Writing the SAT Essay
Your personal game plan for writing the SAT Essay
Welcome one and all to the wonderful world of SAT Essay writing! To a good portion of us that world isn't so wonderful. Think the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog's bloodied lair—nightmarish. So, we created this short SAT Essay course to assuage your essay-writing worries and woes. This course, in essence, is your holy hand grenade.
Though the twenty-five minute time limit may sound like a threat bellowed from the throat of Full Metal Jacket's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, this course is anything but. Here, we'll guide you through the SAT's Essay section, breaking it down into manageable, bite-sized pieces for easy digestion. With Shmoop's SAT Essay course, time is on your side.
With this course, you'll get:
- A step-by-step guide and outline to writing a superb essay in under twenty-five minutes
- Three sample SAT Essay prompts in tandem with scaffolding instruction toward mastering the essay
- Shmoop's secret recipe for acing the Essay
Unit 1. Writing the SAT Essay
In four lessons, we'll take you through:
- What the Essay section looks like
- Brainstorming your response
- Outlining and essay structure
- Writing and Proofreading
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 3: Outlining and Structure
Remember that five-step process we gave you earlier? Well, know that you are brainstorming rock stars we can move on to the next step in the process. Nope, we know you're frothing at the mouth to get that essay written and done with, but we're not going to start writing yet. We're going to take those key ideas we settled on in the brainstorming process and turn them into a nice, logical outline.
In this lesson, we're going to walk through the kinds of things an outline should include and how they should look. And we'll let you in on a little secret: the best way to prepare to outline an essay is to actually outline an essay. Did we just rock your world, or what? Then prepare to be rocked even further by this activity, where you'll have the opportunity to outline an essay just like you would for the SAT.
And this is one opportunity you don'twant to pass up, or you risk getting trapped in the middle of the SAT writing maze with no way out. Think of this activity as your map. For, as the great Chaucer himself once said, "I doth outlin'd my books, prior to writing them, and that's why I became assign'd high school reading." Or something like that.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.3: Why You Should Love Outlining as Much as We Do
We already mentioned that outlining is superior to not-outlining. Here are a few more things that outlining can do for you:
- It can prevent your thoughts from devolving into senseless madness. You think you're smart and producing good writing, and then you go back to read it and it's like that one scene in The Shining.
- It can organize your arguments and ideas so that the most important points and the supporting evidence for them become clear.
- It can reveal gaps in your thinking. As you make an outline, it'll become clear what sections you might need to think through a little better.
- It can help you structure your writing the way the College Board will expect it to look. Most academic writing has a pretty basic layout: introduction, main points of the argument with sub-claims to support these main points, and then conclusion. When you outline your work, you get to participate in a legit style of writing.
Okay, got it. But how should the essay actually be structured? Well, Shmooper, we're glad you asked.
Overall Structure and Organization
A successful essay contains at least four paragraphs and could contain five if you're feeling sufficiently spectacular. Keep this in mind as you move through the structure section. Your essay needs to have the following structural elements to keep everything in line and your ideas flowing smoothly like the butter in a Paula Dean cooking show:
Paragraph 1: Introduction. This is where you state your thesis and (briefly) the examples you will use to prove it. This does not need to be a long paragraph. One or two sentences to draw your reader in, followed by one or two sentences with your main argument and supporting examples are plenty.
Paragraphs 2 and 3: Body Paragraphs / Examples. The next two paragraphs must contain examples pulled from history, literature, science, the arts, or even your own personal experiences to support your main argument. If you are using an anecdote from your own life, a great piece of literature, a historical figure or war, a breakthrough in science or mathematics, an artistic or social revolution, or anything else for that matter, make sure that they are different from one another and are all compelling enough to clearly and effectively prove your thesis. Ranting about your annoying family trip to the Grand Canyon where you comically tried to go home with another family, for example, is not a good way to prove much of anything.
Paragraph 4: Conclusion. In this paragraph, you sum up all you have already discussed. It's okay to be a little repetitive here so you can end your essay with a bang. The College Board readers know you are facing a time crunch. All you have to do here is restate your thesis in new words and finish it off with some snappy, intelligent statement that ties everything together with a pretty bow…figuratively speaking.
The Fifth Element (Paragraph). If you find through timed practice that you write quickly and clearly enough to have time for a fifth paragraph, by all means, go ahead and include one. This fifth paragraph should be a third body paragraph, right after your second body paragraph and right before the conclusion. It can either be a third example used to support your thesis, or it may address the counter-argument, disproving the opposing side. For instance, if you are arguing that "too much knowledge can be dangerous," you can use someone like Einstein as a counter-example. If you have already knocked out two seriously academic topics in the first two body paragraphs, your third paragraph can be a wham-bam awesomely relevant and intelligent personal experience to tie everything together. This is not for the faint of heart, however! Only attempt this if you feel you can handle the personal topic with as much intellectual precision as the other topics.
Transitional elements are essential to any successful essay. Students often fall into the "also" trap. They begin every new paragraph with, "Also, there is blah blah blah," never varying their structure from one paragraph to the next and thereby lulling their graders into a state of semi-consciousness as if watching C-SPAN at 4am. This is not an optimal situation for you're essay grade. Similarly, we have the "first, second, third, last" trap. This is also a clichéd way to begin your paragraphs. The best way to start each paragraph is with a different construction. Your paragraphs will either agree or disagree with each other. It's easy to think that these are the only options, but we've compiled some much snazzier ones for you to choose from because we're so considerate like that.
Typical Transitional Phrases of Agreement:
- In addition to
Sometimes, you will have to compare two different ideas that contradict one another. In this case, you need to use transition words of disagreement.
Typical Transitional Phrases of Disagreement:
- By contrast
Finally, you will often need to use transition words that summarize your point, either at the end of each paragraph or at the end of your entire essay.
Typical Transitional Phrases of Conclusion:
- In conclusion
- In essence
- In short
- After all
- All in all
When you outline your essay, you want to figure out what goes in each section and in what order. It's all about nailing down the organization up front so that you don't end up wasting your time writing a rambling hot mess, and instead are able to write a tight, coherent essay where you spend your time laying out main points and how they support your argument. Stay tuned to the activity where we lay it all out in a fill-in handout.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.3a: Actually Outline an Essay, Part One
All good SAT essays start with one really simple thing: reading the prompt. Read this prompt we've designed to closely approximate what you're likely to encounter in the SAT essay section. In the name of authenticity, we even included a notable lack of humor. (Yes, it hurt.)
People's reactions to different events can depend on their initial expectations. High expectations can represent ambition and increase the chances of success, but reality may frequently prove disappointing. On the other hand, setting low expectations ensures greater satisfaction, but at the risk of sacrificing excellence.
Assignment: Is it better to expect too much and be perpetually disappointed, or to expect too little and consistently exceed your expectations? Using what you know from the books you have read, your studies at school, your own observations, or your personal experience, plan and write an essay that explains your perspective on this issue. Your position should be supported with logical reasoning and concrete examples.
Thoughts swirling around in your head yet? Bust out one of the brainstorming techniques you learned about in the last lesson and spend a few minutes figuring out what you want to write about.
Done? Download our handy SAT Essay Outline handout in either Word or PDF. Then using the ideas you brainstormed on the prompt, outline your essay, keeping in mind the structure we discussed in the reading section earlier.
Word to the wise: For the actual SAT Essay, you'll only have 25 minutes to write your essay. So this is one place where we actually recommend you spend less time on an activity than you might want to (can you believe such a place exists?). Spend no more than 5 minutes tops. Shorthand, bullet points, and incomplete sentences are totes okay, too. Your goal is to spit out the blueprints for your essay, not build the whole darn building—that part comes later.
When you're done, upload your filled in outline below.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.3b: Actually Outline an Essay, Part Two
We're about to pull the rug out from under you. Okay, actually, we're about to pull our handy fill-in SAT essay outline out from under you. Just as devastating, huh? But here's the thing: You can't take that with you into the actual test. So stuff it into your brain now. (We'll wait.)
Got your essay structure outline all memorized? Good. Because now, you'll use that structure you stuffed into your brain to write an outline for a potential SAT essay without our fill-in chart to prop you up. Don't you feel more independent already?
Here's your prompt. Once you've read it, a minute to brainstorm and then spend 5 minutes or so and outline the essay you would write on this prompt.
"A man will fight harder for his interests than for his rights." – Napoleon Bonaparte
People's interests and rights don't always coincide. Often, our material needs and desires have little to do with basic rights like personal freedom and protection from discrimination. Although some believe that protecting these rights is more important than satisfying these interests, certain governments have avoided political unrest by providing significant financial or material benefits while depriving their citizens of basic rights.
Assignment: Should people be motivated more by self-interest or by their own rights? Using what you know from the books you have read, your studies at school, your own observations, or your personal experience, plan and write an essay that explains your perspective on this issue. Your position should be supported with logical reasoning and concrete examples. In your essay, take a position on this question. You may choose to support one or the other position we mentioned, or defend a third point of view we did not. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.
Once you're done with the outline here, upload a copy of it below.