1. The Essay section is graded according to a commonsense notion of good writing, so WRITE WELL.
You'll have 25 minutes to write an entire essay. This really means you have about 15 minutes: 5 minutes to plan (brainstorm and outline), 15 minutes to write, and 5 minutes at the end to proofread like the wind. Practice writing quickly and neatly; get to a point where you can squeeze a lot of ideas into a limited amount of space. Don't worry about your hand cramping; bear the pain and keep on writing.
The scoring scale for the Essay portion is from 0 to 6. Here's a link to the College Board's scoring guide for the Essay. Two raters will rate your essay; their scores will be added together for a total from 0 to 12. If you're in the 10-12 range, you can be proud of the job you've done. If you're in the 8-9 range, you've done fairly well, but not great. If you're below an 8, then you've got problems, and it may be too late to teach you how to write. People scoring at that level have already developed too many bad habits to unlearn in a short time.
If you're the type of student who bothers to read a tutoring blog, you're not likely to get a 0, so we won't worry about that. Most students need to worry about scoring higher than a 6 (i.e., a 3 and a 3 from two raters), which is, as you can imagine, a mediocre score. Remember that SAT scores aren't about passing or failing, however: different colleges will look at your scaled scores and assess you according to their own standards.
What is "good writing"? If you followed the above link to the College Board site, then you learned that the College Board's notion of good writing isn't far removed from what your own teachers have been telling you for years and years: you need to demonstrate clarity, organization, logicality, and persuasiveness. Reason and emotion, which together form the grounds of rhetoric, are your guardian angels. Heed them well. You need them both.
I've already written about writing logically and clearly; feel free to peruse that blog post at your leisure. Note, however, that with only 5 minutes to brainstorm and outline your essay, you can't expect to be making detailed outlines. At the same time, you'll want to avoid the mistake of simply rushing into writing your essay with no thought as to what details you'll be using to support your argument. Running out of ideas, while the clock is ticking, is deadly on the SAT. The clock stops for no one, and no one at the College Board will care about your excuses for being unable to come up with any ideas. You're just a student number to them; the raters have no clue who you are.
So: be organized, be clear, be logical, be persuasive. While you're at it, if you're looking to earn a 6, avoid making silly mistakes in spelling and grammar, and for goodness' sake be sure your penmanship is legible. The old rule, croaked by every teacher in every subject you've ever taken, is: If I can't read it, it's wrong. That applies as much to the SAT Essay as it does to math, science, or any other subject. SAT Essay raters will take only about 2 or 3 minutes to evaluate your essay; they've been trained to perform such analyses very quickly. I know: I was trained by ETS to be a TOEFL essay rater, which involves much the same skill set. Essay raters won't take any time to marvel at every single point you make; they have to rate holistically, i.e., their ratings are based, not merely on the details they see, but on their overall impression of the whole essay. Did they have to struggle through your horrible handwriting in order to understand your point? If so, you're certainly not getting a 6. Did they trip repeatedly over bad grammar and careless spelling? That's another point gone. Did they have trouble navigating your slipshod logic? Well-- sloppy writing equals sloppy thinking, so there goes another point. And so on. Help the raters out by giving them a smooth ride through your argumentation.
2. Budget your time wisely. If you have to choose between preserving overall structure and writing an incomplete essay, go for preserving the structure.
You've probably had the notion of the five-paragraph essay drummed into you: intro, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Here's the problem, and I've noticed this with a lot of my students: people will start writing SAT essays that have beautiful, top-heavy introductions... and then they won't be able to finish in the allotted time. If I were a rater reading such an essay, there's no way I'd be giving it more than a 3... and a 3 would be generous! I hear you asking: Why not show a little compassion to the student who has begun well? Two reasons occur to me right off the bat: first, the student hasn't demonstrated any ability to pace him-/herself, so why should I reward that inability? Second, the student hasn't done the most basic thing, which is answer the question. Again-- as a rater, why should I reward the student for not having met the most basic requirement?
So what should a student do in that situation, if s/he knows that s/he is a slow writer, and won't be able to write a full, five-paragraph essay in the allotted time? I say to you: cut your losses. Go for a streamlined intro and conclusion, and use only two body paragraphs. A score of 6 is possible with only four paragraphs; the College Board has acknowledged this. All the same, I wouldn't consider a 6 likely if you write a shorter essay, but the point is to write something complete, something that'll allow you to aim for a 5. Don't leave the essay rater hanging by turning in an essay that begins beautifully, then coughs, sputters, and dies well before the finish line. A fair-to-poor score on the Essay section can exert an evil gravitational pull on the rest of your Writing score. That's precisely the fate you want to avoid.
Learning to budget your time is something that comes with practice, practice, practice. Find a list of typical SAT Essay topics and just start churning out essays. Get an honest friend to critique your efforts. Ask your English teacher for help in this area. (And hey-- I am a tutor, so think about registering with me if you want my help!) There's simply no substitute for hard work. Don't be disappointed if your first few efforts go awry-- if you find you're still writing when time is called, or that your essay is a logical mess. As long as you practice mindfully and have someone to help you, you will improve.
3. Adopt a clear position.
There's little use in doing any of the above if your strategy is to write as neutral or wishy-washy an essay as possible. You need to take a firm, clear stance that directly addresses the essay prompt. The prompt itself is usually in two parts: a quote from a famous thinker, followed by a starkly-worded yes/no (or Choice A/B) question. Here's an example, straight from the College Board site:
You have twenty-five minutes to write an essay on the topic assigned below.
Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.
Many persons believe that to move up the ladder of success and achievement, they must forget the past, repress it, and relinquish it. But others have just the opposite view. They see old memories as a chance to reckon with the past and integrate past and present.
--Adapted from Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, I've Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation
Assignment: Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.
Assuming five minutes to plan your essay, you need to do several things at once:
a. Be sure you understand what the essay prompt is asking for.
b. Figure out your stance.
c. Get brainstorming and outlining!
I've had a few students who failed to understand the question being asked, and they went on to write essays that completely missed the point. Quite a few students seem uncomfortable with SAT essay prompts, because the prompts tend to be about Big Thoughts-- ideas and notions that are philosophical in nature. While Big Thoughts may seem intimidating to you, rest assured that the College Board isn't asking you to wax philosophical: the expectation is that you'll present the SAT Essay raters with a narrowly focused thesis and equally focused essay. Yes, the prompt is cosmic in scope; no, you don't have to write cosmically. Quite the contrary: write specifically.
Let's look at the above block-quoted example. Do you get what it's asking for? The issue of success seems important here, but success is a vague, general notion, so you need to decide what your idea of success is. Is success about financial/material gain? Is it about being satisfied with where you are in life? Is it about the attainment of fame? Spiritual enlightenment? Being able to look in the mirror, and liking what you see? You need to figure this out within the first 30 seconds, because success can mean a host of different things. Without locking down your view of success, you risk writing a loose, potentially incoherent essay. NB: The Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot quote seems to lean toward an equation of success with personal achievement. Still vague, but possibly something to work with.
The prompt doesn't stop there, of course: success is linked with how we handle the past. Does the past (i.e., our memories) help or hinder us on the path to success? The prompt writer is actually trying to help you here by offering you two clear choices: (a) the past can be helpful on the path to success; (b) the past can hinder us on the path to success.
You'll need to decide very quickly what your stance is. Yes or no? Pro or con? A or B? The essay prompt has presented you with stark choices, and it's often best to follow one of those choices. But, I hear you asking, what if I find the extremes ridiculous and want to adopt a nuanced 'middle' position?
That's an excellent question, and the wisdom on this is varied. Many test prep centers (the company I work for says this, too) recommend that you avoid taking a middle position because of the high risk of sounding wishy-washy. Hogwash! I say. A middle position is perfectly respectable... but this doesn't exempt you from the obligation to be clear and firm in your stance. An essay filled with a series of "I believe X, but on the other hand Y" makes for an awful-- not to mention frustrating-- read. The SAT Essay rater needs to have a clear understanding of your position in order to give you the high score. Keep all this in mind as you figure out where you stand.
[NB: The College Board strongly implies that an essay that adopts a middle position won't be penalized. Click this link to see an essay that received a 4; it received that mediocre score not because it took a middle path, but for other reasons. In fact, the rater complimented the student for adopting a nuanced position: "This essay provides adequate reasons and examples to support both aspects of its point of view..., thus demonstrating competent critical thinking."]
And now: this is the moment to start brainstorming. Our memories: a help or a hindrance as we strive to succeed? Rewording the prompt in this way can help make it clearer in your mind. Draw a quick chart, if that helps you; label one side "HELP" and the other side "HINDER," then start listing examples of each. You're brainstorming, so don't waste time using complete sentences. Just jot down words and phrases that come to you, no matter how lame-sounding they might be.
Strangely enough, it may not matter what your actual opinion is: if you find you've gathered more ideas on the side of the chart that you weren't leaning toward, you should stick with writing an essay about that. Example: your personal opinion is that your memories can help you on the path to success, but as you brainstorm, you realize that you've got five examples in the "HINDER" column and only one example in the "HELP" column. If that's the case, then stick with "HINDER" as your thesis. Why? Because, quite simply, you can't write an essay without ideas to fuel it.
Let's say you've got six or seven quick ideas under the "HINDER" column. That's more than enough. Pluck out the best of those ideas, and start outlining.
I. intro-- THESIS: hinder
A. attchmt to past = not cnstructiv
B. memories ≠ PLANS
C. lookg backwd = usu more pessimistic thn lookg fwd
Notice anything missing from the above outline? Oh, yeah: actual, concrete examples! We'll deal with that next.
4. Choose your examples wisely.
You're pressed for time. You really need to start writing. My hope is that, while you were brainstorming, you thought of some good examples to fit into your outline. (You may, in fact, have to brainstorm and outline simultaneously! Five minutes isn't a lot of time, after all.) In case you're not sure where to look for examples, here's a list of possible sources:
1. Your personal life. Yes, it's perfectly OK to mine your own life for details, although I wouldn't recommend over-using this option. You can, in fact, fabricate an episode from your life; no one on the College Board will be the wiser. Lying is perfectly OK, as long as your example remains within the realm of the plausible. (Don't write about how your dog was able to talk and do higher math after the aliens dropped it back in your yard.)
2. Literature, TV, and other pop-culture sources. Is there a character on TV with whom you can relate? Has that character been in a situation where putting aside/dismissing memories of the past was crucial to that character's success/fulfillment/etc.? Can you think of a character whose attachment to the past proved destructive, e.g., someone so hell-bent on revenge that s/he ended up destroying him-/herself? (Captain Ahab certainly comes to mind. Hamlet arguably loses his sanity, then loses his life in his quest to avenge himself upon his uncle Claudius.) Literature and pop culture are rich with such references. Just make sure you get the story facts straight, or you'll end up embarrassing yourself. (Don't write about Hamlet fighting Grendel, for example.)
3. History. Real-life personalities are arguably better examples than fictional characters. Surely you can think of any number of successful people, be they businessmen or politicians or military leaders or religious figures-- or even successful writers and orators who defied the odds to become great. All those years of taking history class after history class should stand you in good stead at this moment on the SAT. (If you're using an example from history, don't fictionalize!)
With all these sources at your disposal, I find it hard to imagine that you'll completely blank out during the test. If you do blank out, it's probably because you (1) haven't properly understood the essay prompt, and (2) haven't bothered brainstorming and outlining. Some talented students think they can tough it out and just start writing. If you know yourself well enough to try such a trick, then go for it with confidence! You'll definitely save time by not having to pause and plan. But most students need to take those crucial five minutes to formulate some sort of plan of attack. In all probability, you, Dear Reader, belong to that crowd. Start writing!
To sum up, then-- these are the four crucial tips to help you maximize your score on the SAT Essay.
1. Write well: logically, clearly, persuasively.
2. Budget your time and pace yourself.
3. Adopt a clear position, and show it in your essay's thesis.
4. Choose your examples wisely: make them cogent and relevant.