When I took the SAT in high school, I scored very well in both Math and Critical Reading—both above 700. This was before it changed in 2005, when the SAT Writing section was introduced, so I didn’t have a Writing score from that day of testing. Instead, I took the optional SAT Subject Test in writing, which was basically the same thing as what’s on the SAT Writing section now, so I went into that test knowing my Critical Reading and Math scores and feeling pretty confident. I was also studying creative writing at an arts school in the afternoons and devoting hours each day to honing my writing skills, so I had good reason to expect a high score.
Expectations vs. reality
You can see where this is going: compared to my expectations, I basically bombed the writing test, coming out of it with a score in the low 600s. Although that’s not exactly a bad score, it was a spectacular disappointment for me. Everybody had always told me I was good writer, and I was planning on studying creative writing in college, possibly even trying to become an author. But none of that mattered for the SAT essay, which is what brought down my score.
Basically, I messed up the essay section of the test for one simple reason: I couldn’t think of good examples. I spent well over five minutes (out of only 25) simply trying to think of a single example to support my thesis. By the time I started writing, I was still example-less, and I spent the rest of the time grasping at straws, trying not to repeat myself in a sea of generalizations and abstractions. Altogether, my essay was probably half the length it could have been and was totally unconvincing. Even if my grammar was perfect (there may have been a couple of small errors, but I’ve always been a careful editor) and my vocabulary was college-level, no essay grader would have given me anything close to a top score because, simply put, I didn’t play their game.
A winning strategy
Luckily, there’s a pretty easy way to avoid that same problem happening to you: memorize a list of sources of examples before the test. If you have in mind a few books, movies, historical events, and important personal experiences that you can draw from, you’ll be able to mentally cycle through them after reading the question as you outline your essay and choose examples that might fit. Even if it doesn’t actually make much sense in your essay, it’s better than nothing. At the very least, you’ll have something concrete to structure your paragraphs around. It also makes it easier to continue writing, because you always know what to talk about next, and that means a longer essay, which is a very good thing.