The Essay
Tackling the Essay
Use this five-step method when tackling the essay:
Step 1: Read and interpret the prompt.
Step 2: Brainstorm.
Step 3: Outline.
Step 4: Write.
Step 5: Proof/Edit.
We’re going to detail each step to show you how you can achieve a well-organized, well-supported, and well-written essay. But first, some suggestions for how to break up your 25 minutes among each step:
Step Suggested Time (Minutes)
Read and interpret the prompt. 1
Brainstorm. 3-–4
Outline. 2-–3
Write. around 15
Proof/Edit. 1-–2
Note that these times aren’t exact. A prompt that requires more brainstorming—say, on something you’ve never considered before—might need a minute more; a prompt for which you have almost too much to say might require an extra minute or so for the outline.
The more you practice this method, the quicker you’ll get at each step and the more time you’ll have for step 4, the writing. Notice, too, how this method separates the achievement of the three goals into separate tasks:
Goal Step
Organization Steps 1, 2, and 3
Support
Writing Steps 4 and 5
Let’s look at each step in depth to see how each prevents typical errors and advances you toward your goals.
Tackling the Essay Step by Step
Step 1: Read and interpret the prompt (1 minute).
Prompts, as you now know, are written in purposely general terms. The SAT wants to make these prompts open to as many different types of answers as possible. To make sense of the prompt, you need to consider the terms being used. For example, if the prompt asks about “freedom of speech,” you first have to determine what that term means to you. Is it the freedom to say whatever you want whenever you want, or is it the freedom to say whatever you want so long as it doesn’t harm another person? Also, in defining the terms, you’ll be working toward your thesis statement, which is a one-sentence explanation of your position or point of view.
Step 2: Brainstorm (3–4 minutes).
Brainstorming means using the space beneath the prompt to jot down a few ideas that come to mind. Depending on the prompt, you may know exactly which position you’d like to take.
In that case, start listing reasons and examples. However, you might not know which side of the argument you want to take. If you find yourself in this situation, use a T-chart to organize your brainstorming. Here’s an example:
Pro Con
reason reason
example example
reason reason
And so on.
Brainstorming helps you decide what position to take and what ideas and examples will support it. You’ll generate your thesis statement here, after you’ve chosen which side to take. These are important features of the scoring rubric.
You’ll soon get a chance to use a T-chart in our slow-motion example.
Step 3: Outline (2–3 minutes).
The number one mistake you can make is not to take at least a couple of minutes to create an outline. Organization is one of the key criteria by which you’ll be judged. The outline is where you select and arrange your supporting reasons and the examples that back them up.
Your outline does not have to be pretty. Your outline should match the final structure of your essay:

I. Intro

      A. Thesis statement

      B. Reasons for thesis statement

II. Reason 1

      A. Example/evidence in support

      B. Example/evidence in support

      C. Example/evidence in support

III. Reason 2

      A. Example/evidence in support

      B. Example/evidence in support

      C. Example/evidence in support

IV. Reason 3

      A. Example/evidence in support

      B. Example/evidence in support

      C. Example/evidence in support

V. Conclusion

      A. Restate—but don’t repeat—thesis statement

      B. Expand thesis to larger point or relate to another area (optional)

Now, some very important points about the outline. Let’s do it as a Q & A:
  1. Do I have to have a thesis statement?
  2. Yes. That shows that you’ve taken a position, that you have a point of view, and that you’re thinking about the prompt critically.
  3. Should I introduce all my reasons in my intro paragraph?
  4. Yes. It builds out the paragraph, introduces what’s to come (which lays out a “map” for the flow for your readers), and it can also flesh out your thesis statement.
  5. Do I have to have three reasons and three examples or pieces of evidence?
  6. No. You can have two reasons, each of which has four examples. But you must have at least two reasons, and they must be well supported. You can also have only two pieces of evidence for each reason if you have three reasons, but avoid having more than three reasons, as you’ll likely run out of time or insufficiently support one or more of the reasons.
  7. Do I have to have a conclusion?
  8. Yes. Round out your structure by restating the thesis. Do not use the same words—remember, vocabulary variety is part of the scoring rubric.
  9. Is expanding my thesis to a larger point really optional?
  10. Yes. If you’re sure you’ve covered everything, you’ll add this later, as you’ll see below.
Step 4: Write (around 15 minutes).
OK, steps 1, 2, and 3 took care of creating the kind of support and organization you need to impress your readers. Time to turn to issues of writing. By this, we mean all the concepts we introduced in the Essential Concepts section. Your job is to make sure your language is as clear, varied, and forceful as possible.
Organization and support are taken care of; you don’t need to worry about what you’re going to write, but how you’re going to write it. Concentrate on clarity, variation of sentence structure and vocabulary, and the transitions between sentences and paragraphs.
We’ll practice this together in a moment.
Step 5: Proof/Edit (1–2 minutes).
Don’t blow off this step unless you’re really pressed for time. Catching and fixing writing errors and adding new thoughts that might come up will raise your score. You won’t necessarily come up with new thoughts to change your essay, but leave a minute or so just in case.
If you’ve covered everything, and you feel you have a decent way to expand your thesis or relate it to another area, go ahead. But this is optional. We’ll show you an example of a legitimate expansion shortly.
Tackling the Essay in Slow Motion
You’re now ready to work through an entire SAT essay experience.
This will not be timed; we’re working on method now, not speed. If this takes you up to about an hour, as opposed to exactly 25 minutes, that’s fine. In order to demonstrate the step method in action, we’ll do this essay in slow motion, making all thought processes explicit.
We want your practice to be as realistic as possible. So before you start this exercise, do the following:
  • Prepare essay sheets. Get two sheets of college-ruled 8 1/2"-by-11" paper. That’s about the size of your actual Student Response Sheet. Count off about 50 lines and give yourself left and right margins of about a half inch each. That’s about the size you’ll be given. We’ll refer to these sheets of paper as essay sheets throughout the exercise.
  • Give yourself some planning space. In addition to the 50 lines above, give yourself about two-thirds of a separate sheet of paper to plan your essay. We’ll refer to this sheet of paper as the planning space throughout the exercise.
  • Use the two-column method. We suggest that you separate your planning space into two columns. Use the left column for steps 1 and 2, defining terms and brainstorming. Use the right for step 3, outlining. You’re much less likely to run out of space for your outline that way.
We’ll let you do the steps on your own. After you’ve completed each step, we’ll show you our version for comparison.
When you’re all set, start with step 1 below.
Step 1: Read and interpret the prompt.
On the following page is that prompt from the beginning of the book. Read it carefully.

Essay Prompt:

Think carefully about the issue presented in the quotations and the assignment below.

1. Technological progress, while often beneficial, has nevertheless outpaced human social and ethical development. We lack the wisdom to manage these increasingly dangerous tools.

                  —Adapted from Hugh B. Riis, “Techno-hazard

2. The past four centuries have seen the greatest improvement of the human condition in history. Technological progress, while not without its pitfalls, holds out the possibility of achieving a healthier and more humane society in which people lead richer and longer lives than were ever thought possible.

                  —Editorial, “Technology: The Way Forward”

Assignment: Is technology dangerous, or does it provide a way to solve our problems? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your position on this issue. Support your point of view with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

In the left column of your planning space, jot down how you interpret or define technology and progress.
Also, are you sure you know what ethical development and human social development mean? How about the human condition? Define them if they seem too broad.
Don’t try to be “deep”; just think a little and start refining these terms if they’re not clear.
Don’t worry about taking a few minutes to work this out. The skill of interpreting the prompt is critical to all the rest of the steps in this method. You’ll get faster as you practice.
Our Version
Notice that each quote is balanced. Quote 1, which is mostly against technological progress, admits that it’s often beneficial. Quote 2, which is mostly for technological progress, notes that it’s not without its pitfalls.
This kind of measured terminology is not uncommon and shouldn’t throw you. The SAT is just trying to make the prompt as answerable in as wide a range of ways as possible, without prejudicing any test-taker one way or the other (pro or con).
Here’s how we interpreted the quotes:
  • Quote 1 maintains that we humans haven’t caught up morally to our technological power (technological progress . . . has outpaced human social and ethical development . . .). Therefore, we’re not wise enough to manage these tools.
  • Quote 2 says that even though technology has its dangers, it’s still the best hope for improving human life.
Here’s how we defined our terms:
  • We defined technology as “modern machinery or technical processes, like nuclear energy, cars, the Internet, genetic engineering, or medicine.”
  • We defined progress as “when more and more people’s lives are made better and better.”
You may have defined these terms differently—no big deal. But these are examples of what you have to do to make the prompt “answerable” and to display your ability to think critically.
Remember, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Unlike a history or literature essay test, you don’t have to provide any absorbed facts. The SAT essay is the ultimate open-book test: you can literally “make up” your answer!
Finally, don’t worry about handwriting in the planning space—that’s all for you. You’re graded only on the essay itself.
Step 2: Brainstorm.
Make a T-chart like the below in the left column of your planning space to generate ideas and examples (i.e., evidence) you can use for either side to see which one you’d like to do:
Pro Con
When you’re done, generate a thesis statement. This doesn’t have to be beautifully written; you’ll have time for that in step 4: writing.
Feel free to take a few minutes or more to brainstorm. We want you to internalize this method; there’ll be plenty of time to get faster once you know how to do it.
Read on when you’re ready.
Our Version
We didn’t feel we had a clear opinion one way or the other; we saw both sides of the issue. So we made a T-chart and started scribbling down reasons and examples:
Pro Tech Con Tech
longer life spans more people—can’t support them all; ecological stress; fewer resources; more wars
medicines, better health care, public health weapons of mass destruction
more art/entertainment: TV, Internet, video games, electric instruments, travel accidents from WMDs or from nuclear power
more wealth—computers and business, more jobs global warming; environmental destruction; new diseases traveling around the world
more time to do more things as travel and computers get cheaper threat of altering ourselves genetically
loss of privacy—surveillance technology
less quiet time—more stress
Looks like we’ve got more material on the “con” side, so we’ll go with that. Go with the side that has the most material. You’re judged on how well you support your argument, not what side you take.
Here’s our quick-and-dirty thesis statement:
Technology, while not totally negative, causes more problems than it solves, and should therefore be controlled.
Not pretty, but it describes a position/point of view.
Step 3: Outline.
Use the right side of your planning space to jot down your outline.
You need to decide which of your brainstorming points are reasons, which are examples you can use as evidence, and which order to put them in.
Take the time you need to get the hang of creating an outline. Outlining is where a lot of the hardest writing work is done.
Use the model outline reproduced below for reference:

I. Intro

      A. Thesis statement

      B. Reasons for thesis statement

II. Reason 1

      A. Example/evidence in support

      B. Example/evidence in support

      C. Example/evidence in support

III. Reason 2

      A. Example/evidence in support

      B. Example/evidence in support

      C. Example/evidence in support

IV. Reason 3

      A. Example/evidence in support

      B. Example/evidence in support

      C. Example/evidence in support

V. Conclusion

      A. Restate—but don’t repeat—thesis statement

      B. Expand thesis to larger point or relate to another area (optional)

Read our version when you’re done.
Our Version
Pay attention to both sides of your brainstorming chart when creating an outline, as sometimes a positive statement can help you form an argument against it. For example, one of our reasons will be that longer life spans, due to better medical technology, are causing a population explosion.
Here’s our thesis statement:
Technology, while not totally negative, causes more problems than it solves, and should therefore be controlled.
And here’s our outline:

I. Intro

      A. Thesis statement

      B. Reasons for thesis statement

II. Medical advances cause population explosion

      A. More people mean fewer resources; more wars: oil wars in

            middle east

      B. More people mean more travel (made easier by tech) and

            spread of disease

      C. Coming genetic alteration of humanity; eugenics becoming

            possible

III. Ecological stress

      A. Fewer resources as population grows—oil

      B. Global warming as more people burn fossil fuels

      C. Environmental destruction killing species

IV. Imminent dangers

      A. WMDs—technology spreading; terrorism; accident

      B. New diseases from rise in population and travel: HIV, Ebola

      C. Loss of privacy as terrorism rises; end of democracy?

V. Conclusion

      A. Restate—but don’t repeat—thesis statement

      B. Expand thesis to larger point or relate to another area (optional)—end of democracy?

Note a few things about our outline:
  • We thought of more evidence as we made the outline. That’s to be expected and is a good thing! Furthermore, we didn’t use everything from our brainstorm. You don’t have to shove it all in. As you make decisions on structure, via the outlining process, you’ll discard some ideas and include new ones.
  • We only filled in the middle paragraphs with actual reasons and their supporting evidence. Why? To save time—we already know that the first paragraph will contain a thesis statement and introduction, and that the last paragraph will restate the thesis statement and maybe expand it a bit.
  • We put one idea—end of democracy—in two places. You don’t have to make every decision up front in the outline. We may use this idea in either of two places, or we may chuck it. We’ll find out as we write.
  • We wrote this out more completely than you would. Your outline probably looked more notelike than ours. That’s fine. Only you need to understand it.
Step 4: Write.
Use your essay sheet to write your essay. Refer to your outline: follow that structure and don’t make any changes to the structure in the middle of your writing. You’ve thought through your structure: trust that structure. Now concentrate on using the clearest, most correct, and most varied language you can to express your ideas.
You don’t have to limit yourself to around 15 minutes for now—there’ll be plenty of opportunity for that. But don’t go on forever! Develop your outline into a reasonable first draft and stop.
After you’re done, read on to check out our version.
Our Version
We haven’t proofed or edited yet, so we’ll discuss this essay in detail later. For now, just read what we’ve written and compare it to your own essay.
Remember, what you (or we) wrote about doesn’t matter at all. How we structured and supported the argument and how well we used language are all that matters.

While modern technology has given humanity many benefits, it has caused more problems than it has solved. In the last century, amazing advances in medicine and public health have extended the average human life span. However, the resulting population explosion has had all kinds of problems. Furthermore, these problems have led to new dangers with which we may not be able to cope, and which might lead to the end of our way of life.

      Medical technologies, such as antibiotics and anasthesia, and better public health standards have extended life. While that might seem like a good thing, the world’s population is out of control. All of these people are competing for the same resources, which is leading to increased conflict. For example, two wars have already been fought in the middle east at least in part over oil. Wars over

resources will only increase as population rises. Furthermore, the increasing population is driving deeper into uninhabited areas, encountering new diseases, like HIV and Ebola. As international travel becomes more widespread, these diseases break out and cause new epidemics against which medicine is sometimes powerless. Finally, cutting-edge genetic technologies seem to be as dangerous as they are beneficial.

      In fact, it’s not true that an increasing number of people are competing for the same resources. The amount of some resources is actually shrinking. Again, oil is a good example. At some point soon, we will run out of this fuel which supports our entire economy. Similarly, the world’s forests are being cut down at an alarming rate. As more fuel is burned, global warming is actually changing the Earth’s climate. Finally, as population rises and uses up resources, environmental destruction is killing off large number of species.

      If all this weren’t bad enough, some dangers facing our world stem directly from technology. First, weapons of mass destruction are spreading to other countries, and possibly even to terrorists. Second, these terrorists already use some of our other technologies, such as the Internet and airplanes, against us. As we work to battle the spread of terrorism, we are using sophisticated surveilance technologies. Will the use of these technologies lead to the end of our free way of life? Or will terrorists use other technologies, such as weapons of mass destruction, to cause us even greater harm?

      It seems that technology creates new problems as it solves old ones. Perhaps humankind should consider pausing for a moment and thinking about whether we’ve matured to the point where we can handle the technologies we’ve created.

Step 5: Proof/Edit.
Go ahead and look over your essay now. Keep your eye out for the following:
  • Language errors you can quickly, easily, and legibly fix.
  • Any opportunity to clarify or add to your argument, if it can be done quickly and legibly.
  • Any opportunity to remove confusion or incoherence in your essay, if it can be done quickly and legibly.
The key here is to polish, not reconstruct. Don’t make things worse—especially by making your essay less readable—but if you see something you can fix or improve quickly, clearly, and easily, go for it.
Even though we’re in “slow-motion” mode now, only take a couple of minutes for this step. We’ll show you some examples of improvements to our essay.
Read on when you’re ready.
Our Version
We’re going to make a few changes using strikethroughs for deletions and bold for additions. We’ll number each change (also in bold) and discuss them below the essay, along with some general points we’d like to highlight.

While modern technology has given humanity many benefits, it has caused more problems than it has solved. In the last century, amazing advances in medicine and public health have extended the average human life span. However, the resulting population explosion has had all kinds of problems. Furthermore, these [1] problems consequences have led to new dangers with which we may not be able to cope, and which might lead to the end of our way of life.

      Medical technologies, such as antibiotics and anasthesia, and better public health standards have extended life. While these might seem like a good thing, the world’s population is out of control. All of these people are competing for the same resources, which is leading to increased conflict. For example, two wars have already been fought in the [2] middle east Middle East at least in part over oil. Wars over resources will only increase as population rises. Furthermore, the [3] increasing population is driving deeper spreading into uninhabited areas, encountering new diseases, like HIV and Ebola. As international travel becomes more widespread, these diseases [4] break out and cause new epidemics against which medicine is sometimes powerless. Finally, cutting-edge genetic technologies seem to be as dangerous as they are beneficial.

      In fact, it’s not true that an increasing number of people are competing for the same resources. The amount of some resources is actually shrinking. Again, oil is a good example. At some point soon, we will run out of this fuel [5] which that supports our entire economy.

Similarly, the world’s forests are being cut down at an alarming rate. As [6] we burn more fuel is burned, global warming is actually changing the Earth’s climate. Finally, as population rises and uses up resources, environmental destruction is killing off large number of species.

      If all this weren’t bad enough, some dangers facing our world stem directly from technology. First, weapons of mass destruction are spreading to other countries, and possibly even to terrorists. Second, these terrorists already use [7] some of our other technologies, such as the Internet and airplanes, against us. As we work to battle the spread of terrorism, we are using sophisticated surveilance technologies. Will the use of these technologies lead to the end of our free way of life? Or will terrorists use other technologies, such as weapons of mass destruction, to cause us even greater harm?

      It seems that technology creates new problems [8] even as it solves old ones. Perhaps humankind should consider pausing for a moment [9] to consider and thinking about whether we have the maturity we’ve matured to the point where we can handle these the technologies we’ve created.

  • [1] Notice that we repeated problems. We changed one to a synonym, consequences, increasing vocabulary variety.
  • [2] Middle East is a proper noun. It should be capitalized.
  • [3] First, we noticed that we used the word increasing (or some form of it) a lot. So we cut it here since it’s clear that the population we’re talking about is rising, as the previous sentence states. Second, the phrase driving deeper seemed awkward when we read it. Anything awkward interrupts the flow of your writing, which is a big no-no. So, we substituted a simpler construction: in this case, a well-chosen and clear verb.
  • [4] Cutting is easier and quicker to do than adding, Since being redundant obscures meaning and being concise is very important, don’t hesitate to scribble out needless words. Break out and wasn’t necessary.
  • [5] That is usually better than which. We noticed that we use a lot of which clauses in this essay, and why use a which when you don’t really need one? Variation also played a role in this decision.
  • [6] We changed a passive construction to an active one. That improves the flow and coherence and makes the essay more concise—all in one fell swoop.
  • [7] Made that cut for the same reason as [4]. Trim what fat you can, as time permits.
  • [8] The inclusion of this word focused the flow a bit more, giving a picture of well-meant technologies giving rise to new problems as they solve old ones.
  • [9] The last sentence needed work. We’re assuming we had the time to do this—as well as all of these corrections. We substituted a forceful infinitive (to consider) for a weak gerund (and thinking about—watch out for that weak and; it can show up like this, too!). We then cut a slew of words in the maturity phrase to make the point more concisely and forcefully. Finally, it’s understood that we are human beings, and we human beings created this technology. No need for those last two words.
Reviewing the Slow-Motion Essay Experience
The Small Stuff
Note that we didn’t catch every single error.
  • We misspelled surveillance as surveilance and anesthesia as anasthesia in the original and in our final version. So what? Readers will forgive a couple of misspelled words, especially if they’re toughies.
  • We used finally at the end of two paragraphs. That’s not great.
  • The phrase if all this weren’t bad enough is a little clunky. It could’ve been done better.
Don’t worry about catching everything: you’re writing a first draft! (Have we mentioned this before?) Our essay, by the way, would probably be considered a “high” 6. You’ll see a variety of essays at different score levels in the practice section.
Tone
Note how we took a stand, but we did so with a respectful tone, pointing out the ironic, unintended consequences of well-meant technologies. We didn’t present a conspiracy theory. The SAT likes balance because it tests critical thinking. And these prompts can be answered by reasonable people in any number of ways, pro or con. So note the world of difference between (1) having a position with a point of view and (2) simply writing dogmatically and unthinkingly. Dogma is very hard to support, anyway, especially in 25 minutes.
Position
Trust that the readers won’t care what you write about, contentwise. Our sentence, For example, two wars have already been fought in the Middle East at least in part over oil is pretty controversial. We put it in on purpose. Your readers are trained to ignore what you say; all they care about is how you say it. As written, this sentence is both evenhanded (at least in part . . .) and offers a reasonable piece of evidence for the argument, regardless of what anyone thinks about it.
This is a key point: don’t try to “psych out” the readers. You know what they’re looking for, who they are, how they’re trained. Don’t try to outsmart them: you can’t, and you don’t have to.
The Big Stuff
Here are some positive aspects of this essay that you should strive to emulate:
  • Signpost words are used throughout to lead the reader from one sentence (which is really “one idea”) to the next. The first paragraph is a good example of the proper use of signpost words and words that act as signposts (however, furthermore).
  • Reasons support the thesis statement, whether you (or the readers) agree with the thesis or not.
  • There are ample and appropriate examples to support each reason.
  • There is a lot of variety in sentence structure and vocabulary. Look at each sentence in isolation to see how they vary in structure.
  • Note how the outline determined the flow of the argument.
  • Note how language enhances the flow in our outline structure. First, oil is purposely repeated as an example in two different paragraphs but is used differently and appropriately in each paragraph. Second, expanding population is shown to have several related consequences. Finally, after detailing eventual and potential threats posed by technology, the conclusion returns to the transition sentence in the first paragraph: Furthermore, these consequences have led to new dangers with which we may not be able to cope, and which might lead to the end of our way of life.
Finally, keep in mind that our essay is a “high” 6. You can write a shorter, less sophisticated essay and still earn a 6 for your work, as you’ll see in the practice sets.
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