5 Tips To High Scores on SAT and ACT Essays

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Disclaimer: This blog is NOT intended to contain great—even good—writing instruction. I am doffing my English teacher’s hat and donning my SAT/ACT coach’s cap. Why? Because what you need to get high scores on the SAT and ACT essays is not what you need to become a good writer.  All you have to know is what the scorers are looking for and how to give it to them. 

 I am not alone in my cynicism about standardized test writing. Dr. Les Perelman, one of the directors of undergraduate writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did doctoral work on testing and develops writing assessments for entering M.I.T. freshmen. He worries that the 25-minute SAT essay test (and I imagine the 30-minute ACT essay test, as well) is actually teaching high school students poor writing habits. So, if you want to learn how to write well, listen to your English and writing teachers. But if you want to learn how to get high scores on standardized essay tests, read on.

1. Formulaic five-paragraph essays may be boring, but they do the trick. In one of the LinkedIn professional test prep groups I belong to, a former SAT essay scorer wrote the following: “The standard ‘five paragraph essays’ are generally the ones in which students are able to be the most organized in the 25 minutes they get to write the essay….I do have to say that, from a scorer’s standpoint, the standard five-paragraph format is MUCH easier to score. But it’s also hideously boring, repetitive, and often devoid of creativity. I think it has its place, and the SAT essay is a good place for that.” As I said, this about getting good scores, not about writing an interesting, memorable, or moving piece. Let’s face it: they throw a question at you that you’ve likely never considered before and have no interest in, and then they give you 25 minutes (30 minutes on the ACT) to think about it, plan it, and answer it in writing. And then they’ll make a determination, based on that sole, bogus writing sample, about how well you write. Ridiculous! Under such circumstances, the five-paragraph essay gives you the comfortable feeling that at least you’ve got a reliable, effective, and clear structure to go in with: an intro containing a thesis statement and a “list of three” ideas (see below), a three-paragraph main body in which you develop each of these three ideas, and a quick conclusion to wrap it up. 

2. Spend the first 2-3 minutes THINKING about three ideas from your “reading, studies, experiences, and observations.” These four broad categories appear on EVERY SAT (and they may as well on the ACT, too, though the particular questions the ACT asks frequently don’t lend themselves to drawing from literature). Here, it doesn’t matter what you actually think or believe; choose to write about that which you have more to say or about that which can think of more compelling examples. The three ideas, your “list of three,” will form the backbone of your three-paragraph main body.

3. Write to impress, not to express. Again, good writing teachers will preach the exact opposite. But what’s our purpose here, to express a deeply help belief or core emotion? Heck, no! We’re trying to convince some stranger that we know how to write well. So in this particular case, the name of the game is, be impressive. How do you do that? Good question, glad you asked:

  1. Length and legibility matter. It’s pretty axiomatic that the longer the essay, the higher the score. In fact, quoth Dr. Perelman from his research at M.I.T.: “It appeared to me that regardless of what a student wrote, the longer the essay, the higher the score.” This is another good reason to use the five-paragraph formula because it will force you to write a decent amount. As for legibility, the former SAT essay grader noted, “I can’t score it if I can’t read it.” Write slowly enough to be legible (are you listening, boys?). Visibly indent paragraphs. Look like you know what you’re doing. Do your best to avoid words you can’t spell; although scorers are told explicitly not to mark down students for misspelled words, a profusion of misspelled words can’t help making a bad impression.
  2. Use good diction. You’ve spent countless hours cramming juicy SAT vocab into your brain (right?!). Now’s the time to drop two or three felicitous bombs (see what I did there?). Similarly, avoid low-brow words like “thing,” “very,” “a lot” and any form of slang. On standardized tests, a “kid” is a baby goat and “mad” means insane. This is the wonderful world of Standard Written English, which is to say, it’s formal.
  3. Start strong. Guess how long scorers typically spend reading each essay that you sweat over for 25 or 30 minutes? Two to three minutes, total! And research indicates that most decisions about what score they’ll ultimately give you are made in the first 30 seconds. This gives you another reason to spend the first two to three minutes THINKING, not writing, so that you can craft the best opening you can. One really good strategy is to use the “straw man” opening: Start by indicating that there are reasons to support the OPPOSITE of your argument. Then knock over the straw man by asserting that your arguments are even more compelling. That’s sophisticated writing, and sophisticated is, um, impressive.
  4. Vary Sentence Structure. Variety is the spice of life…and of good writing.  Consciously deploy introductory phrases and clauses as well as sentences with semicolons and colons. Not all high school students can do that, so it will be impressive. (For some easy-to-implement examples, see the instructions for receiving the free document you get for reading this blog.)

4. Know your literature beforehand. If the game is to impress someone that you’re a decent writer, a good way to do that is to refer to literature. The implicit message is, good readers typically make for good writers. While you shouldn’t waste a LOT of time racking your brain for a literary example, you SHOULD take some time before the test (as in a couple weeks before the test), to make a list of all the books—and authors, and main characters—you’ve read in school or for summer reading in the past three of four years. This will give you ammunition for when the time comes.

5. Proofread Save two to three minutes at the end to proofread your work. EVERYONE makes a careless error or two when brains work faster than hands can write. You can catch these little errors IF you take time to proofread.

A final FACT to bear in mind on the SAT Writing section (sorry, this one does NOT apply to the ACT): the 25-min essay accounts for only 30% of the overall Writing score. The other 70%, i.e., the majority of the points, come from the two multiple choice grammar tests. So, what’s the best way to improve your overall SAT writing score? Study the “10 Essential Grammar Rules”© that comes with CollegePrepExpress’s SAT and ACT Prep Packs (on sale for only $5.99).

For more useful tips, contact DrYo@CollegePrepExpress.com! Just for taking the time to read this blog, we’ll email you a copy of our “Tips for Good SAT/ACT Writing”©, compliments of CollegePrepExpress.  Hey, we really DO care about you!

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