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The SAT Essay: Basic Principles

Five Easy Rules to Ace the Essay

Now that you know what the essay graders are looking for, it's time to apply that knowledge to formulate some guidelines you can actually follow on the test. The rest of this section is a piece of cake if you keep in mind the previous features. I've boiled down everything you need to know about writing the SAT essay into a handful of simple rules.

You're Following an Essay Formula for a Reason
Some of the writing rules I'm about to recommend will have many English teachers gnashing their teeth in exasperation more than any split infinitive or dangling modifier ever did. These teachers hate the whole notion of writing formulas. They believe, with justification, that it's ridiculous if not futile to reduce the complex, intangible skill of writing to a tidy set of simplistic-seeming rules. Indeed, they point to the great writers who became great precisely because they flouted the writing rules and conventions of their time.

I agree with these teachers, but let's get something straight here: you are not being judged on whether you can create a literary work of art in 25 minutes. The SAT graders who will be marking your paper have specific expectations about the characteristics of outstanding persuasive essays. If your essay satisfies those expectations, it will receive a very high mark. If your essay disappoints those expectations, it will receive a low mark—regardless of the literary or creative merit your paper deserves.

So the upcoming rules are not ideal writing rules, but writing on the SAT is not an ideal situation. Don't take chances on the actual SAT by getting creative—you have only 25 pressure-cooker minutes to read the question, generate some ideas and examples, organize your thoughts, and compose your essay. You've only got one shot at the essay, so follow these RocketRules to the letter.

RocketRule #1: Use the First Few Minutes to Plan Your Essay
Even though you have 25 minutes to write your essay, it's crucial that you spend a few minutes planning what you're going to say.

I know it's tempting to dive right in and just start writing the moment the proctor announces, "Open your test booklets and begin." But careful planning is critical to your achieving a high mark.

Use the "scrap paper" space provided in your test booklet to jot down your thoughts and the supporting examples you want to use. If you think of some great words or impressive phrases you'd like to include, jot those down, too. Use abbreviations, of course.

Will you waste what little writing time you have by planning? No, spending a few minutes to organize your thoughts and outline your answer will actually allow you to write much faster. Once you get started, you won't have to stop mid-essay to ponder what to say next because you'll already know. Students who start writing immediately (without planning) quickly find that their writing has run out of steam. By then it's too late for them to get a fresh start on their essay.

Especially Use the Planning Time to Make Sure Your First Paragraph Is a Zinger
Your first paragraph will receive the most attention, so make sure you plan one that has snap, crackle, and pop. I'll give you ideas for how to pump up your first paragraph shortly.

As you now know, by the time the SAT graders finish reading your first paragraph they will have largely decided your essay's final grade. They'll merely skim through the rest of your essay. Although the graders will slow down a bit in the final paragraph, they do this merely to confirm their initial impression of your essay.

When students start writing immediately after reading the instructions (without planning their essays), they invariably stumble in their opening paragraph. Even if they catch their stride later in the essay, the SAT graders have already formed their opinions.

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From The RocketReview Revolution: The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT and the PSAT by Adam Robinson. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here.


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