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The SAT Essay: Basic Principles

RocketRule #3: Write a Lot
Your English teacher has undoubtedly stressed that good writing is about "quality, not quantity." And your teacher is right. But this isn't an English paper, and your teacher isn't the one grading it.

On the SAT essay, more is definitely better. The official SAT essay graders believe that good writers have a lot to say, and conversely that poor writers have little to say. (Remember our essay scoring formula?) It's true: on the SAT, 400 well-written words will invariably outscore 200 or even 300 outstandingly well-written words.

The More You Write, the Better—So Long as What You Write Is Relevant
Okay, let's be honest. We've all been in the following situation: we're taking an essay test when we come up against a question that we can't answer adequately. So what do we do?

We bluff, of course. We blather on and on, hoping that our teacher won't notice our blindingly obvious ignorance, and that he or she will accept our offering of well-written emptiness as a substitute for a complete lack of facts.

For example, let's say that we get an exam question in our United States history class that asks us to discuss the technological causes of the Civil War. Whoops. We know the social causes, sure, and we're fairly knowledgeable about the economic ones, but we don't have a clue about the technological causes.

So we ramble on about the social and economic causes of the American Civil War, and we even throw in a bit about how technology affected the course of the conflict. Admittedly this is not precisely the question we were asked, but it's pretty close. We cross our fingers, hoping that our teacher won't notice our "near miss" (or that if she does notice that we haven't answered the question, attributes it to a pardonable misreading on our part).

Anyway, you won't ever face that predicament on the SAT Writing Test. The only topics you could possibly be assigned will be general ones, like the samples I provided in Introduction to the SAT Writing Test.

Provide Specific Details
The best way to write a lot in 25 minutes, apart from knowing what you're going to say before you begin, is to elaborate. Give examples. Provide details. Be specific.

You don't have the time to provide too many details in your SAT essay, but even a few can make your points more compelling. Here are some examples of how providing details can transform short, vague statements into lengthier, more interesting sentences.

Vague Sentence #1: For someone commonly viewed as paralyzed by his own doubts, Hamlet actually did a lot.

Discussion: Who views Hamlet in this way? What did Hamlet doubt? What exactly did Hamlet do? Specific details will occur to you naturally if you simply answer the questions your own sentences raise.

Specifics Provided: For a character commonly viewed by literary critics as paralyzed by his own doubts about his perceptions, Hamlet feigned madness, dispatched two childhood friends to their likely deaths, staged a play, and killed two men.

Vague Sentence #2: Many people were affected by the farming legislation.

Discussion: How many people? Who? How were they affected? Which farming legislation?

Specifics Provided: The Eisenhower farming legislation required vast tracts of land to be set aside as fallow. As a result, tens of thousands of migrant farm workers were thrown out of work and forced to leave the countryside to seek their livelihoods in urban centers.

Notice that there's no rule that requires you to supply all the details you've chosen in a single sentence.

Don't go overboard with details or your essay will lose focus. A sentence or two of details for each example you use is more than enough.

State the Obvious, and Then Restate It
You're forced to write a lot in a short time, so don't worry about whether something you're saying is "trivial" or "too obvious." Your essay should display some originality, but that doesn't mean that every point you make needs to be important or original.

Once you start writing, don't be afraid to state anything that appears to be relevant to the topic. Will some things you write be less relevant, if not completely off topic? Possibly, but the SAT graders are trained to look at your overall essay (one of the advantages you get from the hasty reading they'll do of your essay). If your overall essay is otherwise strong, minor flaws are unlikely to have much, if any, effect on your grade.

Remember: you're writing a first draft, not a polished final work; you just don't have the time to weigh every word, phrase, and sentence. After you've planned your essay, write, write, and write!

Three Simple Starter Phrases for Writing Emergencies
You don't have much time to write your essay, so what happens if you get stuck? Writer's block is bad enough when you're trying to compose a paper at home; when you've got 25 minutes to sprint-write an SAT essay, it can be a big problem. Here are three phrases that will help you get unstuck:

  • For example,
  • In other words,
  • On the other hand,
Let's say you're in the exam room, writing your SAT essay. You planned your essay before you started writing so the words have been flowing nicely. Then, all of a sudden, your mind suddenly goes blank. Oh no! You can't think of what to write next, and you can practically hear the exam room clock ticking down.

Here's what you do if you get stuck. Without thinking, write down one of these phrases to start off a new sentence and before you know it, you'll find that your pencil begins moving along all by itself. These phrases force you to supply more details.

Fill Up the Answer Sheet Space Provided for Your Essay
The SAT graders won't tally the exact number of words in your essay, of course. So how do they tell how long your essay is?

They look to see whether or not the 52-line answer form is full! If you've filled up the form, the graders will be impressed; if you haven't, they won't.

Right now, take a few moments and see what your essay form will look like. You can get a good idea by looking at two blank pages of lined notebook paper. All that white space is scary, isn't it? (Don't worry, I'll show you other ways to expand your essay quickly in a little while.)

If your normal scrawl is tiny, write larger—but not too large, because you can't go beyond the 52 lines. It's okay to skip a single line between each of your paragraphs but do not skip every other line in the form or you may run out of space. (Skipping every other line will also emphasize to the graders that your essay isn't very long.)

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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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