You will have 25 minutes to write a short, first-draft essay as part of the test. Your opponents understand you only have 25 minutes to complete the essay. That’s not much. So they are not looking for a finely polished sample of your writing. The scorers will treat it as a “first draft.” They are primarily looking for overall criteria such as: 1) an analytical focus on the topic, 2) organization, 3) use of language, 4) sentence structure, and 5) grammar. The test writers, your opponents, don’t care if you use the “5-paragraph” essay style that is often taught in school. They don’t even care if you agree or disagree with the prompt!
The College Board’s website indicates:
The short essay measures your ability to:
- Organize and express ideas clearly
- Develop and support the main idea
- Use appropriate word choice and sentence structure
The essay is “holistically” scored. This means you will not receive scores for individual elements of your essay. Rather, you will get a score that represents your writing as a whole. You can use the following website page to read about the scoring system in detail.
The essay will be scored by experienced and trained high school and college teachers. Each essay will be scored by two people who won’t know each other’s score. They won’t know the student’s identity or school either. Each reader will give the essay a score from 1 to 6 (6 is the highest score) based on the following scoring guide.
SCORE OF 6
An essay in this category is outstanding, demonstrating clear and consistent mastery, although it may have a few minor errors. A typical essay
- effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position
- is well organized and clearly focused, demonstrating clear coherence and smooth progression of ideas
- exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary
- demonstrates meaningful variety in sentence structure
- is free of most errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
SCORE OF 5
An essay in this category is effective, demonstrating reasonably consistent mastery, although it will have occasional errors or lapses in quality. A typical essay
- effectively develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates strong critical thinking, generally using appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position
- is well organized and focused, demonstrating coherence and progression of ideas
- exhibits facility in the use of language, using appropriate vocabulary
- demonstrates variety in sentence structure
- is generally free of most errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
SCORE OF 4
An essay in this category is competent, demonstrating adequate mastery, although it will have lapses in quality. A typical essay
- develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates competent critical thinking, using adequate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position
- is generally organized and focused, demonstrating some coherence and progression of ideas
- exhibits adequate but inconsistent facility in the use of language, using generally appropriate vocabulary
- demonstrates some variety in sentence structure
- has some errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
SCORE OF 3
An essay in this category is inadequate, but demonstrates developing mastery, and is marked by one or more of the following weaknesses:
- develops a point of view on the issue, demonstrating some critical thinking, but may do so inconsistently or use inadequate examples, reasons, or other evidence to support its position
- is limited in its organization or focus, or may demonstrate some lapses in coherence or progression of ideas
- displays developing facility in the use of language, but sometimes uses weak vocabulary or inappropriate word choice
- lacks variety or demonstrates problems in sentence structure
- contains an accumulation of errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
SCORE OF 2
An essay in this category is seriously limited, demonstrating little mastery, and is flawed by one or more of the following weaknesses:
- develops a point of view on the issue that is vague or seriously limited, and demonstrates weak critical thinking, providing inappropriate or insufficient examples, reasons, or other evidence to support its position
- is poorly organized and/or focused, or demonstrates serious problems with coherence or progression of ideas
- displays very little facility in the use of language, using very limited vocabulary or incorrect word choice
- demonstrates frequent problems in sentence structure
- contains errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics so serious that meaning is somewhat obscured
SCORE OF 1
An essay in this category is fundamentally lacking, demonstrating very little or no mastery, and is severely flawed by one or more of the following weaknesses:
- develops no viable point of view on the issue, or provides little or no evidence to support its position
- is disorganized or unfocused, resulting in a disjointed or incoherent essay
- displays fundamental errors in vocabulary
- demonstrates severe flaws in sentence structure
- contains pervasive errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics that persistently interfere with meaning
SCORE OF 0
Essays not written on the essay assignment will receive a score of zero.
Copyright © 2005 collegeboard.com, Inc.
The Winning Strategy
Use the Pillars of Wiz-dom in conjunction with the scoring system, and you will conquer the essay section of the SAT.
Step I: Focus on the Prompt
As long as the essay reader can read your writing, the only way you can get a 0 on the essay is if you fail to respond to the prompt. The SAT test writer refers to the prompt as an “assignment.” So, the first thing you have to do is remember Pillar IV: Focus on the Question. Make sure your essay responds to the prompt. The best way to make sure you are focused on the assignment is to restate or paraphrase (Pillar II) what it requires you to write about in your essay. Let’s try some examples. For each of the prompts below, write down what the topic of your essay must be.
Schools have policies regarding plagiarizing the works of other writers. If a student is caught using what someone else has written and portraying it as his own work, he gets a failing grade. Many schools have honor systems that require students to notify teachers when they find out another student is using someone else’s work as his own. If the school determines a student knew of an incident when cheating occurred and failed to report it, that student receives the same punishment as the cheater.
Assignment: Should a high school implement an honor code that requires students to identify students who are cheating? 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.
|State the Topic:|
When considering college selection, students have personal profiles that include academic abilities, subject area interests, preferences for a large or small school, etc. Thousands of colleges exist and they each have a profile of characteristics. Counselors at high schools have access to lots of information about colleges. They can match students with their best possible college choice.
Assignment: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? High school counselors have the responsibility to find the best college for each of their students. 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.
|State the Topic:|
Motorcycles today have evolved far beyond those of the past. They are capable of going from zero to 60 miles per hour in just a few seconds, with top speeds in excess of 160 miles per hour. This performance far exceeds the demands of common transportation in our cities. Abuse of these abilities has led to thousands of deaths, of motorcycle riders and their victims alike, and tens of thousands of injuries.
Assignment: Should new laws be passed or are current laws sufficient to regulate and penalize the owners of motorcycles? 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.
|State the Topic:|
Professional athletes are frequently seen as role models for today’s youth. For example, the National Football League shows TV commercials in which football players are portrayed as role models who support local charities like the United Way by donating their time to children’s groups. However, TV sports shows broadcast athletes celebrating their performances in ways that are so offensive that some players have been penalized for their rule-breaking demonstrations. Many high school students pattern their behavior after adults they hold in high esteem.
Assignment: Should TV sports shows continue to show players who are celebrating their performance and victories if they have been penalized for inappropriate behavior? 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.
|State the Topic:|
“More important than our personal behavior, we tell people who we are by what we expect and say of others.” Kind people expect kindness from others because that is how they believe people are. Opportunistic people fear being taken advantage of by others. Competitive people view the world as a game in which all others are opponents who compete in turn.
Assignment: What’s the best way to judge who a person really is: based on their personal actions or based on what they say about the behavior of others? 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.
|State the Topic:|
“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Discontent with current circumstances is a motivation to change. Perceptions of a different situation often induce people to change from their current position to a different one because they believe the new circumstance will be better.
Assignment: Does discontent with current circumstances or does the attraction of new circumstances cause people to change? 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.
|State the Topic:|
Step II: Develop a Point of View
A major criterion of the scoring system is that you must develop a point of view. In short, give a definitive answer to the question; take a position on the assignment. Make sure you can think of one or two major pieces of supportive evidence or arguments for your position before you finalize your point of view. You could use three supportive arguments but you only have 25 minutes to write this essay. You are better off using one or two well-developed arguments than three not-so-well-developed ones. If you use one argument, make sure there are enough details to that argument that you can develop two or three short, related paragraphs.
There are no right or wrong answers to the SAT’s assignments. You don’t even have to agree with your own response—just support it with evidence. Be prepared to use one or two examples from your “reading, studies, personal experience, or observations” to support your point of view. So be sure to select a point of view that you can defend. Don’t pick a point of view simply because you think it is right, or politically correct, or will make the essay scorers happy. You have to be prepared to defend your position.
Your point of view could easily be the conclusion of the statement, “After reading my essay, someone should believe or agree that…” because my arguments are so logical. Now let’s practice by writing a point of view for each of the prompts above.
|1. The reader should agree that:|
|2. The reader should agree that:|
|3. The reader should agree that:|
|4. The reader should agree that:|
|5. The reader should agree that:|
|6. The reader should agree that:|
Step III: Write a Thesis Statement
This is a simple step. Convert your point of view to a thesis statement to use as the topic sentence of your first paragraph, the introduction of your essay. It needs to be punchy and eye-catching. You must make a clear statement of what you believe so that the reader knows you are focused on the prompt and what your point of view is on the topic.
Write a thesis statement for each of the prompts.
Step IV: Write the Introductory Paragraph
Now tie the thesis statement (Step III) to the two supportive arguments (Step II) to form the introductory paragraph. This paragraph serves as the preview for the essay. Use the first paragraph to tell your reader what you are going to tell them! Make sure it expresses your point of view on the prompt and tells the reader what reason or reasons you have for your position. In effect, this paragraph “tells the reader what you are going to tell them.” Don’t start using supportive details in the first paragraph. Save them for later. Keep this paragraph on topic and global since it should preview your essay as a whole.
Write an introductory paragraph for each of the six prompts on separate sheets of lined paper. The best paper to use would be the size of the answer sheet from the SAT that you will have to use on test day. It is 50 lines that are 6.25 inches long. (There are sample sheets in The Official SAT Study Guide.) That’s not much and you need to be sure to write your complete essay in this area. Any writing you do outside of the specified lines on the answer sheet will not be scored. (If your handwriting is large, you may need to practice writing smaller.) Be sure to use the sheets as you practice the following techniques.
Step V: Write the Body of the Essay
The body of the essay should tell the reader what you told them in the first paragraph you would tell them! Write two or three paragraphs to provide substance to your position. This is where you will use supportive details to expand on the arguments that defend the point of view.
Begin each paragraph with a strong topic sentence that previews the paragraph. It should be clearly related to one of the arguments you presented in the introductory paragraph. Expand on the topic sentence by providing supportive details that show how the argument strengthens the point of view. Make sure you have at least two details. The strength of your essay will be bolstered by how well the details substantiate the arguments you have presented. Finally, conclude the paragraph with a transition sentence that will lead into the next paragraph.
Continue writing paragraphs in this manner until you have expanded on each of the arguments you introduced in the beginning of your essay. Be sure you leave space on the answer sheet to conclude the essay.
Step VI: Write the Conclusion
Finally, tell the readers what you told them. Begin your final paragraph with a sentence that draws attention to your point of view, using it as a topic sentence for the last paragraph. Use a few sentences to remind the reader what your arguments are that support your point of view. Your last sentence should provide a punchy conclusion that summarizes your point of view.
There are lots of ways to write an effective essay, but they seem to follow a pattern. The Wizard’s approach is just one of them. To see others and get more detail and practice, take a look at some of the following Internet links. Remember they deal with the complete process of writing an essay, including editing and polishing the final draft. Disregard these sections since you are only writing a first draft. In addition, you will be dealing with limited space and time on the SAT. Therefore, advice regarding three arguments isn’t practical. Stick to one or two well supported ones.
Now that you have the organization of the essay under control, let’s worry about how to score points while writing your essay using the strategy described above.
The test writer is going to assess your use of language, sentence structure and vocabulary. They are most interested in variety, so give it to them. You don’t need to be Faulkner but you need to give them variety. Here are some helpful hints.
Make sure you use active not passive sentences. The subject of a sentence should be doing and not receiving. For example, “The ball was thrown by the boy,” is much better written, “The boy threw the ball.” Rewrite the following as active sentences.
Our attitudes about cultural appropriateness are the result of our experiences during our high school years.
Many injuries and deaths are caused by motorcycle accidents when the drivers are being reckless.
Trust will be lost among students if they must report cheating on one another.
There’s some more practice you can do on this website:
Include a variety of sentence structures in your essay. First, use simple sentences that have a single subject and a single verb. They should express a single, straightforward idea or action. This sentence is an example.
Second, include two or three compound sentences that combine two independent clauses that are linked by a coordinating conjunction that clarifies the relationship between the two clauses. Common coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Here’s an example. Coordinating conjunctions are all short two- or three-letter words and their first letters spell “fanboys.” You should use a compound sentence when you want to link two simple sentences that are of equal importance. Once they are linked, the two sentences are called independent clauses. You may want to write “fanboys” down as you begin planning your essay!
Third, make sure you include a few complex sentences. They are two clauses of unequal importance and are connected by a subordinating conjunction. There are lots of them. Though, since, and whenever are a few examples. http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/conjunctions.htm is a good website to use to see a more complete list. Notice the coordinating conjunction’s purpose is to define the relationship between the two clauses. For example: Even though you should use a variety of sentence structures, you should not use them in a redundant pattern. Be sure you use them in varying locations. The easiest way to make sure you include complex sentences is to memorize a few of the coordinating conjunctions and make sure you use them in your essay. You may even want to write one or two down while planning your essay.
It is not as important to use high-level vocabulary like you might see on the hardest part of the sentence completion questions as it is to use appropriate words that provide clarity to your essay. Don’t use mundane words like walk, talk, and said. Use words like sauntered, whispered, and explained. Also be careful not to use the forms of to be (is, was, am, etc.) too frequently.
Avoid abstract nouns when you can; replace them with concrete nouns. You can easily recognize them since they are nouns that cannot be detected by your senses of touch, smell, hearing, sight, and taste. For example:
Original: His ability led to James being named to the all-star team.
Revised: Because James scored so many points, the committee named him to the all-star team.
Sometimes you cannot easily substitute a concrete noun for an abstract one. In these cases, you should explain what you mean by the abstract noun by providing details. For example:
Original: Alberto has achieved all of his goals for this school year.
Revised: This school year, Alberto reached his goals of maintaining a 3.5 GPA and making the baseball team.
Converting the Abstract into the Concrete
An effective essay will have both abstract and concrete ideas. The prompts for the SAT essay tend to be about abstract ideas such as motivation, conscience, change, success, and disaster. You will need to start with these abstract concepts as part of your thesis statement and point of view. Then you will have to provide concrete examples and provide specificity in your essay. Be sure your introductory paragraph provides a preview of the concrete arguments that you will use in your essay. Be sure the paragraphs in the body of the essay expand the concrete arguments with specific, supportive details. Finally, make sure your conclusion blends your arguments with the original abstract idea that was presented by the prompt.
Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics
The essay scorers will base your score partly on appropriate use of the English language. Multiple-choice questions directly test these standards in three question formats. The essay scorers will be checking to make sure you are able to use standard English construction when you write your essay. There’s nothing new to this. Just apply what you learned for the editing part of the Writing Section.
Check Your Essay
Finally you need to check your essay. You can scratch out and replace words and phrases even if you need to squeeze in an improvement. Check your spelling, grammar and punctuation. As you are proofing your essay, read each word carefully to make certain you have not omitted any words or used the wrong word. For example, it is easy to write and when you mean an or to write, Students should not have to cheaters when you mean, Students should not have to report cheaters. A couple minutes spent proofing can improve your essay score.
Do not get overwhelmed by the essay. Prepare for it by reviewing the strategies you’ve learned here, checking out the recommended websites, and writing practice essays. Remember—everyone else has the same amount of time as you do—and most of them haven’t prepared as well as you have. Simply use your strategies and skills to impress the test scorer!
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