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How to Ace the SAT Essay in 6 Easy Steps

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; 10:00 AM

I wrote the headline above myself, part of the thrill of pretending to be dispensing advice that will lead all young Americans to their collegiate promised land. I envy the college-guidebook writers, at least the good ones, who do this for a living, since it is hard work and it helps people.

I don't know as much as they do, but as March 12 and the first administration of the new SAT with required essay approaches, I feel an itch. I actually know something about writing. And yet I no longer have any high-school-age children on whom to inflict my wisdom. So this column is therapy for me. If any of my six steps make sense to you, I am glad. And there is no charge.

_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at mathewsj@washpost.com.
_____Also in Class Struggle_____
Critic Responds on the AP Debate (washingtonpost.com, Feb 22, 2005)
College vs. AP -- the Backlash (washingtonpost.com, Feb 16, 2005)
Learning for a Better Life, Not Just a Better Job (washingtonpost.com, Feb 8, 2005)
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1. Don't forget to bring three sharpened pencils and a watch.

I know how dumb that sounds. But I have found myself in situations where I had to write something in a short period of time and lacked those important tools. It was traumatic. During my first SAT test, I couldn't see the clock at the back of the room and heard the proctor call out "TIME" long before I was done.

As for those pencils, I don't think they should be TOO sharp. When mine have too fine a point, they tend to break, and these days a sharp-pointed anything can get you hauled off to the security office, where all your essay-writing preparations will do you no good at all.

2. Don't overthink it.

The bleary-eyed SAT reader, probably a high school teacher earning some extra money, will look not for brilliance, but for clarity. If you are one of those very few people who can see at a glance all the implications and subtexts of an essay question, like Voltaire or some of my favorite modern essayists such as Michael Kelly, Malcolm Gladwell or Christopher Hitchens, then swing for the fences. But for those of us who can barely manage one original thought in a decade the best course is to embrace the obvious.

I am looking at a sample essay question in the Princeton Review's "11 Practice Tests for the New SAT and PSAT." It asks if unsuccessful ventures can still have value. The guide offers two examples, the Vietnam war and the Columbia space shuttle disaster, which are fine, but almost too fancy. Don't be afraid to think small. In this case, I might go with a bad grade on a paper that made me work harder in that course, a loss in the Little League championship that taught me how to handle defeat or even that wardrobe disaster at the Junior Prom that helped me see the value of careful inspection of oneself in a mirror before any public event.

In fact, I like that last one much better than wars or shuttle explosions. At least one historical or literary example is probably a good idea. It is always good to demonstrate, to a teacher-reader, that you were paying attention in some teacher's class. But having a little fun is not so bad. Check tip number 6 below to see why.

3. Use short sentences with active verbs.

I am that dorky parent who kept asking his children's English teachers why they didn't use Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" any more. It is my pet peeve, and I don't expect everyone to understand. But Mr. Strunk and Mr. White taught me the power of simplicity. I am often too lazy to adhere to their good advice, but you ought to consider it in this instance.

The two readers scoring your essay are likely to be exhausted by the time they get to you. They will be rubbing their eyes and wondering when they can take a dinner break and thinking about giving a 1 (out of a possible 6) to the next essay, no matter how good, that mentions Holden Caulfield. If they find you have blessed them with clear, readable prose in short, easily digestible sentences, they will be grateful.

Let's try some out: "The United States entered the Mexican War to win territory, not honor. General Grant said later he loathed that war. It created the cynicism that would trouble Lincoln two decades later." See? It's not so hard. But it requires that you take one more step that may be difficult for you:

4. Don't be afraid to cross out bad stuff.

I know that you only have 25 minutes to write this piece. It seems wasteful to cross out words already committed to paper. But your readers will applaud any sign that you reread what you wrote, and tried to make it better. It may look messy to you, but to an English teacher it will signify a student trying to get the words just right.

5. Be personal.

The guidebooks tend to favor academic examples when making essay points. The essay question will likely suggest you borrow from history or literature or science. But personal experience is also likely to be on the list of suggested sources. I think for at least one of your examples, something that happened to you would be best.

The Sparknotes guidebook, "The New SAT and PSAT," said writing the essay is like cooking a Big Mac. You have to be consistent. And they are right. You write an introduction making your point, give three examples and then write a conclusion. That's five paragraphs. If you are sure of your facts on the context of the Magna Carta or the critics of Mendel, and they fit the topic, go for it.

But the chance of messing up the details of an example from your schoolwork is much greater than failing to get the facts right on something that happened to you. And even if your personal example is inaccurate, how will the reader know? They are told not to give much weight to small errors in detail or spelling or grammar, but each mistake leaves a scar. Remember they are grading these essays "holistically" -- which essentially means they are using their first impression without any intricate preliminary scoring. If they spend much more than a minute on each essay, they are going to fall behind.

6. Entertain.

This is a bit of advice I did not see much in the guidebooks. Don't take it if it scares you. But I think you should have some fun. Give the fried brains of the poor readers something they might enjoy, a little surprise to ease the boredom that grips their soul as they call up your essay on their computer. Use a little self deprecation: "I left the party certain that my already widespread reputation for clumsiness had gotten worse." Try a simile: "Hemingway charged into that novel as if he were the bull."

Many years ago, when I was trying to earn a bachelor's degree in political science while devoting what should have been homework time to putting out my college newspaper, I learned that exam readers sometimes gave me grades I did not deserve if I tried to entertain them. It didn't have to be much. Anything out of the ordinary would win their gratitude. Even a clumsy attempt showed that I felt their overworked grad student anguish, and wished them well.

So, maybe just once or twice, try to find a way in those 25 minutes to be not boring. It will make you feel better, and who knows, it might boost your score.


© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


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