How to Prepare, Write, and Proof Your SAT Essay

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

Your SAT score will rise if you spend a few minutes (five to seven) preparing before you write the essay and another few minutes (or five to six) proofreading your work after you’ve written it. All the minutes in between are for the writing itself. Here’s more detail on how to approach the SAT essay:

  1. Read the passage, annotating as you go.

    The annotations (notes or marks) should be very brief — an important feature underlined or circled, a word or abbreviation in the margin (for example, “sent struc” where you notice something interesting about sentence structure or “wc” when word choice matters).

  2. Be sure you understand the author’s argument.

    The second part of the prompt summarizes the author’s position very briefly. Let that statement guide you, but before you write, amplify (expand) a little. Suppose the prompt says that the author favors lower speed limits, for example. Ask yourself why. The amplified version may be that the author favors lower speed limits on roads also used by cyclists and pedestrians or in limited-visibility conditions. If you grasp exactly what the writer believes, you have a better chance of understanding how the writer tries to convince the reader.

  3. Quickly decide which points are most important.

    Fifty minutes isn’t a lot, so you may not have time to write about everything you notice. Don’t agonize. Select the most relevant points and move to the next step.

  4. Choose a structure.

    The simplest structure follows the passage; you discuss the writing techniques you see in the passage in the order in which they appear, first discussing something in paragraph one, then paragraph two, and so on. A little more complicated but also more mature tactic is to group similar elements. You may have a paragraph about diction, for instance, analyzing the author’s choice of words throughout the passage. Next up, perhaps, is a paragraph about the author’s reliance on expert opinions conveyed (communicated) through quotations.

  5. Make an outline.

    You don’t have time for a formal outline, complete with roman numerals and fancy indentations. Jot down the points you’ll make and letter them A, B, C, and so on.

  6. Write the essay.

    Sounds easy, right? It isn’t. But as one sneaker company says, “Just do it.” As you write, take care to analyze, not just list. The graders give you little credit for saying that a simile appears in paragraphs two, four, and eight. They give you much more credit for explaining the effect of those similes on the reader. Also, avoid general statements, such as “This essay contains a lot of similes.” Instead, quote the similes as you discuss them. Every point you make about the passage should be firmly attached to the text of the passage, either through a quotation or a specific reference (“the anecdote about the snake in paragraph 2 . . .”).

  7. Proofread.

    Look for misspelled words, awkward sentences, grammar mistakes, and the like. Correct your mistakes by crossing them out neatly (one line is enough) and inserting the proper word or punctuation.

When you proofread, you may think of a great addition to your essay. With limited space and time, you can’t rewrite. So place your new idea at the end. Label it “insert A.” Then make a note (“see insert A”) at the spot in the essay where this point logically belongs.