Last Updated: Jan 22, 2016
If you’re reading this, you, like me, are one of those poor, unfortunate souls who has to take the SAT before they revolutionize it into an exam that’s actually based on what you’ve learned in school as opposed to how well you take tests (what an idea). Still! We have a good bit of time before the Writing section is completely changed, so below is a comprehensive guide to the SAT Writing portion from someone who has never gotten lower than an 800.
SAT Writing is split into two sections: the essay and the multiple choice. The essay is worth roughly 30% of your overall Writing score, so you can get all of the multiple choice correct and bomb the essay and still get less than an 800 (and vice versa). As bad as it sounds, this doesn’t always work against you. My first time around I got a 12/12 on the essay but missed a few of the multiple-choice questions, and the second time I got a 10/12 on the essay and all of the multiple choice right, but I pulled an 800 both times. Essentially, don’t sweat getting everything perfect. You can pick up the slack in one department by blowing the other out of the water.
The multiple choice is scored like the rest of the SAT, but the essay is a little different. Obviously, in essay writing, there is no definitive right or wrong answer, so to gauge the strength of your essay, two graders score it on a scale of 1–6 (1 being unsatisfactory and 6 exceeding expectations). The two scores are added together to give a total out of 12, which is your final essay score.
What to expect
The first part of the test (besides the test of patience when you’re filling out bubbles for 20 minutes) is the essay portion. You have 25 minutes to write a comprehensive essay on the topic assigned to you. You can look up example topics online, but SAT Writing differs from the ACT in its less specific topics. Oftentimes the ACT is more “real world applicable” (i.e., Machines are efficient, but what is the cost of using them rather than humans for work?) type questions, whereas the SAT is abstract (i.e., Is listening more important than speaking when persuading others?). Sometimes the proctor will call out when you have five minutes left, but oftentimes they won’t, so make sure you keep a watch with you and your eye on the time.
The multiple-choice Writing is the same as usual, with five answer choices for each question. There are two types of questions: correct the error and improve the paragraph. I highly recommend looking up examples before walking in; any time spent reading instructions is taking away from valuable check-over time.
How to write the essay
It is exceedingly difficult to write a decent five-paragraph essay in an hour, so 25 minutes might seem absolutely ludicrous. Therefore, the most important step in writing a successful SAT essay is keeping an eye on the time. Aside from bringing down your score, not finishing will leave you in a state of panic that will stop you from focusing on the rest of the test. The easiest place to lose time is in the drafting stage, so make sure you pick a stance and write a thesis quickly. You should choose three examples that relate to the topic and support your opinion (these will be your body paragraphs): one from literature you have read in your high school language arts class, one from history, and one from your own personal experience. Don’t bother with a first draft. You definitely won’t have time.
Keep in mind that as little time as you have to write your essay, your graders spend even less time looking at it. Most graders allocate about five minutes per essay, so don’t stay up all night stressing about how you spelled “unnecessary” incorrectly; they probably didn’t notice. That being said, five minutes is not much time to make a lasting impression. In order to do so, you should focus on your hook, thesis, transitions, and conclusion. As easy as it is to get lost vehemently arguing your point, your body paragraphs don’t matter much outside of their first and last sentences. Basically, write your best, but put most of your energy into those four essentials.
- Hook: Consider what would make you want to read the essay. For example, for the prompt above, you could say, “Most people find listening for extended periods of time difficult.” Or, you could say, “In an age of instant communication and constant entertainment, listening might as well be a lost art.” Which one would you want to read?
- Thesis: Usually I like to use a formula for this: “As (literary title), (historical event), and personal experience show, (stance).” So, for a more detailed example (again, using the prompt above): “As Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and personal experience show, listening is vital to effectively conveying a point.” This is a nice, short, formulaic way to write a thesis that clearly communicates your stance and incorporates your examples.
- Transitions: Beginning paragraphs with “next,” “second,” “finally,” and other such words is boring both to write and to read. Instead, use the concluding sentences of your second and third paragraphs as segways to your next points. For instance, between the second and third paragraphs of the essay above, you could say, “Careful listening is not only beneficial in fictional universes; it has led to many positive outcomes in history as well.”
- Conclusion: This is by far the most difficult of the four to master. When you’re running out of time and space, it’s challenging to write a powerful concluding sentence. Most of my concluding paragraphs are three sentences long. The first sentence is a restatement of my thesis, the second is a transition reaffirming my stance, and the third is what I’ve always called a “mic drop.” If you were delivering this essay as a speech, you need to imagine dropping the mic and calmly walking off the stage to thunderous applause. And if you can’t, your conclusion isn’t strong enough. For the above prompt: “Literature, history, and personal experience all show that a strong argument is nothing without proper listening skills. As a society, we need to learn from the past and collectively develop a culture of attentiveness. After all, if talking has taken us as far as we are now, one can only imagine what listening has the potential to bring us.”
Here are some final quick tips:
- Keep it in the third person until you write your “personal experience” paragraph. You can also employ third person in the conclusion, but only after you’ve used it in the above paragraph.
- You can use a scientific example from history! Remember the names of famous chemists and physicists, since some of their stories are even more applicable than conventional historical figures like politicians and officers of war.
- Don’t freak out if you can’t remember a specific example. In my first essay I forgot the name of the Piqua tribe and instead just wrote generically about “a tribe in Northeastern America,” and I was fine.
- If you don’t finish, breathe deeply and relax. I let not finishing get to me and stressed about if for the rest of the test, which is why my score went down the second time I took the SAT.
- Remember, it’s just a test. How well you can write two pages in 25 minutes is no mark of you as a person or as a writer. After high school, you’ll never need to write an essay in this specific style again, so if you never quite get the hang of it, you’ll be okay.
How to ace the multiple choice
In my experience, grammar is, sadly, usually something that either comes to a person naturally or requires tons of practice to get. Grammar is simple for me in ways that things like calculus aren’t, and for some people, that’s reversed. That’s just how the world works.
The most effective way to get a good score on SAT Writing is to review your basics. Start with parallelism, subject-verb agreement, and comma splices, and work from there. Make sure you understand what each error looks like and the correct way to fix it.
If you want additional help, you can work through practice questions with a tutor, language arts teacher, or a friend who happens to excel at grammar. They can help break down each answer choice and teach you their thought process so you can learn how you need to attack the problem.
Finally, don’t see one error and write that as your answer without checking your other options. Sometimes there are more obvious mistakes in later answer choices.
And that’s about it! Above all, practice, review, and remember: it’s just a test. You’ll be okay. The worst thing you can do is psych yourself out. Stay calm, and good luck!