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Anika Manzoor

Running out of time on the SAT Essay: What to do

Oh no! You’re in the middle of writing a beautiful SAT essay and as you’re flexing out a cramp in your hand, you glance at the clock and you notice that you only have 5 minutes left to finish. ONLY. FIVE. MINUTES.

clock running out of time -Magoosh

Your mortal enemy right now

Although the urge to panic might be overwhelming at this moment, take a deep breath and considering the following advice if you find yourself running out of time on the SAT essay.

Note: This advice is written as if

  1. you already have an introductory paragraph with a central claim or thesis (at the most basic, this would be something stating that you think the author was effective in making their argument).
  2. you have already identified and outlined 2, preferably 3, examples from the reading that shows how the author used evidence, rhetorical devices, reasoning, or other techniques to effectively argue their point.
  3. you have an understanding that each example needs its own paragraph in the body

If you want to be successful at the SAT essay, mastering the previous three points are the first step. If you look at Sample #2 for this official College Board writing prompt, you can see that even good writers will get a low writing sub-score if they do not follow the above format.

1 to 2 paragraphs written on your SAT essay

I’m not going to lie. If you’ve only written 1 or 2 paragraphs and you are running out of time, you are not in an ideal situation. But here’s how to make the best of it:

Just focus on the body and finishing as much of it as you can.

Because there are three sub-scores (writing, analysis, and comprehension), there are different ways of approaching this. If you have a really good understanding of one example and why it is effective, focus on developing that paragraph in attempts to increase your analysis and/or writing score.

If not, you can flesh out your entire body, with each paragraph having one sentence describing one example and at least one sentence describing why it’s effective. This might help you get a better reading comprehension score because you show how you understand more parts of the reading.

3 paragraphs written on your SAT essay

If you’re in this case, you still have a good shot of getting a decent score on the essay. If you’re out of examples to explore, proofread the essay and write the conclusion. If you still have one more example, explore the heck out of that example!! Don’t worry about proofreading or writing the conclusion unless you still have time at the end; if you did everything else perfectly, there’s a possibility that you can scrape an 8 on the essay!

4 paragraphs written on your SAT essay

Congrats! With your intro and body paragraphs written already, you’re not necessarily running out of time. You might even have time to proofread and write a conclusion. Still, it’s important to know how to best use your time in these crucial minutes.

As 5 minutes may not be enough time for both, it’s up to you to decide which one goes first. If you know or are worried that you’re prone to a lot of errors when writing a timed essay, definitely proofread first. Note that this is NOT the time to add new ideas. If you have time, try to write a quick conclusion if you can, but honestly, not having a conclusion probably won’t break your essay. The sample essays from College Board seem to show that 6-scoring essays are totally possible without a conclusion. If you’re confident in your lack of errors, by all means, write your conclusion first and proofread last.

 How to avoid running out of time in the first place

If you’re struggling to complete the SAT essay during the allotted time in the practice sessions, it is crucial that you practice how to improve your reading and/or writing speed. Take advantage of the new SAT essay prompts from College Board and the sample essay passages at Magoosh so that you don’t find yourself in this situation on the real thing. Also make sure to read our post on the top 10 new SAT essay tips!

About Anika Manzoor

A 2013 graduate of Grinnell College, Anika dedicated her first few years as a newly-minted professional to teaching. In addition to being an SAT instructor, she served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at a Malaysian secondary school for two years. Considering that both opportunities allowed her to explore fun ways to teach and relate to students who were otherwise bored out of their minds, she is excited to share that expertise on the Magoosh High School blog.

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