Writing for a Test: Five Things the SAT Essay Wants
Twenty-five minutes, one essay, one-ninth of your overall SAT score – and one more place college admissions counselors might look to see what kind of student you really are. While your admissions essay can demonstrate past experience and illustrate academic goals, the SAT essay not only is an important part of the overall test, but it is also a place colleges can check your impromptu writing, reasoning, and language use skills.
Wonderful and terrible writers alike can both rejoice and take warning in the process and scoring of the SAT essay. The point of the essay is not to write a brilliant piece of prose that inspires the scorer. Nor is it to “trick” the question and write with sarcasm, wit, or extreme brevity. Here are five things SAT scorers (and, possibly, admission counselors) are looking for in the essay.
1. Focus — Staying on Topic
The first part of scoring well is, of course, to answer the question or prompt given. This means answering it directly and not straying from the topic, or turning the question into something else to fit your own needs.
2. Establishing a Point of View
Having an opinion or perspective in the SAT essay is essential. Unless you are Kierkegaard, writing “Either/Or” will not show your ability to choose a view and support it. Your views, after all, are not being tested. Merely choosing a point of view on the topic or prompt and defending it will suffice. You do not even have to agree with the view you take — you just need to support and it throughout the essay.
3. Structure and the 5-paragraph Essay
Once you have established a point of view or main argument in your essay, you have to defend it. This is where scorers look for the structure. Topic sentences, clear evidence – from previous studies, reading, experience, or observation – and a strong conclusion are essential. A typical 5-paragraph essay (introduction with thesis, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion) is all it takes. It does not take subtly to score high, but it does take clear sections. In twenty-five minutes, you’ll only really be writing a first draft. That’s perfectly fine. Writing an outline, will help greatly – if scorers see structure, they’ll reward you.
4. Correct Use of Language
A few spelling errors will not kill your score, but the correct use of words, grammar, and punctuation is part of this section. Your admissions essay can be proofread, polished, and edited multiple times. In the SAT essay, scorers and admission counselors are well aware of the limited time. That does not mean a disregard for proper English is allowed. It merely means that a new skill is being measured: real-time writing.
5. Length Matters
As many test-takers and teachers have said – including Les Perelman, the director of writing across curriculum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – length in the SAT essay does matter. The time limit definitely comes into play here, but it is essential not to cut yourself short because of time. Many well written SAT essays receive lower scores than they would otherwise due to brevity. Conciseness can be a virtue, but in the SAT essay, finishing the structure (think 5-paragraph essay) is imperative.
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