This post of is a continuation of my first post on the SAT Essay Section. If you’re preparing for the SAT Essay, you may want to first start there.
In my last post I talked a little bit about the Essay and some of the superficial things that matter.Basically what I wrote about yesterday is how to get an average essay – one that’ll pretty much assure you a score of 8.Today I want to talk a little bit about how to get your essay to the 10-12 score range.So what makes a good essay??
First Things First: Your Position
Let’s get some of the obvious out of the way first.The first thing you’re going to have to do is decide your position on the topic.Each topic has an inherent yes-side and a no-side.For example, turn to page 283 of the Official SAT Study Guide (the Big Blue Book).The essay prompt first brings up the debate as to whether or not technology has made our lives better.Then the assignment asks, “Do changes that make our lives easier not necessarily make our lives better?”So, for this prompt, you’re basically going to have to take a positions as to whether changes that make our lives easier (or more specifically advancements and technology) do or do not make our lives easier.
Whatever position you decide to take – the yes side or the no side – doesn’t really matter.It’ll be entirely up to you.This decision will be based mostly on which side your sources/evidence more naturally supports, but we’ll get a little more into this later.
The Most Important Part: The Motive
I know that in high school they teach you that the thesis is the most important part of an essay.However, when you get to college, most good expository writing classes will focus heavily on an essay’s motive.
So what is an essay’s motive?The motive of an essay is too complicated of a topic to cover entirely in this one post, but I can at least show you how to superficially produce a decent motive – since we know the superficial things matter on the SAT.While an essay’s thesis answers the question of “What,” its motive address the question, “why.”It’s what makes your essay significant, and any serious writer should address this question first.
The average high school student will jump into the essay with a thesis, something like “Technology makes our lives easier because…”This will make for a very bland and boring essay.Readers, especially SAT graders, want something interesting to read.They’ll have read thousands of essays that say the same thing before they even read yours. That’s why you need to first engage the reader by addressing why he or she should care in the first place, or why your essay is different.You can only do this by getting by the obvious. This is what the motive is all about.
Show the grader something more than the obvious (or at least pretend to).
You may be wondering, “How can I do this if I don’t know more about the topic than the average high school student?”Ah, this is where the superficial part comes in.Once, you’ve decided the position you’re going to take on the topic, you want to introduce a special word into your essay: ostensible.If you don’t know what ostensible, or ostensibly, means, look it up right now and add it to your vocabulary knowledge base.It’s a good SAT word to know anyway.Put simply, it means outwardly seeming or appearing to be.Applying this one word to your introduction will help for two reasons: first, it’ll show that you have a command of SAT vocabulary and second, it’ll make your essay appear more interesting because you’re offering something more than the obvious, meaning better than the average SAT essay.
So, again, here’s the average student’s introduction to the essay:
“Technology does (or does not) make our lives easier because…”
Notice, there’s no motive.Now here’s how you’ll apply a motive:
“While ostensibly technology makes our lives better, in reality technology only makes our lives more difficult.….
Which introduction appears to be a more interesting read?
Notice that not only does your sentence have a motive, but it also has an added level of structural sophistication with two different clauses and applies some SAT vocabulary.The best part is that it also leads naturally into a solid thesis.Your next sentence could now introduce the examples or sources you’re going to employ in the essay and reiterate your main point: “The climactic ending in the Great Gatsby, the protagonists anguish in the Catcher in the Rye, and the inevitable conclusion of the Bay of Pigs fiasco all attest to the fact that technology that promises to make our lives easier, do not necessarily make our lives better”….or something like that.
This method can be applied to any essay topic. Notice that there’s no flowery prose or unnecessary filler?It cuts straight to the point but does so in a more appealing way.It also guards against writer’s block because it provides a methodical way in which you develop your introduction without wasting time brainstorming.
Now I’ll briefly talk about your body paragraphs and sources…
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Since I’ve been getting so many requests in the last few days to write about the SAT Essay, I’m going to take a break today from the Error Identification Questions to address this topic.
When I was preparing for the SAT II Writing Test, the essay was one of the biggest sources of anxiety for me.With a different essay topic for each test, it just seemed like such a crapshoot.“What if the topic is something I know nothing about?” I always wondered.There were many times when I would take practice tests, and just not write anything!I didn’t know how to approach the essay and my mind would just blank.How could you prepare for something you know nothing about??Thankfully, I realized that just like the rest of the SAT, the essay is graded by standardized measures, and if I could just meet those measures I could achieve a high score, regardless of my writing abilities or knowledge of the topic.As many of you can imagine I eventually did very well on the essay, and I’ll explain to you how.
But before we get started, first take out the Official SAT Study Guide (yes, that big blue book).Seriously, go get it right now.If you don’t own a copy yet, you have bigger issues than worrying about the essay.Ok, now turn with me to page 200.DO IT.Stop being lazy, go pick up your book, and turn to page 200.You with me now?OK, good.
This example essay (p. 200-201) is what the Collegeboard people consider to be a perfect SAT essay – it would receive a score of 6 (on a scale from 0 to 6) by two separate graders for a total of 12 points.You don’t have to read it yet.Just glance at it for a moment.Now turn to page 202: this is an example of an essay that would receive a score of 5.Turn the page again to p. 204: this is another example of an essay that received a score of 5.Turn the page again to page 206: here’s an example of an essay that received a score of 4.Turn the page again to page 208: you’ll find another 4 essay.Turn the page again to page 210: here, you’ll see an example of an essay that would receive a score of 3.Over on 211 you’ll see an example of an essay that would receive a score of 2.And finally, if you turn the page one more time to page 212, you’ll see an example of an essay that would receive a score of 1.Notice anything??
The Superficial Things Matter, a lot
If you actually followed along with me on this exercise, you should have noticed one obvious thing, there’s a direct correlation between the length of the essay and its score.Why is this the case?Well if you ask the ETS and CollegeBoard people (the people who develop and administer the SATs) they’ll readily admit that such a correlation exists.Their reasoning is that while quantity does not necessarily equal quality, in a 25-minute essay, which is a relatively short amount of time, the more you write, the more you’ll develop and articulate your ideas – which in essence is the point of the essay.Valid point.
Another significant factor also explains this correlation between the length of the essay and its score: time.No not the time it takes you to write the essay, but the time it takes the grader to grade it.How much time do you think a grader spends on each essay? One hour meticulously weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each argument you make, determining the validity of each point, checking the facts you cite, and evaluating the structural sophistication of your sentences?No way. You would think that they have to spend at least 25 minutes, the length it took for you to write the damn thing, right? Wrong again. 10 minutes? 5 minutes? Nope and nope.
The reality is that the graders spend in the ballpark of 2 minutes, if that, on each essay.And, they probably know after just the first 30 seconds what score they’re going to give you, within the range of one point.Think about it, with 2.5 million students taking the test each year, how much time COULD they really spend on each essay?Most of the graders are volunteer teachers who already have busy lives. Plus, they’re not getting paid!
So what does this mean to you the test-taker? The SUPERFICIAL things, like length, matter a great deal on this test.Obviously the content of your writing does matter, but for the most part, the more you write, the better you’ll score, so write more!On a short 2 page, hand-written essay every sentence you add, adds significantly more to the essay.One of the best areas to add to essay is to explain your evidence more thoroughly. So anytime you site an example from a book you read in English class, or an event you learned in History class, add at least one more sentence than you already have to more thoroughly explain how this example supports your main point.
Another superficial factor that could improve your score, is the use of SAT caliber vocabulary.You know all those words you studied for the Critical Reading questions? Use them in your essay!The best place to put these words is within the first paragraph of your essay.Since your grader will make a significant judgment of your writing abilities within the first few seconds of reading your essay, it would be smart to put those vocabulary words within the first few sentences.Just make sure you use them appropriately.
Ok, now on to how you should structure your essay.When it comes to structure, it may be worthwhile to first consider how every other student is going to organize his or her essay.Almost every high school English class uses a tripartite essay format, where the thesis comes in the first paragraph and introduces two or three examples.Then the body of the essay has one corresponding paragraph that elaborates on each example from the thesis. Finally, the conclusion just reiterates the main point one last time. Refer to the example below:
What the Typical Student Writes:
– General introduction to topic.
– Thesis: Examples A, B, and C prove my point that…
– Paragraph 1:
– Topic Sentence 1: Example A supports my point because…
– blah, blah, blah
– Paragraph 2:
– Topic Sentence 2: Example B supports my point because…
– blah, blah, blah
– Paragraph 3:
– Topic Sentence 3: Example C supports my point because…
– blah, blah, blah
– Through Examples A, B, and C, I have proven my point that…
Look familiar?I’m sure this is what most standard high school essays look like, and this is pretty much what every student’s SAT Essay will look like.If you follow this format and you’re a decent writer, this should garner a score of 8 (4 points by each grader).But you’re not reading this to earn an 8, you want that 12.
So what’s wrong with this essay? Nothing, it’s just that every single student will produce the same essay, and if you also produce such an essay, you’ll have give the grader no reason to give you a higher score than average, an 8. But not to worry. I’ll go over exactly how to distinguish your essay from all the others and impress the grader enough to earn you that 12 in my next post.
Click here to continue on to How to Write the Perfect 12-Point Essay (Part 2)
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