SAT/ACT Essay Writing Tips (from someone who grades them)

“Since, the beginning of time their has been pizza; which is the best food. Serindipiduously the pizza we no and love today is actually American in origination. Most people thing Pizza is from Italy. I like pizza cause its yummy. Did you know that some people like pizza without cheese? I don’t like pizza without cheese, I like pizza with meat and cheese. Preperonnis mainly. What would the would be lie without prizza? That’s what I’m abrout to say!” (taken from an actual essay)

Okay, I’m not actually about to tell you what the world would be like without pizza (it would be a terrible, dark place and I wouldn’t want to live in it). I am about to tell you that that opening was not too far from the kind of thing I see as I grade the SAT/ACT essay. The dumpster-fire essay is a rare beast and a culmination of a number of incredibly common (easily avoidable) errors. In my time at A-List I have graded hundreds of essays, both ACT and SAT, some great, some foul – I’d like to take this time to impart some wisdom to you would-be Essay writers out there. So, here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t write like you speak – This should have already been hammered home by your English teachers, but it bears repeating. The written English language can be a thing of beauty and art; it can also be rather confusing. There are many rules to written English, although not all of them make sense, it’s important to at least try to adhere to some of them. Keep in mind that not everyone speaks the way you speak. Those who read and grade your words may be unable to understand what you mean if you fail to use proper grammar and spelling.
  2. Don’t be redundant – Just make a point and move forward. Don’t continue to emphasize the same thing. Don’t try rephrasing the same thing that you just said. You only have so much time to write this essay and you shouldn’t waste it by writing the same thing over and over. You also don’t have to explain things that are inherently obvious.
  3. Know how to spell – You’ll be writing by hand and won’t have spellcheck. So, if you’re not sure how to spell a word, try using a synonym that you’re certain you can spell. One of two understandable errors won’t harm you. But, continuous and rampant misspellings of simple words will lower your score.
  4. Be specific – This is not just for essays, or writing, but this is a rule for life. If you witness a robbery and the police ask you what the perpetrator looked like, and you say, “Well, he had hair, and a face, and he was wearing a shirt.” The police will have nothing to go on and you will have failed the victim(s). If you’re writing the SAT essay and you’re trying to tell me that Martin Luther King Jr. was persuasive in his speech; I need to know how he was persuasive. Give me an example of a line and then describe the effect that line may have had on an audience member. If it’s the ACT and you’re telling me that high schools have too much emphasis on standardized testing, then I need specifics. You’re currently in high school, you can give me (the reader) some great first-hand accounts of how you feel on the subject.
  5. Read the prompt carefully – A simple step, but one that’s often overlooked. There is a mountain of information in the prompt to mine for your gem of an essay. Be a thorough miner and excavate all the information that you can in order to fuel your writing.
  6. Structure your essay – This is simple five-paragraph MLA format which is effective and easy to write: Intro with thesis, three body paragraphs in which you expand upon your thesis, conclusion paragraph in which you re-iterate your thesis, what you said in the body, and how you made you proved your thesis, and finish with a line that will leave the reader thinking.
  7. HAVE A THESIS – You have to have a point that you are making, tell the reader what they are about to read in one sentence at the end of your introductory paragraph. A great way to structure this sentence is by stating your point and three items that support that point (these will be your three body paragraphs).
  8. Be persuasive (ACT) – If writing the ACT essay, you must convince the reader that the perspective you chose to side with is the correct perspective on the prompt. Give examples and in each body paragraph, you must prove your point while refuting the other perspectives.
  9. Understand Logos, Pathos, and Ethos (SAT) – Logos = an appeal to logic and reason. Pathos = an appeal to emotion (creating an emotional response in the audience/reader). Ethos = An appeal to ethics and convincing the reader by emphasizing the credibility of the author.
  10. Effectively use quotations (SAT) – Quotations are essential to the SAT essay. Use them to augment your point. The author appealed to emotion? Then show me a quote where he/she did so.
  11. Have a hook! – Start your essay off with a bold statement that will draw your reader’s attention. Essay graders have read hundreds of essays that begin with: “I think that…”, or “Since the beginning of time…”, or “I chose perspective 1 because…”. Try to surprise your audience with something bold.

The last tip I can give you is to have fun. This seems a bit counter-intuitive to the environment of the SAT/ACT. But, if you write something that you’d want to read then your audience (the essay graders) will want to read it too and you’ll get a higher score. Practice your essay writing so that you feel comfortable enough to start playing a little bit in your writing. Just don’t play so much that you write your entire essay on the importance of eating pizza. Trust yourself, good luck, and happy writing!

This blog post was written by A-List School & Institutional Partnerships Coordinator, Austin Crowley.