Know How to Put the Ingredients Together
By now you know all of the ingredients you should use
and the template you should follow to write a great SAT essay. Next
you need to learn the writing process that will empower you to put
it all together into a top-score-worthy essay every time. Follow the
five steps we describe next and you’ll be on your way to a 6.
Five Steps to a 6
||Understand the topic and take a position.
||Create an outline.
||Write the essay.
||Proof the essay.
Step 1: Understand the topic and take a position.
The first thing you must do before you can even
think about your essay is read the topic very carefully. Here’s
the sample topic we use throughout this section:
Consider the following statement and
assignment. Then write an essay as directed.
no success like failure.”
Write an essay in which you agree or disagree with the
statement above. Remember to back up your position with specific
examples from personal experience, current events, history, literature,
or any other discipline. Your essay should be specific.
Make sure you understand the topic thoroughly by making
it your own. To do that, use the two strategies we discussed in
the Ingredients section:
- Rephrase the Prompt. “Failure
can lead to success by teaching important lessons that help us avoid
repeating mistakes in the future.”
- Choose Your Position. (In our example, we
agree with the topic.)
That’s it. One step down, four more to go.
Step 2: Brainstorm examples. (2–3 minutes)
Your position is that you agree with the statement
that “failure can lead to success by teaching important lessons
that help us avoid repeating mistakes in the future.” Terrific.
Brainstorming, or thinking up examples to support your
position, is the crucial next step. Plenty of SAT-takers will succumb
to the temptation to plunge straight from Step 1 into writing the
essay (Step 4). Skipping the brainstorming session will leave you
with an opinion on the topic but with no clearly thought-out examples
to prove your point. You’ll write the first thing that comes to
mind, and your essay will probably derail. So even though you feel
the time pressure, don’t skip brainstorming.
Brainstorming seems simple. You just close your eyes and
scrunch up your face and THINK REALLY HARD until you come up with
some examples. But, in practice, brainstorming while staring at
a blank page under time pressure can be intimidating and frustrating.
To make brainstorming less daunting and more productive, we’ve got
two strategies to suggest:
Brainstorm by Category
The best examples you can generate to support your SAT
essay topic will come from a variety of sources such as science,
history, politics, art, literature, business, and personal experience.
So, brainstorm a list split up by category. Here’s the list we brainstormed
for the topic, “There’s no success like failure.”
||Failure of 9/11 security led to the creation
of Homeland Security.
||Babies learn to walk only after trying and
failing time and again.
||Can’t think of one.
||The US Constitution was written
only after the failure of the Articles of Confederation.
||Can’t think of one.
||James Joyce became a writer only after failing
as a singer.
||Rod Johnson (your uncle) realized the need
for a placement agency in South Carolina after getting laid off.
||Google watched the failures of its competitors
and learned to improve its Internet business model and technology.
Let’s say you took three minutes and came up with a list
of eight categories like ours, and you got examples for five of
them. That’s still great. That means your next step is to choose
the top three of your five potential examples.
Prepare Ahead of Time
If you want to put in the time, you could also
do some brainstorming ahead of time. Brainstorming ahead of time
can be a great method, because it gives you time to do more than
just brainstorm. You can actually prepare examples for each of the
seven categories we’ve brainstormed above in our chart. You could,
for instance, read up about various scientists, learning about their
successes, their failures, the impact of their discoveries (positive
and negative), and memorize dates, events, and other facts.
The risk inherent in planning ahead is that you can get
stuck with a topic on the SAT in which all your knowledge about
scientists just isn’t applicable. But while this is somewhat of
a risk, since the SAT essay topics are so broad, you can often massage your
examples to fit. Preparing ahead of time will pay off if you develop
a few examples that you know a lot about for the essay. But it could
backfire if it winds up that you absolutely cannot use the examples
you prepared. Then you’ll have to resort to thinking up examples
on the spot. If you don’t want to risk wasting time preparing ahead
of time, don’t. It’s up to you.
Choose Your Top Three
When you go through your brainstormed and pre-prepared
examples to decide which three you should actually use, you need
to keep three things in mind:
Which examples can you be most specific about?
examples will give your essay the broadest range?
examples are not controversial?
The first two reasons are pretty straightforward: Specificity
and variety in your examples will help you write the strongest essay.
The point about controversy is a bit more subtle. Staying away from
very controversial examples ensures that you won’t accidentally
offend or annoy your grader, who might then be more inclined to
lower your grade. For instance, the 9/11 example from our brainstormed
list should be cut. The event just is too full of unresolved issues
to serve as a suitable essay topic, and the last thing you want
to do is upset or offend your grader.
Here’s another example. Let’s say that you’re not so certain
if that story about James Joyce being a singer is even really true,
and that you think lots of people might go for the babies walking
example. That would mean you decide to keep the examples about the Constitution,
Google, and the story of Rod Johnson. What if instead of referring
to Rod Johnson as your enterprising uncle, you portray him as a
businessman you read about in an esteemed publication recently?
Transform your personal experience and make it seem like an actual
example from current events. The SAT essay graders care much more
about how well you write and how intelligently you can use examples
to back up your position than they care about the truth of what you
say in examples drawn from personal experience.
That means you’ve narrowed down your brainstormed topics
to the top three. Next up: Outlining.
Step 3: Create an outline. (3–4 minutes)
After brainstorming comes the essay writing step that
students tend to dread most—writing an outline. So we’re here to
encourage you to embrace the outline. Love the outline! Live the
outline! At the very least, write the outline.
On fast food essays like the SAT essay, which rewards standard conformity
much more than it does creativity, organizing your ideas in outline
form and then sticking to that outline is crucial. Though you may
feel that you’re wasting your time, we guarantee that the four or five
minutes that you invest in writing an outline will definitely be
paid back when you write the essay.
Writing the Outline
Since your outline is a kind of bare-bones “map” of your
essay, the outline should follow our Universal SAT Essay Template.
Here’s a summary of the template:
||WHAT IT SHOULD CONTAIN
||Thesis statement; state examples
||Topic sentence for example 1;
explain example 1
||Topic sentence for example 2;
explain example 2
||Topic sentence for example 3;
explain example 3
||Thesis rephrased in a broader
way; a look into the future
As you write the outline, remember that conveying your
ideas clearly matters at this stage. Your outline need not be articulate
or even comprehensible to anyone other than you. Your outline must
contain all the essential raw material that will become your thesis
statement, topic sentences, and concluding statement when you write your
As you sketch out your outline, consider where you want
each example to go. We suggest that you put what you consider to
be your strongest example first, followed by the second strongest,
and then the least strong. We suggest this because the essay is
a timed section, and if for some reason you run out of time and
can only fit two example paragraphs between your intro and conclusion,
they might as well be your best two examples. Here’s a sample outline
we’ve written based on the topic and examples we have already discussed.
Notice that we’ve placed our examples in strongest to weakest order
starting in paragraph 2.
||Failure can lead to success teaching lessons,
learning mistakes. Three examples: (1) US Constitution and Articles
failure, (2) failed dot-coms lead to more successful online businesses,
(3) guy who started successful recruiting business after getting
|PARAGRAPH 2: EXAMPLE 1 (BEST)
||US Constitution developed by studying the failures
of previous document, Articles of Confederation. By studying failures
US became true revolutionary democracy.
|PARAGRAPH 3: EXAMPLE 2
||Google studied competitors’ struggles, came
up with better technological solution and better business model.
Since failure is good teacher, intelligent companies look for failure
everywhere, even in rivals, to learn and evolve.
|PARAGRAPH 4: EXAMPLE 3
||Johnson founded job placement agency based
on difficulties finding a new job after getting laid off. Studied
his failure, found problems lay with system, not with him.
|PARAGRAPH 5: CONCLUSION
||Failure often seen as embarrassing. People
try to hide it. But if you or society take responsibility for it,
study it, history shows failure leads to success for everyone.
Your outline does not have to be written in complete
sentences. Notice how in the example above we drop verbs and write
in a note-taking style. Feel free to write just enough to convey
to yourself what you need to be able to follow during the actual
writing of your essay. Once you have the outline down on paper,
writing the essay becomes more a job of polishing language and ideas
than creating them from scratch.
Step 4: Write the essay. (15 minutes)
Writing the essay consists of filling out your ideas by
following your outline and plugging in what’s missing. That adds
up to only about ten more sentences than what you’ve jotted down
in your outline, which should already contain a basic version of
your thesis statement, one topic sentence for each of your three
examples, and a conclusion statement that ties everything together.
All together your essay should be about fifteen to twenty sentences
As you write, keep these three facets of your essay in
Following your outline will make sure you stick to the
Universal SAT Essay Template. That means organization shouldn’t
be a problem.
As far as development goes, you should
make sure that every sentence in the essay serves the greater goal
of proving your thesis statement as well as the more immediate purpose
of building on the supporting examples you present in the intro and
in each example paragraph’s topic sentence. You should also make
sure that you are specific with your examples:
give dates, describe events in detail, and so on.
By clarity, we mean the simplicity of
the language that you use. That involves spelling and grammar, but
it also means focusing on varying sentence length and structure
as well as including a few well-placed vocabulary words that you
definitely know how to use correctly.
Do not break from your outline. Never pause for a digression
or drop in a fact or detail that’s not entirely relevant to your
essay’s thesis statement. You’re serving fast food, and fast food
always sticks to the core ingredients and the universal recipe.
If You Run Out of Time
If you’re running out of time before finishing the intro,
all three example paragraphs, and the conclusion, there’s still
hope. Here’s what you should do: Drop one of your example paragraphs.
You can still get a decent score, possibly a 4 or 5, with just two. Three
examples is definitely the strongest and safest way to go, but if
you just can’t get through three, take your two best examples and
go with them. Just be sure to include an introduction and a conclusion
in every SAT essay.
The Finished Essay: Our Example
Here is an example of a complete SAT essay. It’s based
strictly on the outline we built in step 3 of our Five Steps to
a 6, with a focus on clear simple language and the occasional drop
of special sauce.
Learning the lessons taught by failure
is a sure route to success. 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 arose from Johnson’s personal experience
of being laid off.
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.
Unlike the United States, which had its
fair share of ups and downs over the years, the Internet search
engine company, Google, has suffered few setbacks since it went
into business in the late 1990s. Google has succeeded by studying
the failures of other companies in order to help it innovate its
technology and business model. Google identified and solved the
problem of assessing the quality of search results by using the
number of links pointing to a page as an indicator of the number
of people who find the page valuable. Suddenly, Google’s search
results became far more accurate and reliable than those from other
companies, and now Google’s dominance in the field of Internet search
is almost absolute.
The example of Rod Johnson’s success also
shows how effective learning from mistakes and failure can be. Rather
than accept his failure after being laid off, Johnson decided to
study it. After a month of research, Johnson realized that his failure
to find a new job resulted primarily from the inefficiency of the
local job placement agencies, not from his own deficiencies. A month
later, Johnson created Johnson Staffing to correct this weakness
in the job placement sector. Today Johnson Staffing is the largest
job placement agency in South Carolina and is in the process of
expanding into a national corporation.
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. The examples of
history and business demonstrate that failure can be the best catalyst
of success, but only if people have the courage to face it head
In the Practice Essay section at the end of this chapter,
we provide analysis to explain more fully why we think this essay
deserves a 6. For now, it’s time to move on to the final step of
our Five Steps to a 6—proofing your essay.
Step 5: Proof the essay. (2 minutes)
Proofing your essay means reading through your finished
essay to correct mistakes or to clear up words that are difficult
to read. If you don’t have two minutes after you’ve finished writing
the essay (step 4), spend whatever time you do have left proofing.
Read over your essay and search for rough writing, bad transitions,
grammatical errors, repetitive sentence structure, and all that
special sauce stuff. The SAT explicitly says that handwriting will
not affect your grade, but you should also be on the lookout for
instances in which bad handwriting makes it look as if you’ve made a
grammatical or spelling mistake.
If you’re running out of time and you have to skip a step,
proofing is the step to drop. Proofing is important, but it’s the
only one of the Five Steps to a 6 that isn’t absolutely crucial.