Note: this is an excerpt from the PWN the SAT Essay Guide, available now in paperback and Kindle.

Mini-thesis

The first sentence of any body paragraph should be what I call a mini-thesis. This sentence refers back to your main thesis, puts it in context of the evidence you plan to cite in the paragraph. This keeps your essay organized and focused, which keeps your score high.

There’s no need to get fancy here. The point is simply to point out to your reader, before you dive into the details, that the evidence you’re about to discuss is important, and not just something you were planning to write about no matter what prompt you got. It’s also an opportunity for you to provide a few transitional words, so your reader doesn’t get whiplash when you change gears between paragraphs. Say you’re arguing that innovation generally happens incrementally, not all at once. You want to argue that the US Constitution was an amalgam of various existing political philosophies, and that the social networking behemoth Facebook was not invented out of the blue, but was rather inspired by social networking sites that came before it like Friendster and MySpace. These topics have gradual evolution in common, but not much else, so you should use a few words between them to acknowledge their differences and assert their similarities.

Thesis: While it is possible to find examples of ideas that seemingly came from nowhere and changed the course of history, most good ideas evolve slowly over time.

Mini-thesis at the beginning of body paragraph 1: One prominent example of the evolution of ideas is the Constitution of the United States.

Mini-thesis at the beginning of body paragraph 2: The evolution of ideas happens at a much more accelerated pace in the world of social networking.

Your transition doesn’t need to be grand or overstated. In the example above, it’s just a simple acknowledgement that you’re moving from the relatively slow evolution of political thought to the frenetic pace of technological innovation. That’s plenty.

The rest of your body paragraph

Once you’ve established yourself with a mini-thesis, it’s time to support it with details. Don’t just repeat the claim you made in the first sentence—support it with relevant details.

Be as specific as possible with the facts you cite, but don’t turn this into a torrent of information. This isn’t the place to just list every fact you know. Your mission is to give your reader, in a few sentences, a reason to believe that the book, historical event, personal experience, or whatever that you’re writing about is relevant to your thesis. Every detail you give must bolster your argument.

One prominent example of the evolution of ideas is the Constitution of the United States. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention were inspired by a vast array of existing philosophies. For example, the Constitution’s due process clause was inspired by the Magna Carta, and its protection of the basic rights of life, liberty, and property was inspired by British philosopher John Locke’s conception of the social contract. The American system of checks and balances is commonly credited to French thinker Montesquieu. The Constitution was also inspired by the guiding principles of the Iroquois Confederacy. The founding fathers explicitly acknowledged that ideas evolve over time by ensuring that the Constitution would be a living document that could be refined via amendment. For this reason, the Constitution that governs us today is greatly evolved from the one that was ratified in 1787, and the Constitution that governs the United States 100 years from now will be further changed as our democracy evolves.

The evolution of ideas happens at a much more accelerated pace in the world of social networking.  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s conception of the now-ubiquitous service was informed by social networking services that already existed. My father argues that the profile system of AOL Instant Messenger was the original social networking site. Internet entrepreneurs recognized how much people loved to customize their AOL profiles, and created services that would allow users even more flexibility to express their personalities. These included a number of social networking sites that predated Facebook, like Friendster and MySpace—both dominant in their times and now consigned to the dustbin. Facebook was able to achieve market hegemony over both services by emulating and improving upon their best features. Now that it dominates the social networking space, Facebook is forced defend itself against upstart services like Google Plus, which seeks to beat Facebook by improving on Facebook’s best features, much the same way Facebook outdid its predecessors years ago. Innovation in social networking is characterized not by revolutionary technological sea changes, but rather by constant incremental improvement of existing ideas.

Do you see all the specific details in there? In the Constitution paragraph, four specific influences were named, along with the specific year of the Constitution’s ratification. In the social networking paragraph, five services were named. And note that all those details directly support the argument! The fact that four influences were named really supports the argument that the Constitution represents evolving ideas. The date of the Constitution’s ratification emphasizes how long the document has been evolving since it was first signed.

If you’re wondering, at this point, how you’ll ever be able to squeeze that level of detail into an essay in 25 minutes, I feel you. It’s not easy. But it becomes much more doable when you know your evidence inside and out. More on that later.