You know the 5-paragraph essay format you learned way back when? Use it. Or at least use a 4-paragraph essay where you cut out one of the body paragraphs.

Of course there are other formats that can get you a nice score on this essay, but if you don’t already know them, now is not the time to learn or practice unfamiliar writing models…not with this much riding on the line. If you’re already familiar with other formats, then I’m guessing you don’t really need my help. You are probably already an excellent writer, and scoring a 10-12 should be a cakewalk for you.
For the rest of you, stick to the 5-paragraph essay structure, which let me remind you goes like this:
Paragraph 1: Thesis + Introduction
Paragraph 2: Example 1/Analysis
Paragraph 3: Example 2/Analysis
Paragraph 4 (optional): Example 3/Analysis, or alternatively, shoot down objections to your viewpoint
Paragraph 5 (optional): Conclusion
Many 4 or 5 paragraph essays following this template have received perfect 12s, including my own where I followed this exact format. Even if you are an excellent writer who knows other formats, the 5-paragraph format is a tried and true format that can get you a perfect score. Why risk other writing models that may or may not work for you?
I say paragraphs 4 and 5 (conclusion) are optional because I’ve seen so many, and I really mean MANY, essays get perfect 12s with only two examples. I’ve also seen many perfect scores with no conclusion whatsoever. You could be mid-sentence with your last sentence when time is called and still earn a 12 if your holistic impression is that good.
However, I wouldn’t make both paragraphs 4 and 5 optional. Try to write at least one of them. A third example (paragraph 4) is only optional if you can’t come up with another example or are running out of time.
Today, I want to focus on the introduction, a short but crucial little guy that not only sets the tone of your essay but also helps you organize your thoughts. A strong intro forces you to think specifically, which is a good thing.
Paragraph 1: Thesis + Introduction (2-3 sentences)
Sentence 1: make your first sentence your thesis where you pick a clear side. Your thesis must be specific.
Cut out the fluffy intros. Just cut…them…out. And don’t just say, “I believe questioning authority can be a good thing sometimes.” Notice how many weak qualifying words are in that sentence. I believe? Well duh, Sherlock. We know you believe it because you wrote it. Sometimes? Give me a break. Almost nothing in life is 100% absolutely the case all the time.
              “Questioning authority can be a good thing.” ß stronger, but we can
do better still.
“Although questioning authority may come off as irreverent and rebellious, such an action can actually be beneficial when it allows people to understand the motives and reasons behind the wishes of an authority.” ß much better.
Notice the level of specificity that single sentence contains. THAT’S what a thesis is all about, baby. That’s what a powerhouse statement does – provides an instant and powerful impact straightaway. We don’t need some lousy, generalizing introductory remarks. Just tell us what you think.
This thesis is potent because it accomplishes many things:
·       Takes a clear side. We know this author believes that questioning authority is good in certain situations. (The prompt probably asked, “Can questioning authority ever be good?”) Notice how the author did not say, “Sometimes questioning authority can be good, while other times it can be bad.” Such a statement doesn’t pick a side at all. Even if you truly can’t pick a side honestly in your heart, just pick one for the essay. You want to EXPLICTLY state your side (that means directly spell it out). Don’t imply it.
·       Addresses opposing view. He shows that he understands potential concerns of the other side (that questioning authority might be irreverent or rebellious). By not simply ignoring such objections to his own stance, this author demonstrates he has considered the big picture, not just his own side. Mature writing always takes other viewpoints into consideration. You don’t need a whole paragraph shooting down arguments from the other side – though you can in the fourth paragraph if you have time – but at least give some credence to the other side.
·       Narrows the scope of the topic. Picking a clear side isn’t about saying whether questioning authority is good or bad. It’s about defining a specific situation when questioning authority is good or bad. He believes it’s good but takes it a step further by saying it’s good “when it allows people to understand the motives and reasons behind the wishes of an authority.” This effectively narrows the scope of his essay to one about understanding motives/reasons. This scope is much more manageable for a 25-minute essay and allows much more in-depth analysis. Remember, the smaller your scope and the more you write on that smaller scope, the more detailed and strong your argument becomes.
·       Makes it clear what we can expect from this essay. Do you honestly have any doubt what this guy is going to be writing about?
·       Uses skillful diction. He doesn’t just say something is “good” but chooses a more appropriate and precise word: “beneficial.” Showcasing your command of precise language and vocabulary just makes you sound smarter, more eloquent.
·       Demonstrates an ability to compose advanced sentences. This thesis is not something simple with a single clause. It has two clauses: “Although questioning authority…blah blah” and “It allows people to…blah blah.” Dual sentence constructions are pretty potent stuff. And powerful writing will earn you that high score. Don’t forget to vary your sentence structures throughout the rest of the essay though. Mix longer dual construction sentences with short and sweet single construction sentences. Varying the lengths helps with readability and flow.
Sentence 2 (optional): expound on your thesis from the other angle.
If your thesis is about how questioning authority is beneficial in order to understand the motives/reasons behind an authority’s wish, then perhaps mention how upset people get at following blind orders. Tell us what sorts of unspeakable evils might happen if people don’t know the reason they are being forced to do something. Your thesis claimed that understanding motives makes questioning authority beneficial. Sentence 2 would explain a situation when NOT understanding motives creates a bad situation, the opposite of beneficial. So approach your viewpoint from two angles that are actually the same viewpoint. Ever heard the joke, “Heads I win, tails you lose?” Well, in both cases – heads or tails – you win the coin toss. Same thing here with sentence 2.
Sentence 3:briefly state your examples that you’ll use to support your thesis.
You should have spent a few minutes outlining your essay before you’ve even written your thesis, so you should already know what examples you’ll use. State them here. Something like this:
“In both history and my personal life, subordinates who have asked authority to clarify its intentions have helped generate tremendous success. In the Battle of Stony Gate during the Arctic War in 1873 and in a recent championship volleyball match against my high school team’s rival, victory was won because people were willing to question authority.”
Okay, I know that’s two sentences…but stop nitpicking. Sentence 3 is meant to serve the purpose of briefly stating your examples. If it takes more than exactly one sentence to accomplish, then so be it. It’s fine.
A Word on Making Stuff Up
By the way, I totally made up that battle and war, but it probably sounded real, didn’t it? It’s fine to make stuff up so long as it sounds believable. To be honest, I never really make up stuff in my essays because real examples are easier to analyze. There are more specific and concrete details to pick from.
If you’re someone who can come up with a believable fake fact, then you’re also probably someone who could write well using real examples. Why not go with the more direct route and just use real examples? Why date controversy? The risk in making stuff up is that these examples often lack concrete details.
You know how you can easily tell when someone’s lying? You ask them a bunch of simple but specific questions rapid fire and watch for his reaction. Enforcers at the popular nightclubs I frequent in Hollywood do this all the friggin’ time. “When’s your birthday?” “How tall are you?” “What’s your home address?” “This picture doesn’t look like you.” If I get flustered trying to answer these questions, I know I’m going to be taking a cab home alone that night.
The same idea applies when you make stuff up for your essay. If you can’t answer questions about specific details, if you just mingle with generalities, your example’s not gonna fly. Bottom line: make stuff up only as a last resort.
I’ll be getting into the body paragraphs and conclusion in upcoming posts! Thanks for reading, and here’s to decoding the SAT. May high scores and years of happiness rain upon you.
Peace and love,
Peter Peng is a SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at