Take 3 Steps to Score Well on the SAT Essay

Outline your SAT essay before you start writing, and include a variety of examples in your response.

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Don’t let spelling and grammar mistakes or illegible handwriting undermine the substance of a well-planned SAT essay.
Don’t let spelling and grammar mistakes or illegible handwriting undermine the substance of a well-planned SAT essay.

Since its introduction in 2005, the essay component of the SAT has brought anguish and anxiety to countless high school students. This is in large part because of its broad, philosophical topics and the brief time limit – 25 minutes – in which students must complete it.

Each SAT essay is given a score of 1-6 by two graders, for a total of 12 points. That score is about 30 percent of a test-taker's score on the writing section.

While there are many ways to improve the quality of your SAT essay, there are three critical steps you can take to get the highest possible SAT essay score.

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1. Brainstorm and outline your essay before you begin writing: This may seem counterintuitive at first, as you might expect to spend the entire period writing. Yet brainstorming and outlining a plan is actually the most important thing students can do to improve their essay scores.

Graders take only a few minutes to grade each essay they receive, so it's paramount to present an organized, easy-to-follow essay that is consistent and to the point. How can you guarantee your essay will be organized if you don't organize it before you write it?

After briefly brainstorming examples that answer the prompt, make a short outline of your essay in a standard five-paragraph structure. Include an introductory paragraph with a thesis statement, three supporting paragraphs with topic sentences that illustrate your thesis and a final paragraph with the proper concluding statement.

Stick to this structure as you write your essay. You don't have to outline everything that you plan on writing – that would take too much time – but have your thesis, your examples and the general tone of your conclusion hammered out before you write a word. Not only will your finished product be far more organized and easy for graders to read, but you will also write your essay much more quickly once you begin.

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2. Use a variety of examples: The SAT essay prompts are purposely broad in order to be applicable to students from all educational and cultural backgrounds, without bias. You can use all sorts of examples – including historical, literary, cultural, practical and experiential points – to support the thesis you choose to use.

Whenever possible, make sure the three examples you choose are suitably diverse. Even if the prompt screams at you to use three examples from your favorite novel, historical period or anything else, do not do this.

Graders may think you have nothing to say outside of this one, small area from which you have taken your examples and are unable to think and write creatively on the fly. Make your examples as diverse as the prompt allows.

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3. Check your work and don't be sloppy: There is nothing worse than brainstorming, outlining and executing an excellent essay only to receive a less-than-ideal score because the grader could not read your handwriting. Beyond this obvious point, sloppiness comes in many forms.

Follow the rules you learned in English class and make sure you have flawless grammar. Do not mix up singulars and plurals, avoid double negatives and check that your verb tenses are consistent.

Also, make sure to watch your spelling. Years of using word processing software and spell-check may have caused your spelling to occasionally suffer. But the SAT essay is handwritten, which means you will have to check your own spelling.

Make sure to properly indent when you start a paragraph, use your commas correctly and so on. All of these may seem like minor concerns, but mistakes in any or all of these areas will undercut the real meat of your essay – your thoughts themselves.

An essay strewn with spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes will prejudice graders into thinking that your essay is less intellectually worthwhile. Don't let mistakes lead to a grade lower than your creativity and critical thinking skills deserve.

Bradford Holmes is a professional SAT and Latin tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his B.A. from Harvard University and his master's degree from the University of Southern California.