How to Write the SAT/ACT Essay

The most important part of writing a timed SAT essay is the few minutes you spend planning the essay before you start writing. I realize your first impulse is probably to jump in and write as much as you can as fast as you can, but if you take those few minutes to plan, you’ll write a much more effective SAT essay.

Let’s start with a topic similar to the ones you’d find on the SAT/ACT:

In one of his poems, Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors. Do you think this is true? Write an essay in which you explain your opinion, using reasoning and examples to support your position.

As you may have noticed, this is a general enough topic to give you a chance to use examples from a variety of sources, such as literature, movies, and your own experiences. But it’s also a tricky topic, because you first have to define your position and then you have to develop a logical way to support it.

That’s why it’s essential that you spend those first few minutes planning what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. The graders of your SAT essay will be reading a lot of essays in a very short period. So you have to make sure that you make your points clearly and in a logical progression.

And this is where organization becomes critical. Any essay, and especially a timed essay, has three distinct parts: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. In the introduction, you say what you’re going to say. In the body, you say it, giving each point or idea its own paragraph. And in the conclusion, you say what you’ve said.

The introduction should be two-three sentences long. The first sentence should state your opinion, using a few words from the topic to show you’re paying attention. And the next sentence(s) should state your reason(s).

In the body, you need to develop your examples, using one paragraph for each. But before you start writing, be sure to organize your examples in a logical order, whether chronologically (oldest to newest) or by importance (least to most).

Try to write at least three sentences per paragraph. The first one should introduce the example, and the next two should develop it. You should also try to have three examples, because the graders are probably English teachers, and we’re very fond of the five-paragraph essay.

Your conclusion should be similar to your introduction, only in reverse order. The first sentence or two should state your reasons, and then the last sentence should re-state your position, again including a few words from the topic.

Finally, try to use clean, clear language. A fancy word here and there, especially as a transition (e.g., furthermore, conversely, consequently, therefore, nevertheless, moreover) will pretty things up a bit, but if you use too many of them, you’ll look like a phony.

I know from all the essay tests I’ve taken how easy it is to panic and just start scribbling. So do yourself a favor and take a deep breath, think about the topic, make a few notes, and only then begin to write your essay.

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