too old for Vietnam, so they did not have their professional lives interrupted by the draft. Then, when they were ready to enter the workforce, they entered during the 1950s, a time of great economic prosperity and growth. Thus, opportunities, not character, led children of the Depression to live “successful” lives.

My friend Ana provides another example of how opportunity leads to success. Ana immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when she was in sixth grade. When she arrived, she did not speak English and had not been to school past the first grade. Through hard work and with good teachers, she was able to learn English and catch up to her peers by the time she graduated from high school. Though she was not able to go to many colleges because she was undocumented, she was accepted to Cal State Long Beach because California state schools are open to all students, regardless of immigration status. While there, she was able to get help with the immigration process and obtain green cards for herself and her family. Once she got proper documentation, she earned a scholarship to help her pay for law school and today is a successful immigration lawyer. While Ana is certainly an intelligent, hardworking person of excellent character, she would not have succeeded without opportunities. If she had stayed in El Salvador, she would probably not have gotten past high school, and, in fact, might have been if she wasn’t killed first in the Civil War from which she escaped. If she hadn’t gone to a state with a liberal school admissions policy, she would not have been able to go to college. And if it weren’t wasn’t  for student loans and a scholarship, she would not have been able to go to law school. Opportunities, more than character, allowed Ana to live the American Dream.

If we assume that “character” is revealed through one’s past accomplishments, we fail to recognize the potential of millions of people who may not have had opportunities for success. The best way to bring out the best character and ensure the success of all people is to strive to give everyone the opportunity to succeed.

 How this essay might be scored

The author clearly expresses her point of view on the issue, then demonstrates strong critical thinking skills by elaborating on two examples that support her claim. The writing is well organized, with smooth progression of ideas. The author uses a varied vocabulary and sentence structure and writes with correct punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Because it demonstrates clear and consistent mastery, this essay would receive a score of 6.

So how do you prepare for the Essay? Before you sit down to the take the actual SAT, check out sample prompts and scored essays from the College Board’s Web site. Take time to sit down, time yourself, and practice, practice, practice!

Of course, the most effective practice involves meaningful feedback, which you can get from a SAT expert at LA Tutors. Practice combined with feedback is the best way to score high on the Essay, as well as build skills that will help you in college and beyond.

One Comment

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