The Essay
What Skills Does the Essay Test?
The folks at The College Board and the people they hire as readers are not unfair, and they’re not sadists. They know you’re most likely 16 or 17 years old. They know their test causes a lot of hand-wringing. And they know you have 25 minutes to write an essay on a topic you’ve never seen before. Here’s what they expect:
A first draft
That’s it. They don’t expect highly polished, finished writing. That would be impossible to produce in 25 minutes. They just want a first draft. Think of an SAT essay as an answer you’d give to an in-class final exam in your English class, rather than a term paper you’ve worked on for weeks on end. As you’ll see, the essay is easier than a final exam essay, because you’re not expected to demonstrate a semester’s worth of knowledge. More on this later.
While The College Board doesn’t give you a neat little list of what your essay should include, we do know how the essay will be graded. With that knowledge in hand, we can tell you that your essay should feature the following six qualities:
  • Precise use of language
  • Clarity of expression
  • Sustained focus
  • Logical and coherent presentation of ideas
  • Ample development of a point of view
  • Use of clear reasoning and appropriate evidence
Let’s define each of these qualities in a little more detail. We’ll spend most of the rest of the book giving you the essential concepts and strategies you’ll need to achieve these six broad goals. For now, let’s make sure you know what is expected of you.
Precise Use of Language
Precision means being accurate and exact. We’re talking about your old friends here: grammar and usage.
Grammar. Know and follow the rules. For example, don’t shift your pronouns:
  • Incorrect One knows that you can’t avoid grammar on the SAT Writing section.
  • Correct You know you can’t avoid grammar on the SAT Writing section.
  • Correct One knows one can’t avoid grammar on the SAT Writing section.
Usage. Use words properly. For example, don’t write adverse (which refers to being opposed to a situation) when you mean averse (which refers to being opposed to an attitude).
Don’t panic if all this grammar and usage talk is confusing. The Essential Concepts section that follows is a focused review and explanation of the relevant grammatical and usage topics you’ll need to do well on the essay.
Furthermore—and repeat this mantra to yourself nightly into a mirror—you can make a few minor usage and grammar errors and still get the highest possible score!
Clarity of Expression
This is partly a function of following the rules of language (i.e., grammar and usage). However, and more important, clarity of expression is about clear thought.
Think of it this way: writing is like sending a radio transmission. Your brain is the transmitter. Your thoughts are the signal. The person reading your essay is the receiver. There are only three ways your signal can be garbled.
  1. The signal is garbled inside you, the transmitter. You transmit fine, but the signal is mush. In other words, you understand the rules of language, but you can’t seem to produce a coherent argument.
  2. The signal is strong but gets garbled in transmission. In other words, you know what you want to say, but you have trouble using the rules of language to say it.
  3. The signal is mush and it also gets garbled in transmission. You have problems both in organizing your thoughts and in using the rules of language.
Again, don’t worry. Our essential concepts and strategies will alleviate all of these problems. You’ve come to the right place!
Sustained Focus
You only have 25 minutes to formulate, plan, write, and edit a decent first draft of a persuasive essay. You have no time or space to wander off on tangents; you must devote all your precious time and space to the task at hand. Don’t get cute in your writing: “cute” entails taking unnecessary risks.
When you think “SAT essay,” think of a well-organized nightly news segment, not a convoluted soap opera plot.
Logical and Coherent Presentation of Ideas
Your essay needs to flow. You need to take a position that is supported by reasons and reinforced by examples. Each sentence should follow naturally from the last, and each paragraph should build on or add to the previous one.
We’ll provide you with a process that will allow you to write excellent first-draft essays that flow logically and coherently.
Ample Development of a Point of View
You can’t simply state a position without backing it up. Ample development means bringing together several lines of evidence. The more types of evidence you bring to bear from various parts of life, the stronger and more persuasive your essay will be.
You’ll see how all this works as we go through a practice essay in slow motion.
Use of Clear Reasoning and Appropriate Evidence
It is crucial that you back up your argument with appropriate evidence, which can be defined as anything you’ve read, experienced, observed, or heard about.
The take-home message here is that all types of relevant evidence and examples are equally valuable in the eyes of the readers. You may have heard that you must provide hoity-toity literary examples to get a high score. To use a hoity-toity word, that is simply tosh (that is to say, “total nonsense”).
How unfair would this test be if only those of you who happened to have read and memorized highbrow literature or esoteric scientific theory could get a high score? Remember, the essay is an assessment of how well you use written language to create an argument:
What you say doesn’t matter nearly as much as how well you say it and how well you organize it.
Using a quote from Shakespeare or a reference to quantum physics inappropriately, or in a way that doesn’t further the argument or support a point, will not help your essay; in fact, it will hurt it. However, using an appropriate anecdote from your daily life will help, not hurt. It’s not the status of the evidence you use that matters—it’s the relevance of that piece of evidence to the overall flow and structure of your argument.
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