Know Your Ingredients
Know Your Ingredients
To write a tasty SAT essay, you’ve got to know the necessary ingredients: The different grades of 1 to 6 are based on the quality of your essay in four fundamental categories.
  1. Positioning: The strength and clarity of your stance on the given topic.
  2. Examples: The relevance and development of the examples you use to support your argument.
  3. Organization: The organization of each of your paragraphs and of your essay overall.
  4. Command of Language: Sentence construction, grammar, and word choice.
Now you know your customers, and you know what they want. We’ll spend the rest of this chapter teaching you precisely how to give it to them.
1. Positioning
SAT essay topics are always broad. Really, really, really broad. We’re talking “the big questions of life” broad. A typical SAT essay topic gives you a statement that addresses ideas like the concept of justice, the definition of success, the importance of learning from mistakes.
The broad nature of SAT topics means you’ll never be forced to write about topical or controversial issues of politics, culture, or society (unless you want to; we’ll talk about whether you should want to a little later). But the broadness of the topics also means that with a little thought you can come up with plenty of examples to support your position on the topic.
Philosophers take years to write tomes on the topics of justice or success. On the SAT, you get 25 minutes. Given these time constraints, the key to writing a great SAT essay is taking a strong position on an extremely broad topic. You need to select your position strategically. To do this, follow a two-step strategy:
  • Rephrase the prompt.
  • Choose your position.
It’s time to learn how to take a stand. Here’s a sample essay topic for the SAT:

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

            “It is a mistake to suppose that men succeed through success; they much oftener succeed through failures. Precept, study, advice, and example could never have taught them so well as failure has done.”

—Samuel Smiles, Scottish author (1812-1904)

Assignment:

Is there truly no success like failure? 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.

Rephrase the Prompt
Rephrase the prompt in your own words and make it more specific. If you rephrase the statement “Is there truly no success like failure?” you might come up with a sentence like “Can failure can lead to success by teaching important lessons that help us avoid repeating mistakes in the future?”
In addition to narrowing down the focus of the broad original topic, putting the SAT essay question in your own words makes it easier for you to take a position confidently, since you’ll be proving your own statement rather than the more obscure version put forth by the SAT.
Choose Your Position
Agree or disagree. When you choose an argument for a paper in school, you often have to strain yourself to look for something original, something subtle. Not here. Not on the 25-minute fast food essay. Once you’ve rephrased the topic, agree with it or disagree. It’s that simple.
You may have qualms or otherwise “sophisticated” thoughts at this point. You may be thinking, “I could argue the ‘agree’ side pretty well, but I’m not sure that I 100 percent believe in the agree side because. . . .” Drop those thoughts. Remember, you’re not going to have a week to write this essay. You need to keep it simple. Agree or disagree, then come up with the examples that support your simple stand.
2. Examples
To make an SAT essay really shine, you’ve got to load it up with excellent examples. Just coming up with any three examples that fit a basic position on a broad topic is not gonna cut it. But there are two things that do make excellent SAT examples stand out from the crowd:
  • Specific examples
  • Variety of examples
Specific Examples
Good examples discuss specific events, dates, or measurable changes over time. Another way to put this is, you have to be able to talk about things that have happened in detail.
Let’s say you’re trying to think of examples to support the position that “learning the lessons taught by failure is a sure route to success.” Perhaps you come up with the example of the American army during the Revolutionary War, which learned from its failures in the early years of the war how it needed to fight the British. Awesome! That’s a potentially great example. To make it actually great, though, you have to be able to say more than just, “The American army learned from its mistakes and then defeated the British Redcoats.” You need to be specific: Give dates, mention people, battles, tactics. If you use the experience of the American Army in the Revolutionary War as an example, you might mention the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which officially granted the Americans independence and gave the United States all lands east of the Mississippi River.
Just as bricks hold up a building, such detailed facts support an argument. There are literally millions of good, potential examples for every position you might choose. You need to choose examples that you know a lot about in order to be specific. Knowing a lot about an example means you know more than just the basic facts. You need to be able to use all the detailed facts about your example, such as dates and events, to show how your example proves your argument.
Knowing that the Americans defeated the British in 1783 is the start of a great example, but you must show specifically how the American victory proves the argument that “there’s no success like failure.” What failures on the part of the British government and army led to the Americans’ success? (Morale issues, leadership differences, inadequate soldiers and supplies, the Battle of Yorktown, and so on.) The one-two punch of a solid example and details that use the example to prove your argument make the difference between a good SAT essay example and a great one.
Variety of Examples
The other crucial thing about SAT essay examples is how much ground they cover. Sure, you could come up with three examples from your personal life about how you learned from failure. But you’re much more likely to impress the grader and write a better essay if you use a broad range of examples from different areas: history, art, politics, literature, science, and so on. That means when you’re thinking up examples, you should consider as wide a variety as possible, as long as all of your examples remain closely tied to proving your argument.
To prove the position that “there’s no success like failure,” you might choose one example from history, literature, and business or current events. Here are three examples that you might choose from those three areas:
  • History: The Americans’ victory over the British in the Revolutionary War.
  • Literature: Dickens’s success in writing about the working class based on his years spent in poverty as a child laborer.
  • Business or Current Events: The JetBlue airline succeeding by learning from the mistakes of its competitors.
A broad array of examples like those will provide a more solid and defensible position than three examples drawn from personal experience or from just one or two areas.
A Note on Truthfulness in Examples
The SAT essay tests how well you write. The examples you choose to support your argument and your development of those examples is a big part of how well you write. But there’s no SAT rule or law that says that the examples you use to support your arguments have to be true.
That does not mean you should make up examples from history or bend facts into falsehoods. Instead, it means you can take examples drawn from your personal experience or your own knowledge and present them as examples from current events, art, literature, business, or almost any other topic. For instance, let’s say your Aunt Edna started a business selling chocolate-covered pretzels on the street in New York City. She started the business because she noticed that her friends and neighbors were sick and tired of the dull, flavorless New York City pretzels offered at other stands, many of which had gone out of business due to lack of demand. Her chocolate-covered pretzel business became a success based on her competitors’ failures. Turn that example into an article you recently read in your local newspaper, and you’ve transformed your personal knowledge into a much more credible and impressive example about success and failure in business. It’s certainly better to use universal examples based on facts and events that your grader might recognize. If you’re in a bind, however, remember that you can bend the truth a bit and use your personal knowledge and experience to generate examples that prove your argument.
3. Organization
No matter what topic you end up writing about, the organization of your essay should be the same. That’s right, the same. If you’re asked to write about whether “there’s no success like failure” or about the merits of the phrase “progress always comes at a cost,” the structure of your essay should be almost identical. The SAT is looking for those standard ingredients, and the structure we’re about to explain will make sure those ingredients stand out in your essay.
So what’s this magical essay structure? Well, it’s back to the trusty fast food analogy: A good SAT essay is a lot like a triple-decker burger.
No matter what the topic is, what you feel about it, or which examples you choose, you should always follow this five-paragraph structure on your SAT essay. The first and last paragraphs are your essay’s introduction and conclusion; each of the middle three paragraphs discusses an example that supports and illustrates your argument. That’s it.
Just as important as the organization of your entire essay is the organization within each of the five paragraphs. Let’s take a closer look at each paragraph next.
The Top Bun: Introduction
The introduction to an SAT essay has to do three things:
  • Grab the grader’s attention.
  • Explain your position on the topic clearly and concisely.
  • Transition the grader smoothly into your three examples.
To accomplish these three goals, you need three to four sentences in your introduction. These three to four sentences will convey your thesis statement and the overall map of your essay to the grader.
The Thesis Statement:
The thesis statement is the first sentence of your essay. It identifies where you stand on the topic and should pull the grader into the essay. A good thesis statement is strong, clear, and definitive. A good thesis statement for the essay topic, “Is there truly no success like failure?” is

Learning from the lessons taught by failure is a sure route to success.

This thesis statement conveys the writer’s position on the topic boldly and clearly. In only a few words, it carves out the position that the essay will take on the very broad, vague topic: learning from failure yields success.
The Essay Summary:
After the thesis statement, the rest of the first paragraph should serve as a kind of summary of the examples you will use to support your position on the topic. Explain and describe your three examples to make it clear how they fit into your argument. It’s usually best to give each example its own sentence. Here’s an example:

The United States of America can be seen as a success that emerged from failure: by learning from the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the founding fathers were able to create the Constitution, the document on which America is built. Google Inc., the popular Internet search engine, is another example of a success that arose from learning from failure, though in this case Google learned from the failures of its competitors. Another example that shows how success can arise from failure is the story of Rod Johnson, who started a recruiting firm that rose out of the ashes of Johnson’s personal experience of being laid off.

Three sentences, three examples. The grader knows exactly what to expect from your essay now and is ready to dive in.
The Meat: Three-Example Paragraphs
Each of your three-example paragraphs should follow this basic format:
  • Four to five sentences long.
  • The first sentence should be the topic sentence, which serves as the thesis statement of the paragraph. It explains what your example is and places it within the context of your argument.
  • The next three to four sentences are for developing your example. In these sentences you show through specific, concrete discussion of facts and situations just how your example supports your essay thesis statement.
For now we’re just going to show you one “meat” paragraph. As we continue through the chapter, you’ll see several more, some that are good, some that are bad. This one is good:

The United States, the first great democracy of the modern world, is also one of the best examples of a success achieved by studying and learning from earlier failures. After just five years of living under the Articles of Confederation, which established the United States of America as a single country for the first time, the states realized that they needed a new document and a new, more powerful government. In 1786, the Annapolis convention was convened. The result, three years later, was the Constitution, which created a more powerful central government while also maintaining the integrity of the states. By learning from the failure of the Articles, the founding fathers created the founding document of a country that has become both the most powerful country in the world and a beacon of democracy.

The best meat paragraphs on the SAT essay are specific. The SAT’s essay directions say it loud and clear: “Be specific.” In its topic sentence, this paragraph states that the United States is one of the great examples of “a success achieved by studying and learning from failures.” It then uses the specific example of the Articles of Confederation, the Annapolis convention, and the Constitution to prove its position. It’s specific throughout and even includes a few dates.
Transitions Between Meat Paragraphs:
Your first meat paragraph dives right into its thesis statement, but the second and third meat paragraphs need transitions. The simplest way to build these transitions is to use words like another and finally. That means your second meat paragraph should start with a transitional phrase such as, “Another example . . .”
A slightly more sophisticated way to build transitions is to choose examples from different sources, such as from history and business. If the first paragraph is about a political instance of learning from failure and the second is from business, make that fact your transition: “As in politics, learning from failure is a means to gaining success in business as well. Take the case of. . . .”
The Bottom Bun: Conclusion
The conclusion of your essay should accomplish two main goals:
  • Recap your argument while broadening it a bit.
  • Expand your position. Look to the future.
To accomplish these two goals, your conclusion should contain three to four sentences.
Recap Your Argument:
The recap is a one-sentence summary of what you’ve already argued. As in the thesis statement, the recap should be straightforward, bold, and declarative. By “broadening” your argument, we mean that you should attempt to link your specific examples to wider fields, such as politics, business, and art. Here’s a recap example:

The examples of the Constitution, Rod Johnson, and Google make it clear that in the realms of politics and business, the greatest successes arise from careful considerations of the lessons of failure.

Expand on Your Position:
The last two or three sentences of the essay should take the argument you just recapped and push it a little further. One of the best ways to push your argument further is to look to the future and think about what would happen if the position that you’ve taken in your essay could be applied on a broader scale. Here’s an example:

Failure is often seen as embarrassing, something to be denied and hidden. But as the examples of the U.S. Constitution, Google, and Rod Johnson prove, if an individual, organization, or even a nation is strong enough to face and study its failure, then that failure can become a powerful teacher. As the examples of history and business demonstrate, if everyone had the courage and insight to view failure as a surefire way to learn from mistakes, success would be easier to achieve.

The bottom bun wraps up the entire SAT essay. And there you have it! If you follow the template we just provided, and break down the essay into its core ingredients, your SAT essay will be strong, clear, and easy to write.
The Universal SAT Essay Template
To make sure you really get the essay organization, the following chart sums it all up. Here’s the SAT essay outline you should use, no matter what topic you get or what position you take:
Length Purpose
The Introduction
Thesis Statement 1 sentence Describe your argument clearly and concisely.
Essay Summary 3 sentences Lay out the three examples you will use to support your thesis statement.
Example Paragraph 1
Topic Sentence 1 sentence Describe your example and fit it into the context of your overall thesis statement.
Example Development 3–4 sentences Use specific facts to show how your example supports your argument. Be as specific as possible.
Example Paragraph 2
Topic Sentence 1 sentence Describe your example and fit it into the context of your overall thesis. Provide a transition from the previous example paragraph.
Example Development 3–4 sentences Use specific facts to show how your example supports your argument. Be as specific as possible.
Example Paragraph 3
Topic Sentence 1 sentence Describe your example and fit it into the context of your overall thesis. Provide a transition from the previous paragraph.
Example Development 3–4 sentences Use specific facts to show how your example supports your argument. Be as specific as possible.
The Conclusion
Recap 1 sentence Summarize your argument and examples, and link the examples to broader things like politics, history, art, or business.
Broaden Your Argument 2–3 sentences Expand your position by contemplating what would happen in the world if people (or nations, or businesses) followed the argument you make in your essay.
4. Command of Language
Taking a clear position and defending it with solid, detailed examples is a strong start to a successful SAT essay. But the SAT-graders also care about the mechanics of your writing, which we call your “command of language.” Think of your command of language as your fast food essay’s Special Sauce—it’s the sprinkling of perfect word choice, grammar, sentence structure, and spelling that must ooze through your entire essay. An SAT essay with a clear position and strong examples won’t get a perfect score without the Special Sauce, so pay close attention to these three facets of your essay (the actual SAT essay-grading guidelines mention them specifically):
  • Variation in sentence structure
  • Word choice
  • Grammar and spelling
A Variation in Sentence Structure

Sentence structure is very important. Sentence structure, if done well, can keep your readers engaged and help make your essay exciting and easier to read. Sentence structure, if it is monotonous and unchanging, can make your essay sound boring and unsophisticated. Sentence structure is important on the SAT essay. Sentence structure is also important in essays you write for school.

Did you notice how dull that entire last paragraph became after the first two sentences? That’s because every one of those sentences not only started in the same way but also all had the same straight-ahead plodding rhythm.
Now go back and look at the earlier sample meat paragraph on the Constitution. Notice how the various sentences start differently and also have different internal rhythms. These variations in sentence structure keep the writing vibrant and interesting. Focus on changing the structure of your sentences as you write the essay. You don’t have to invert every clause, but you should be careful not to let a few sentences in a row follow the same exact structure. You’ve got to mix it up. Here’s the boring first paragraph of this section rewritten with varied sentence structure:

Sentence structure is very important. Varying the structure of your sentences keeps your reader engaged and makes your writing easier to read and more exciting. Monotonous and repetitive sentence structure can make your essay sound boring and unsophisticated. Mixing up your sentence structure is crucial on the SAT essay—it’s also important to consider when writing essays for school.

Much easier to read and far less repetitive, right?
Transition Between Sentences
One great way to vary your sentence structure while increasing the logical flow of your essay is to use transitions. Transitions are the words that provide the context necessary to help readers understand the flow of your argument. They’re words, phrases, or sentences that take readers gently by the hand, leading them through your essay. Here are some different kinds of transitions you can use to spice up your sentence structure:
  • Showing Contrast: Katie likes pink nail polish. In contrast, she thinks red nail polish looks trashy.
  • Elaborating: I love sneaking into movies. Even more than that, I love trying to steal candy while I’m there.
  • Providing an Example: If you save up your money, you can afford pricey items. For example, Patrick saved up his allowance and eventually purchased a sports car.
  • Showing Results: Manuel ingested nothing but soda and burgers every day for a month. As a result, he gained ten pounds.
  • Showing Sequence: The police arrested Bob at the party. Soon after, his college applications were all rejected, and eventually Bob drifted into a life of crime.
Overly Complex Sentences
Sometimes students think writing long complicated sentences will impress teachers. Maybe, but it won’t impress SAT essay-graders. Keep your sentences short and simple. Complex sentences are difficult to understand, and your SAT essays should be as clear and easy to read as possible.
We could fill an entire book with rules about creating simple and succinct prose. Instead, we give you two handy rules to simplify the sentences that you write on the SAT essay:
  1. Never write a sentence that contains more than three commas. Try to avoid sentences with more than two commas. (Unless you need to include a list.)
  2. Never write a sentence that takes up more than three lines of SAT-essay paper.
Those rules are certainly not foolproof, but abiding by them will keep you from filling your SAT essay with overly complex sentences and will ultimately make your essay easier to understand.
Word Choice
When students see that “word choice” plays a part in their essay score, they think it means that they have to use tons of sophisticated vocabulary words in order to score well. That belief is wrong and potentially damaging to your SAT essay score. If you strain to put big fancy words into your essay, you’re bound to end up misusing those words. And misusing a sophisticated word is a worse offense than not using one at all.
Word choice doesn’t mean that you have to go for the big word every time. It means you should go for the proper word, the best word, the word that makes your essay as clear as possible. Let’s look at part of the paragraph about the Constitution:

The United States, the first great democracy of the modern world, is also one of the best examples of a success achieved by studying and learning from earlier failures. After just five years of living under the Articles of Confederation, which established the United States of America as a single country for the first time, the states realized that they needed a new document and a new, more powerful government. In 1786, the Annapolis convention was convened. The result, three years later, was the Constitution, which created a more powerful central government while also maintaining the integrity of the states. By learning from the failure of the Articles, the founding fathers created the founding document of a country that has become both the most powerful country in the world and a beacon of democracy.

This is 6-level writing, but it isn’t teeming with five-syllable words. What the passage does is use every single word correctly. When it does reach for an uncommon word, like beacon, it uses the word appropriately and effectively. Now that’s good word choice.
So don’t try to use a word unless you know what it means. Don’t go throwing around tough words in the hope that you’re going to use it correctly and impress your reader. The likelihood is that you’re going to use the word incorrectly and give the grader a bad impression. Instead, keep it simple and stick to words you know well.
Grammar and Spelling
A few grammar or spelling mistakes sprinkled throughout your essay will not destroy your score. The SAT understands that you’re bound to make minor mistakes in a rushed 25-minute essay.
Graders are instructed to look out for patterns of errors. If a grader sees that your punctuation is consistently wrong, that your spelling of familiar words is often incorrect, or that you write run-on sentences again and again, that’s when your score will suffer.
You need to be able to write solid grammatical sentences to score well on the essay. As for learning the grammar, well, you’re in luck. We cover all the important grammar you need to know in “Beat Identifying Sentence Errors” and “Beat Improving Sentences.”
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