Last Updated On: May 17th, 2020

Many people dread the idea of writing an essay for the SAT. Most students especially fear the essay section’s element of surprise: What’s the essay topic going to be? And how can I come up with ideas when I only have twenty minutes to write?

Well, you won’t know the essay topic in advance. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t prepare for the essay. And not only can you prepare, but you can also prepare in such a way that you can actually look forward to writing the essay.

Regardless of the essay topic, you should plan to write an introductory paragraph, two body paragraphs, and a closing paragraph. (You won’t have to write a standard five-paragraph essay. In fact, there’s not enough time to do so.) Here’s the tip: It’s a good idea to use a literary example for one body paragraph and a historical example for the other body paragraph. Using literary and historical examples reveals you to be an intelligent, interesting, well-rounded person.

But again, you may think, How do I know what examples to write about if I won’t know the topic ahead of time?

The answer: Prepare now by making a list of literary works and historical examples. Write down all the literature that you know well and like. The list can include literature you’ve read in school and works you’ve read on your own. It can include novels, plays, poetry, and autobiographies. Avoid works that seem cheesy and inconsequential; you want to impress the readers with your inevitable selection. But don’t worry if your choices seem either obscure or overly well-known; the essay graders won’t deduct points in either case. The list should include books that interested you, that made you think, and that you really enjoyed; it’s much easier to write about something that you like rather than about something that you think you should like. Here’s a sample list—don’t worry if your own list differs (it will):

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • Death of a Salesman
  • The Miracle Worker
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Pygmalion
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • the poem “Jabberwocky”
  • the poem “A Dream Deferred”

Your own list should include at least ten examples. You should know all these works well. If you don’t, get copies of those works and reread (or at least skim) them. Research them to make sure that you remember all significant character names and important plot points. Memorize the list, so that, during test time, you’ll be able to pull all the titles from your mind and go through them, to see if any of them contains a character or incident that fits the essay topic.

Now, do the same thing with history: make a list of historical examples. These can and should include:

  • Important people in history (rulers, inventors, activists, criminals, scientists, philosophers)
  • Important events (wars, battles, accidents, assassinations, rebellions, declarations of independence [not limited to America’s], inventions, geographical discoveries, formation of laws)
  • Important time periods (depressions, revolutions, renaissances, formations of empires, destruction of empires)

Think globally. Don’t limit yourself to American history.

Here’s a sample list:

  • Ancient Egypt
  • The Teapot Dome Scandal
  • Watergate
  • Amelia Earhart
  • Napoleon
  • Eva Peron
  • The Industrial Revolution
  • The Cold War
  • The Roaring Twenties
  • The invention of the cotton gin

This list should also include at least ten examples. Choose items that fascinate you. Research them enough so that you would be able to hold a good, knowledgeable conversation about them. Again, memorize the list, so that, during test time, you’ll be able to pull all the titles from your mind and go through them, to see if any of them fits the essay topic.

So now let’s pretend it’s the day of the test. You turn the page to the Essay section of the SAT, and you get the following as your topic (paraphrased):

Is dedication to a life cause healthy or destructive?

If you had used the above lists, you can quickly pull two examples, one from each: Romeo and Juliet and Amelia Earhart. You can use those to prove that passionate devotion to a life cause can lead to death. Or you can use two different examples, The Miracle Worker and Eva Peron, to prove the opposite: that adherence to a life goal can lead to various forms of success and achievement.

Making, researching, and memorizing these two lists can save you a lot of time on the Essay section. You can spend the time actually planning and writing—and writing about something you enjoy. Imagine that.

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