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Lucas Fink

Should the SAT Essay Be Five Paragraphs?

How do you feel about five paragraph essays? Personally, I can’t stand ‘em. They’re like oatmeal—yeah, it gets the job done, but it’s pretty bland and grey. I’d much rather have something else for breakfast… something meatier or more colorful.

So you might be surprised then, that I recommend using the standard five paragraph format to write your SAT essay. There’s one important caveat to that, though: make it four paragraphs, not five.

The structure of an SAT essay

The five paragraph essay is usually structured like this:

Introduction Paragraph

-Introduction to topic

-Thesis sentence

-Preview of examples (Optional)

Body Paragraph 1

-Statement of reason


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-Analysis of example


Body Paragraph 2

-Statement of reason


-Analysis of example


Body Paragraph 3

-Statement of reason


-Analysis of example


Conclusion Paragraph

-Summary of reasons (Optional)

-Paraphrase of thesis

-Closing thought

That third body paragraph is crossed out to represent how you should write your SAT essay. You only have 25 minutes to finish the thing—some of which should be spent planning—so getting three well fleshed-out, articulate body paragraphs down on paper probably isn’t going to happen. It’s possible, but not worth stressing over. You’re better off focusing on making the first two body paragraphs as eloquent as possible.

How can I make my SAT essay stand out?

Okay, so there’s a problem with the five four paragraph essay; everybody writes that. And since your essay is going to go through the hands of an SAT essay grader in a matter of minutes, a lot of people think that looking like all of the other essays is a bad idea.

Yes, you do want to stand out. But be prudent about how you stand out. Having an unconventional structure is risky—there’s a greater chance that you’ll lose sight of the topic or start repeating yourself.

Instead, try to get the reader’s attention with more interesting language. Use metaphors, incorporate highlevel vocab words, and vary the structures of your sentences. If your standard essay is oatmeal, those are the fruits and flavors you can use to make a much more interesting meal out of your writing.

Four paragraph persuasive essays are good because…

A) they keep you focused. If each paragraph has a specific goal (e.g. providing a thesis or an example), then you can keep your sights on that individual piece of the puzzle, rather than constantly trying to see the whole picture. If you don’t focus in on the pieces, you’re bound to sacrifice some clarity.

B) you have practice writing them. Your English teachers and History teachers probably have all asked you to write persuasive essays in this format before. And practice, as you’re aware, makes perfect.

C) they’re easy to plan for. Because they’re so structured, they should only take a moment or two to map out. If you decide to create your own custom structure, planning it might take a bit more time and thought. Instead, create a thesis, ask yourself how you got to that thesis, then conjure up a couple examples for those reasons. At that point, your outline is finished… no need to worry about the order of paragraphs or anything like that.

Bland essays can still be high-scoring essays

If your grammar, vocabulary, and argument are all strong enough, even the most oatmeal-ish essay can score a six. The SAT is not the place to experiment with format. Save that for your classes.


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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