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Tips to Improve Your Score on the SAT Essay

Tips to Improve Your Score on the SAT Essay

So you or your student is getting ready to take or retake the SAT with Essay. There are some important things to remember when preparing and taking this test that will greatly improve your chances at garnering a good score. I have been grading SAT Essays for years, and everything I am about to tell you is either A. Directly from the College Board Website or B. Things you should already know from your English/Writing classes at school. Getting a good score on the essay portion of the SAT requires you to think in a slightly different way, but once you start thinking differently, your score should improve. I’m not giving you insider secrets here! If you go to the College Board website and read everything they have there, you know just as much as I do. Everything needed to get an excellent score is there. My suggestion is to get familiar with the things below, then write an essay based on one of the articles on the site. Compare what you’ve written to the Rubric (grading scale) and the Example answers. Figure out where your shortfalls are and what you need to do in order to change them.

1. The Essay Prompt NEVER Changes

Go to the College Board website mentioned above and look at the sample prompt. That is the prompt that will be on your test. I promise. The only thing that changes from test to test is the article you will read and respond to.

2. Study what the Prompt is Asking

That prompt is the thing that causes many a student to stumble, because it’s not asking you to do what most people think at first. The article will be issue driven, the author of the article is trying to persuade the audience to either do or not do something. Your job, when writing the essay, is to analyze the techniques the article writer uses to convince the reader of that particular thing, exactly how those techniques persuade the reader, and what changes are prompted in response.

Here’s an example:

The article talks about why everyone should eat more broccoli. It gives many statistics about how nutritious broccoli is and the wonderful things it does for the body. It gives humorous anecdotes to share why you should give it a try even if you haven’t liked it in the past. It give horrifying evidence about what happens to people who don’t eat broccoli. It concludes with an appeal to patriotism to support American farmers who might go broke if you don’t buy it.

The SAT Essay is not asking you to tell why you think broccoli is great and why people should eat more.

The SAT Essay is not asking you to restate all of the author’s evidence as to why you should eat more broccoli.

The SAT Essay is asking you to tell which techniques the writer uses to convince the audience to eat more broccoli, how the audience would respond to that technique, and what changes would be made in response.

Example: The use of logos when giving statistics is an immensely persuasive tactic. The astounding numbers will cause the audience to open their eyes and take notice. “…consumption of broccoli each week increased the lifespan of broccoli eaters by 5 years vs. those who do not consume broccoli” should prompt every reader to stop what they are doing and immediately run to the store to purchase broccoli for their families. Readers will want to live longer, it is exciting to think that broccoli may be the fountain of youth. It might even cause them to plant their own broccoli garden or develop new recipes including broccoli in order to live longer lives. (Yes, an exaggerated example)

3. You Are Graded on Three Traits: Reading, Analysis, and Writing

It is a challenge to do well on all of these traits, and from experience, the one people have the most difficulty with is Analysis. Reading measures how well you understand what you have read, and how well you use quotes and information from the passage to show you understand the article. Analysis is exactly what I talked about above. It is analyzing the writer’s persuasion and exactly why and how it prompts change in the reader. Writing is your writing skill–introduction, conclusion, grammar, variety of sentences, logical flow. It is nearly impossible to achieve high scores on all three traits in less than two pages, and three to four (the limit) is better unless you begin to repeat yourself. You really should be able to pull enough out of the article to write three full pages.

4. Use Quotes or Paraphrases

Now is not the time to be vague. Now is not the time to think “Oh, they have read the article, they know exactly what paragraph 2 says.” Use quotes. Use them liberally. You should use at least one quote for every persuasive technique, honestly the more quotes the better, but with one caveat: they have to be relevant. Connect the quotes to what you are trying to prove. Discuss the effect those quotes have on the audience and the changes they will prompt the audience to make because of it. The person reading your paper should be able to follow your argument logically even if they have not read the article.

5. Use Formal Language and Writing Technique

You are writing an essay that will hopefully help you to show your skills for admittance to college. You want to write with a formal tone. If the author of the article is Mary Smith, either refer to her as Mary Smith, Ms. Smith, or just Smith. Never refer to her as Mary. You don’t know her, it is much too familiar to call her by her first name. And if you are unsure as to whether a person is a male or female, just call them by their last name or first and last name.

Use paragraphs. Attempt to spell words to the best of your ability. If you are not 100% sure of what a word means, find one to use that you are sure about. Do not abbreviate. Do not use text-type speaking (U, R, Tho). Watch for repetitive words or phrases. If you find yourself writing “Smith says…” “Smith states…” “Smith says…” over and over, come up with different phrasing.

To that end, don’t use overly flowery or thesaurus-y words. When every word seems to be pulled from a thesaurus in an attempt to make the essay seem more intelligent, it only serves to make things more muddled. Make sure your content is well-written and follows a logical thought pattern, the rest will follow without seeming like you are forcing it.

6. Write Legibly

In my mind, this is complete and total common sense. You would be astounded at how many people write so illegibly it is difficult to decipher. I get that you are under a time crunch and don’t always have time to do a rough draft and final copy. I’m not talking about cross-outs or inserted words. I’m talking about scrunched up cursive or loopy letters that all blend together. No person grading your test will care if you print or write in cursive. Write to the best of your legible ability.

8. Re-Read What you Wrote

Leave yourself enough time to re-read your essay before time is up. Try to leave at least five minutes for a final read-through. Read it as if you are reading it for the first time. Does it flow well? Does it make sense? Do you have an introduction and conclusion? Can you read your handwriting? If someone had not read the article, would they be able to follow your argument? You have one last chance to show that you’ve got what it takes, so it’s important to give the best impression.


Do you have any suggestions or techniques that have helped you improve your score on the SAT Essay? Any questions?  Let me know in the comments.

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