How To Study For The Sat Essay Formula

If you are taking the SAT with Essay, on the exam you will be asked to read a text (typically a speech or editorial of some sort) and discuss how the author effectively builds an argument. This might be a familiar task if you’ve done it in school, but if not, don’t worry. The format is straightforward, and with some practice, you can learn how to write a great SAT essay.

The SAT essay is optional, but we recommend you complete it. Some college and universities require that you complete the essay portion if you submit SAT scores instead of ACT scores, and some schools do not require it. Completing the essay portion of the SAT will help you be ready to apply to any college. Your essay score will appear on every score report you send to colleges, regardless of whether or not the school requires an essay. Every school to which you apply will see that you took the initiative to write the essay, which is a good thing.

1. Stay Objective

The thing to remember here is that ETS (the company that writes the test) is not asking you for your opinion on a topic or a text. So be sure to maintain formal style and an objective tone. Tip: Avoid “I” and “you.

2. Keep It Tidy

Handwriting is becoming a lost art. Unfortunately, this is one occasion where your skill with a pencil matters. Graders read tons of essays each day. If they cannot decipher your script, they will lower your score. Do yourself a favor and write legibly.

3. (Indented) Paragraphs Are Your Friend

Remember the basic essay structure you learned in school: introductory paragraph, body paragraphs and a conclusion? The graders love it! Your introduction should describe the text and paraphrase the argument being made, as well as introduce the specific elements of the passage and argument that you will discuss in the essay. Your conclusion should restate the goal of the passage/argument and sum up the points you made.

4. For Example…

Use your body paragraphs to back up your thesis statement by citing specific examples. Use short, relevant quotes from the text to support your points.

5. Don't Worry About the Exact Terms for Things

When describing how the author builds his or her argument, “appeal to the emotions” is fine instead of specifically referencing “pathos.” And “comparison of two things” can be used instead of referring to a metaphor. If you do know the official terms, though, feel free to use them!


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No matter what you’ve been told, the SAT essay doesn’t test how good of a writer you are. There’s no way it can, especially in the form it takes. Outside of the SAT, you’ll only find yourself in a situation like this when taking other standardized tests. The essays you’ve written in high school and those you’ll write in college do have some things in common with the SAT, but the comparisons are limited.

 

Why “good” SAT essays aren’t really “good” writing

I studied writing through high school and college, and now I write for Magoosh, so you can bet I have some thoughts on what makes “good” writing. But I don’t necessarily see those traits in near perfect SAT essays. The SAT doesn’t care much about your sense of voice, nor does it care much about how engaging or descriptive your writing is. It doesn’t care if you use too many adjectives or if you have an unfortunate love for clichés.

So what makes an SAT essay “good”? It’s pretty formulaic. According to the College Board, they care about five things.

  • Developing a point of view
  • Organization
  • Vocabulary
  • Varied sentence structures
  • Grammar

And while that’s all true, in a way, you can bet that they don’t pick every student’s response apart meticulously according to each of those five evaluations in equal measure. In fact, let’s think for a moment about what SAT graders really do.

They go through thousands of essays every year, and they work by the hour. If you follow the link above, you’ll see that the pay isn’t even all that good. So they take literally about two or three minutes on each essay, and they read quickly to see if there are any glaring errors and whether the writer developed an idea.

 

The most noticeable strengths of good SAT essays

Here’s an interesting thought: your essay can be pretty much nonsense and you can still score pretty highly on it. Use some high-level vocabulary, avoid obvious grammatical errors, and write enough to make it seem like you’ve developed an idea, and you’re looking at a total score of 8 or higher out of 12. After all, you would’ve met at least three or four of the criteria for a good essay, even if there’s not a single coherent idea on the paper. As long as the schizophrenic lady on the street has some collegiate vocabulary and solid grammar, her essay about how being the queen of 7-Eleven proves the importance of honesty might get a decent score.

That’s either a depressing idea or an encouraging one, depending on how you take it.

The point is that the SAT essay actually tests a lot of the same skills that SAT reading comp and SAT writing multiple choice do. Avoid frequent, large grammar errors, use a couple of your flash-card words correctly, and fill the page as much as you can, and you’re looking at a pretty decent score already.

It won’t make you a good writer, per se, but hey—points are points on the SAT.

 

About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.


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