How to Study for the SAT Essay

Can you really study for the SAT essay questions? Although the answer would seem to be an obvious no, in fact there are several time-tested tips that have resulted in improved scores. The SAT is the bastard godfather of America’s full-force movement toward standardizing education at all levels in the United States, and despite all the best attempts to make it fair to every single person taking it, it can’t be done. Some people will sit down to take the SAT lacking the necessary cognitive skills required to ace it. It’s not a question of intelligence or lack of learning; the SAT assumes a certain standardization of brain chemistry in everybody that simply doesn’t exist.

All is not lost, however. Although following this advice certainly can’t guarantee that you’ll increase your score, it may at least help reduce your test anxiety. Not everyone is comfortable with writing essays and the standardized manner in which writing essays are drilled into students starting in elementary school doesn’t help. Therefore, unless you are blessed with the ability to easily synthesize information while writing it in essay form, you should take time to brainstorm.

During this period, look over the SAT essay question and really try to determine what the graders will be looking for. Read the question several times until you fully comprehend what the question is about. This may sound like something ridiculously obvious and easy to do, but once you actually begin answering the question it’s surprisingly easy to get off topic. The SAT essay is all about organization and focus if it’s about nothing else. It’s a little-advertised secret of the SAT industry that essay graders spent most of their time poring over the opening and closing paragraphs. Because there are so many essays to grade and so little time to grade them, many SAT graders literally skim over the body portion. They focus on the opening and closing because those are the paragraphs that best indicate whether you actually answered the question posed.

It is therefore in your best interest when writing your SAT essay to understand what is expected of your answer and then to spend time jotting down some basic ideas on what you want to say and how you want to get that idea across. Although you want your answer to be complex, don’t make it so complicated that you lose all your focus. The more tightly you can keep your focus, the better.

The length of an SAT essay answer is a matter for debate. Some say that a short, brilliant essay is the way to go, but you have to keep in mind that you aren’t writing for publication; you’re writing for a grade. It may seem silly and unprofessional, but since most SAT essay graders are simply not going to read every word you put down, there is a definite psychological edge to writing a long essay. Of course, there are some rules you have to follow. A long essay simply looks more impressive to a grader who is spending all day looking at essay after essay. If you turn in a short essay, he’ll automatically assume you ran out of ideas. And that isn’t good. You want to take advantage of every possible opportunity to impress the grader that you can. Therefore your long essay should literally be pockmarked with buzzwords that are related to the question’s topic.

For instance, if your SAT essay question is related to a certain historical era or event, load your essay with recognizable terms, names, dates and anything else you may know about the history in question. An essay that compares the founding of America with a contemporary fight for freedom should be filled with references-accurate references, mind you-to names like Jefferson and Adams, and events like the Boston Tea Party and literature like Common Sense. You want your SAT essay grader to get the sense that you know what you’re talking about. And while we’re on that subject, let’s move to another controversial method of boosting your grade.

Should you use so-called big words in your SAT essay? The answer is yes. And no. The judicious use of a sophisticated vocabulary remains a shorthand route to being thought of as intelligent. There is simply no argument to be made that an SAT essay grader isn’t influenced by polished word choices. However, using big words can also be the quickest route to dropping a grade if the words you use aren’t appropriate. The best advice is this: never use a word in an essay if you don’t know exactly what it means. Yes, graders will skim over most of your essay and yes you can probably get away with using a word or two improperly, but if you use a word that is shockingly out of place, or if you pepper your essay with words you think you know the meaning of, it will not help. It can only hurt. So you can see the problem here, right? Using big words in an SAT essay is definitely helpful, but most of those people who have that kind of sophisticated vocabulary can probably write just as effectively without resorting to that little trick.

What about the appearance of your SAT essay answer? Does penmanship matter? What about indention and stuff like that? Look, you already know now that the grader doesn’t have time enough to read every word and you aren’t being graded on your handwriting abilities. Nevertheless, a neat essay is a subliminal indication to the grader that you thought this thing out before you wrote it; that you carefully prepared your thoughts and arguments before setting them down to paper. Believe it or not, that carries weight during the grading process. A lousy, unfocused essay that is neatly written isn’t going to get a good grade, no, but a good essay that appears well-organized and focused may just be enough to boost your grade a few points higher than if it was messy and difficult to read. And as for indentation? Do it. Several studies found that SAT essays with indented paragraphs consistently scored slightly higher than those without. And besides, it’s not as if it requires any extra work to indent.

Now here comes the part of the article where I actually get to that whole “how to study” part. The tips I’ve given above are concerned with writing the SAT essay during the testing period. But guess what? You want to know the single best thing you can do to improve your SAT essay score? Practice!

That’s right. Writing under a timed deadline is one of the most anxiety-producing things you’ll ever have to do as a student. It’s a combination of stresses: writing about an unknown topic; wondering how this essay will affect your college career; and writing under a deadline. You can’t really do anything about the topic; you’ll just have to hope for the best. And hopefully your grades are good enough that your SAT scores won’t affect your college plans. The only stressful condition you can prepare for is the final one, writing under a deadline. And the best way to beat that anxiety is by practicing.

At least a few times before you actually take the SAT-and preferably as often as you can-have someone come up with a topic that you can take into your room and write about under testing conditions. Either take a timer in there with you or having someone time you and set about learning how to write an SAT essay without the real-life pressure. You’ll be amazed at how much you can improve your ability to concentrate and write well under deadline conditions simply by practicing.

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