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8 Smart Tips to Improve Your SAT Essay

The SAT Essay is often the most daunting part of the test, so go into it with confidence using these tips on writing your best essay!

This blog originally appeared on brainly.com.

You’ve inevitably felt the pressure of a big test before. When it comes to the SAT Essay, you may be at your wits’ end. Don’t worry! You’re in the right place to learn how to approach the SAT Essay component with confidence instead of fear. Preparing yourself for what to expect can make all the difference. Here are eight tips that you can use to maximize your score on the optional Essay component.

1. Know the prompt

If you’re a student who values practice prompts, there’s good news. CollegeBoard.com offers not only sample SAT Essay prompts but also examples of student responses coupled with their scores and feedback.

Before each SAT Essay passage, you’ll notice a generic prompt. This prompt acts as a guide, encouraging you to consider the bulleted items of what to take note of as you read. Be sure to take this seriously and scour the passage for them. Why? Because the rest of the prompt, found after the reading, will ask you to reference these ideas in your essay.

Bonus tip

Essay prompts are all structured in this way, and each asks you to explain how an author accomplishes a given task through the passage.

2. Detail the how, not the what

Before getting into how to approach the passage, the prompt, and tips for writing the best possible essay in 50 minutes, there’s one tip that will immediately set you on the path to writing success: the SAT Essay prompt will never ask you to retell what you’ve read.

When pressure mounts, you may be tempted to summarize the passage or explain why you agree or disagree with the author’s points. Avoid both at all costs! They’re called the “what” of the passage.

Instead, the SAT graders want to know if you can analyze the “how” of the passage. How does the author persuade? How do they use devices to make a point? How does the message come across to the audience? How can the reader tell that the author is passionate about this message?

3. Know your terminology

This is where your English classes may come to your rescue; if you haven’t yet, study up on the stylistic and persuasive devices that you’ll have to use in your SAT Essay. If you’re not familiar with many, here is a detailed list that you can use to study.

Bonus tip

Don’t just memorize the definitions of these terms; find examples of them being used in pieces of literature and try using them yourself. Students who apply concepts rather than rely on muscle memory often find it easier to take notice of them in the passage on test day.

4. Let the full prompt guide your reading

Read both parts of the prompt before you start reading. To make sure you stay focused on the prompt throughout the entire writing process, here are some quick tips:

  • Underline everything that the prompt asks you to do. Then, as you brainstorm, you can refer back to the underlined portions of your prompt to make sure you’re staying focused.
  • Take notes directly on the passage, including underling sections the prompt told you to consider and making brief notes in the margins of any ideas you might be able to use in your essay.
  • Glance frequently back at the prompt to remind yourself of what you’re looking for.

You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to stay focused on your task if you’re annotating and referencing the prompt frequently. Practice these techniques on a sample SAT Essay and see how they help you regain control over this seemingly daunting task.

Related: 5 Common SAT Reading Mistakes You're Likely Making

5. Always brainstorm

Like the strategy above, brainstorming is essential to creating a focused essay. Without a little bit of planning, your essay will lack the depth and detail that leads to a high score. When students don’t spend enough time brainstorming, they approach the essay component without confidence, causing them to spend even more valuable time going back to the passage and rereading.

So, what does a successful brainstorm look like? Luckily, it doesn’t matter. As long as you scribble down ideas and organize them in a way that makes sense to you, you’re good to go. Since you don’t have a lot of time, you don’t need to make this part look nice.

6. What to focus on

Make sure the following aspects of your writing take up the majority of your energy and focus.

Relevant ideas

Your ideas are everything! That’s why you should frequently check yourself, making sure that your points align with the prompt and the mission of your essay. Your essay’s success hinges on whether your ideas relate to and address the question or task posed in the prompt.

Organization

There are so many different ways to organize an essay. For an analytical essay like this, consider organizing your paragraphs in one of the following ways:

  • Chronologically: Make sure the ideas in your essay are placed in the same order that they appear in the passage.
  • By topic: Group paragraphs based on the type of method the author used to persuade the reader.

If you come up with an organizational structure that works better for you, go for it—just as long as you use one. You will be scored on your ability to organize your thoughts.

Neatness

Scorers are trained to ignore handwriting when grading essays. Still, remember that you’re trying to communicate your point of view to someone else. If they can barely read it, this will be difficult to accomplish.

Related: Short-Term SAT Prep (or What to Do If Your Test Is This Week!)

7. What not to focus on

Spelling, grammar, mechanics, and usage are always necessary. However, graders are not trained to take a point off here or there for every minor error. So don’t spend too much time worrying about misspelled words or small grammatical mistakes. Your ideas are more important. (That said, an essay full of errors will undoubtedly receive a lower score, so don’t be too careless.)

8. Make sure it’s complete

SAT graders will be checking to make sure you’ve submitted a complete essay. In other words, you’ll need to have an introduction, several body paragraphs (two to four), and a conclusion.

There are a few ways to ensure that your essay appears to be complete, even if you end up struggling with time.

  • Indentation: Make sure you indent the first line of each paragraph to clearly show that you’ve got the right structure. Your scorers will conclude that your content lacks depth and organization if you don’t.
  • Conclusion: Even if you’re strapped for time, write a conclusion. Your graders know that you’ve only got 50 minutes to read, annotate, brainstorm, and write, so they’re trained to place more emphasis on the body of your essay anyway. Even if your conclusion restates your main points in one or two sentences, it’s better than leaving it out.
  • Verbosity: It’s important to write as much as possible. Response length is one of the easiest metrics for a grader to quickly measure.

Final tips

Before you take a look at what other students wrote for the College Board SAT Essay prompt examples, try to write your response to the sample essay using the strategies we outlined above. Then compare your answer with the sample responses. It could provide you with some valuable insight into your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the SAT Essay. Study hard, use these strategies, and watch your score go up!

Read the full blog here, and find more SAT tips in our Test Prep section.

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