08 Dec 2013

The ABCs, or Rather the POES, of Essay Writing on the SAT


I’ve always made light of the essay on the SAT. I never really thought it’s one of the harder parts on the test and it really amounts to only about 30% of the Writing Score. But since I’ve been here in Thailand, I’ve noticed that students really struggle with that part. Thus, I’m here today to provide general tips and peace of mind for the typical neurotic high school student.

First, if you suck at writing, you’re goooonna need to get a little better. Yes, I understand that as of now, my tips don’t really amount to anything more than the phrase “don’t suck,” but it is a basic premise of writing well on the SAT. The good news though, is that it is not what you think it means. You don’t have to be grammatically perfect or the next Geoffrey Chaucer (Joke – don’t write like Chaucer. You would sound weird in modern English). But focus on the little things such as slowing down so that your handwriting is legible. While the SAT guidelines do not list handwriting as one of the criteria for your essay score, help out your reader by writing clearly. This would make him or her much happier, and more likely to give you a better score.

Now, I haven’t really come across a student with absolutely terrible control of English, but if you’re skirting that line, pick up a book on essays, and then, skip all the boring writing inside and just focus on essay samples. Look at the structure of an essay, how to introduce a topic sentence, and how to present your arguments within a body paragraph. Even if your English is not the best in the world, this will go a long way to providing you the basics of presenting information. And while we’re on the topic of emulating good essays, do not, I repeat DO NOT, write like how I write in this article. This is a blog piece and I’m using colloquial language (.ie “gonna”). You should probably be more formal than me.

Once you master the art of not sucking in writing, you can then focus on the following tips. In true YPrep form, I tried to make it fit around the acronym POES. It’s not the best acronym in the world, but it’s in the following order because of order of importance. For example, don’t focus on the S part before you have down the P. To help with this article, I provide the following prompt from the November 2013 test:

Some people emphasize that strong leaders never depart from their goal, plan, or vision and that such dedication is, in fact, a measure of their strength. Others would argue, however, that strong leaders are flexible. Strong leaders know when to admit they have made a mistake and when it is appropriate to change their goal or mission. This flexibility shows their strength and the extent of their wisdom.

Is flexibility the sign of a strong and wise leader? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

Without further ado, here are the tips:

Positioning Is Always Key On The SAT (Like How It Is In Real Life)

P stands for positioning. It is the single most important part of the essay and is heavily tied into the intro paragraph. Most SAT prompts can generally be answered in two ways – yes or no (agree or disagree). It’s true that the world is not black and white, but for the purposes of the SAT, you can get a good score picking only one side, so don’t make it hard on yourself. Pick one side and go with it. Take note that my advice is for the typical international student. If you’re an amazing writer and you want to argue both sides, by all means, go for it. But really, you just need one side. In the example above, you might write something like “yes, flexibility is the sign of a strong and wise leader” as your thesis statement. BUT, more important than picking one side is to ALWAYS explain WHY you picked that side. It sets the tone for your essay and lets your grader know that you understand the issue and is aware of what you’re talking about. Thus, a typical intro to this prompt might be:

It’s very difficult for anyone to admit he is wrong. But to stubbornly continue when you are aware you might be mistaken is the epitome of being a fool. Thus, the major sign of a strong and wise leader is flexibility. While flip-flopping on your decisions might make you seen indecisive, a strong leader will weigh all new information and adjust his course if he needs to, regardless of how others might see him. While people might perceive such leader as erratic for such “indecisiveness,” being wrong is much worse. Thus, it’s always good to be flexible as a leader.

With my example above, I did not just pick a side and moved on. I explained my position and more importantly, WHY I picked such a position. Notice also that you don’t have to be perfect or super formal in your writing. I used contractions, second-person reference (you), and also words like “flip-flopping.” The key thing is that you just want your point to be understood.

The Best Way to Fight Entropy Is To Stay Organized

O is for organization and is tied to what I have written before. This is probably the easiest part for students to deal with, but it comes after positioning because if you don’t have a position, it doesn’t matter that you know how to separate paragraphs. Yet while we’re on the subject, I have seen students get a 5 or 6 without even separating paragraphs. Therefore, organization is more about logical progression of ideas as opposed to indention and spaces between paragraphs. Generally, you only really need 4 paragraphs. Write an intro, then present two examples, and tie it all up with a conclusion. The major aspect of O is that you MUST have an intro, at least one example, and a conclusion. If you can manage that, you’re golden, baby!

Don’t Write About That One Time Your Dog Died

E – Examples. The SAT tells you that you can support your position with “examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.” This boils down to examples taken from literature, history, science, current events, and personal experience. It’s not always imperative to make your examples specific, but if given the choice, pick something you can pinpoint from your studies. Pointing out Thorin’s flexibility in trusting Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit is a stronger example and argument than using vague references to people who, when flexible, must be a good leader. Many examples from your studies can be twisted to fit almost every prompt. Spend time reading previous SAT prompts and figuring out how you can fit something you know into an example for that prompt. This will help cure the “I can’t think of an example” excuse I hear so often.

Your Inditement Should Be Intricate, But Abstain From Flummoxing The Populate

S – Sentence structure and Complexity. The last letter is quite a doozy and is actually associated with two ideas. However, I put them together because students should focus on them last and I wanted my acronyms to spell out something that is pronounceable (POESC would suck). The last letter refers to your writing style. To get the highest score on the essay section, your sentences should vary in length and style, along with your vocab words. This adds to the complexity of your writing technique. But aside from complexity derived from writing technique, you also need complexity in your arguments and ideas. Even though I said you should focus on one side of the prompt, acknowledging the other side will make your essay stronger and more complex. In this example, the flip side to flexibility is staying true to your course no matter what. There is certainly an argument to be made about a leader unwavering in the face of adversity. So how do you address that? Remember that there are no correct answers on the SAT essay section. Showing that you understand this will make your essay more complex. I can write more on this, but this blog post is already getting too long. I’ll have to include it in future posts. But before I leave S, I want to point out that you can get a good score (like a 4) by just focusing on POE. I have seen many students insert complicated vocab words when they can’t even string together a logical argument. Make sure to ALWAYS pay attention to your logical progression of ideas before you worry about making your essay more complex. Frankly, despite your fancy words, you would just look like an idiot.

There you have it – the POES of essay writing on the SAT. I’ll try to go into details about each part in future blog posts, but these tips should be enough to get you started. Remember that the SAT essay is graded on a scale of 1-6 (per grader) and you really want to avoid the 1-3 range. Following POE should at least get you a 4. So work on that before you worry about getting a 5 or 6, which comes with the S part. Finally, remember also that your essay should answer one main question – How convincing are you in your argument?

Until next time, toodle-loo!

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