When it comes to the SAT, there is a core set of strategies that can be applied to the Verbal, Math and grammar part of the Writing section. These multiple-choice sections can generally be approached with the same box of tools. Process of Elimination, for example, is a fundamental strategy: if you can’t find the correct answer, then look at the choices. Usually two of them will be wildly off base. Eliminate those and then, if you have to, guess.
The Essay section, however, does not avail itself to such a strategy, because it is abstract; there is nothing to eliminate, back-solve or break down. There is only a prompt – a quote or a description of a situation – and an assignment: evaluate and write, using examples from “reading, studies, experience or observations.” That’s it. That, and a ticking clock. When was the last time you wrote an analytical essay, in 25 minutes, on spec? For many, the essay can be the most confounding part of any standardized test.
I once tutored a student whose practice test essay prompt was “What comes up must come down.” The student reported that when he read the quote, he had no idea what to write about. Gravity? The ups and downs of life? The latest Yankees season? Once he made a decision, he was stumped about what examples to use in support of his “argument.” By the time he actually put pencil to paper, 7 minutes were gone. Panicked, he wrote too much too fast and literally omitted entire words or had to go back and erase sentences that made no sense. The student then changed his mind altogether and started over. Time ran out. The essay was incomplete – for which there is a large deduction on the SAT – and it was not proof-read, so it had small grammatical and spelling errors that could have been corrected had there been time.
This student was caught in two common traps: he had no idea what to write about and he thought he had to write the.best.essay.ever. The former is easily addressed and prepared for; the latter is an idea that must be let go.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. This is the mantra of professional writers everywhere, because it is always harder if you are not familiar with, or have no investment in, the topic. If you think “What comes up must come down” applies to the vicissitudes of life, but think you’ll seem smarter writing about gravity, you’re wrong. If you can’t remember who discovered it (“some guy with an apple?”) or the formula, then you’ll just be at a loss for words. Whereas if you write about something you know, or better yet, are passionate about, then the words will flow.
I advise all my students to make what I call a Passion List: a list of books, movies, subjects they are studying (and enjoying!) in school, current and historical events, significant personal experiences, etc. that they have a strong connection to and know enough to write about. SAT essay prompts are so general that at least one of those favorites will fit into the theme. Gravity, Harry Potter, Hamlet, the history of empires, all fall under the umbrella of “What comes up must come down.” The choice of which to write about depends on what the student feels most confident with.
Of course you can’t bring your list into the testing area, but on the SAT, the essay is the first section on the test, so just review your list before the test starts and the examples will be fresh. The point is, “I don’t know what to write” is easily remedied by simply finding out what “I like to/can write about…”
YOU ARE ONLY WRITING A FIRST DRAFT. In school, students are taught to be thorough when preparing an essay or research paper. Teachers (rightly) encourage them to write a thorough outline, then a first, maybe a second, draft before handing in a final paper. On the SAT that is simply not possible. The best you can do is write a great first draft.
After evaluating the prompt, deciding on a response and two examples from your “passion” list, jot it all down so you don’t forget (the SAT version of an outline). Then write without editing along the way. Obviously if you catch a major error, or think of a great way to re-phrase your thesis statement, go ahead. The time for small corrections, however, is after the essay is complete. The last 3-5 minutes of any SAT essay should absolutely be reserved for proof reading. That’s when you can look for spelling and/or grammar mistakes, as well as how the essay flows and any small changes that might improve it. Pushing yourself to do more is counterproductive – and a waste of time.
Any standardized test essay is about turning an abstract idea into a concrete argument in a limited period of time. To do so, you need strong examples at your fingertips and a solid idea of what you can and cannot do. Then the only way to go is up!