In a way, the SAT essay grade is the easiest thing to improve in your SAT score. Well, some jumps are easier than others. It’s more common to jump from a 4 to an 8 (out of 12) than it is to jump from an 8 to a 12. That’s because a lot of the problems that hold mid-range scores back from high scores are totally avoidable.
What not to do in your SAT essay
Students tend to make the same few mistakes when writing their essays. Make sure you don’t fall into these categories.
– Writing a single block of text: It’s really hard to get at the organization and logic of your argument if it’s written as a singe paragraph. Always separate into intro, body, and conclusion paragraphs, and make sure your body paragraphs stay on clearly defined sub-topics.
– Too much time referencing the quotation: Every time I see this, I die a little inside because it’s a totally understandable mistake. Why do the SAT makers give you that enormous quote before the question if you’re not supposed to use it? It’s true that you can reference the quote if you want, but it gets you no points and doesn’t answer the question. It’s just another example of how devious the SAT can be.
– Listing examples with no context or analysis: SAT essays that look like lists stand out a lot… they tend to have the name of a book or historical event right at the start of each body paragraph. It’s incredibly clunky and totally avoidable.
– Not answering the question: This is actually, surprisingly, one of the trickiest mistakes to notice and/or fix in a lot of cases. The question is going to be a pretty clear-cut yes or no question, so a lot of SAT students feel like as long as they’re taking a stance on the same topic, they’re giving a relevant answer. That’s not the case, though. Make sure you really understand what the question is asking (and follow that link to see what I mean).
– Skipping the conclusion: An SAT essay that finishes with an analysis of an example feels slightly off-topic because it hasn’t been brought back around to the main point again. The conclusion will give you the chance to do that. But don’t just repeat your thesis word for word. No matter what your history teacher says, that’s an awful idea. Paraphrase. Use synonyms. Change the structure of the sentence. Repeat the idea, not the words.
Grammar and vocabulary
High level vocab is probably the most notable difference between a 10 and a 12 essay, so don’t ignore it. Keep studying SAT words.
And remember that grammar not only counts, but it’s also tested throughout the rest of SAT writing sections, so it’s definitely worth your time.
Practice your essay
Even if you get what I’m saying here, you’re not going to really see how well you avoid these mistakes until you try it out. Test yourself. Get a prompt and write the essay with a timer (25 minutes for everything). If you have somebody else who will read it for you, great. If not, come back to it yourself in a week with a critical eye.
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About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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