Posts filed under: Writing

If you live on the East Coast, then chances are pretty good that your January 23rd SAT just recently became your February 20th SAT. That’s a bummer, no? Then again, maybe you’re happy—you’ve just been given a whole extra month to study. My suggestion: take advantage.

I was planning on taking my Math Guide and Essay Guide out of print today, but now that they’re relevant for a small group of you for another month, I’ve just slashed their prices instead. If you don’t have my books, yet, and you’ve just found out you have more time than you thought to get ready, I invite you to grab them at your favorite online retailer at a deep discount. Here they are at Amazon—my favorite online retailer.

The College Board has released, at long last, its first full practice test since announcing sweeping changes to the PSAT and SAT last year. You may now finally, if you’re one of a small group of merry misfits that actually enjoy this kind of thing, sit down for 3 hours and take a prototype test from start to finish. Then you can correct it. You cannot, however, score it yet. Unsurprisingly, College Board still hasn’t fully figured out how it’s going to scale these things.

You can download the test here, and the answer key and explanations here.

Believe it or not, the answer document is longer than the test document.

Anyway, I just spent 3 hours of my beautiful Sunday afternoon with this thing, so I figured I’d jot down a few of my initial reactions in bullet form.


  • At an hour long, the reading section is a real slog. And it’s the first thing students will do.
  • As advertised, there’s less emphasis on tough vocabulary.
  • The passages, for the most part, feel familiar. Many of the questions would be just as at home on the current SAT.
  • The stuff that’s new is…fine, I guess. The questions that ask students to select the best justification from the passage for their previous answer are annoyingly formatted. Because the sections from the passage aren’t recreated in the choices—it’s the familiar old SAT-format, e.g. Lines 7–9 (“Thanks . . . life”)—there’s a LOT of necessary flipping back and forth.
  • The graphs that appear seem tossed in after the fact, without much thought put into integrating them into the passage.
  • I guess the “Great Global Conversation” piece in this test is the excerpt from Carnegie’s “Wealth”? Two thoughts: 1) Blech. 2) Students with some contextual knowledge of Carnegie’s life will be at an advantage answering those questions.
  • Strong readers will probably welcome the changes—they’ll need to worry much less that, despite their comprehension skills, they might encounter vocabulary words they don’t know on test day. Weak readers will be at a disadvantage, but, well, it’s a reading test.

Writing and Language

  • The writing is, basically, ACT writing. I know I’m not making an original observation here, but there’s just no other way to describe it.
  • In this one test, the difference between their, they’re, and there, AND the difference between its and it’s are both tested.
  • There’s punctuation, too. Students will love that. </sarcasm>
  • Something I unsarcastically do love is an emphasis on clear, concise prose over both colloquialisms and awkward usage of fancy words. In one question, a student must choose between “prosaic directives,” “simple directions,”  “bare-bones how-tos,” and “facile protocols.” I am fully on board with discouraging people from using phrases like “prosaic directives” and “facile protocols” whenever possible.


  • Right off the bat, it’s obvious this test is different—more information is supplied on the first page than there used to be. Formulas for the volume of a sphere, the volume of a right cone, and the volume of a right pyramid are now provided. Also, the note that used to say that all numbers on the test are real numbers now says: “All variables and expressions used represent real numbers unless otherwise indicated.” This sample PSAT contains no spheres, cones, pyramids, or imaginary numbers, but they’re fair game now.
  • It’s probably too early to say this, but the answer choices seem less intentionally devious. On one question, I rescued myself from forgetting a negative sign because the answer I arrived at wasn’t a choice. Phew! The old SAT might not have been so kind.
  • The “Heart of Algebra” questions that come early in the section are kinda fun, if you know what you’re doing.
  • With the exception of one basic trigonometry question, a question about graphing inequalities, and the last two question about shooting an arrow in the air (more on that later), pretty much everything in this test felt like it could have been fair game on the last test. This surprised me a bit, but it probably shouldn’t have. I didn’t start working in test prep until a year after the last big change in 2005, but I’m told that the same thing happened—early promises of a revolution were greatly exaggerated. Then again, it’s early yet.
  • My friend Akil worries that the calculator allowed/no calculator allowed sections will result in unfairness, or at the very least confusion; I agree with him to an extent. However, I liked that I was forced to solve some questions by hand that I normally would have turned to my calculator for. It’s good to work out unused muscles.
  • There are still only 8 grid-in questions, but now they’re split among the two math sections—4 in the no calculator section, and 4 in the calculator allowed section.
  • It’s possible that there isn’t a stronger emphasis on the advanced topics showcased in previous question releases because this is a PSAT and they’re actually going to start saving the tough stuff for the SAT. We’ll have to wait and see on that one.
  • The last two grid-ins come as a pair—two questions about the same mathematical scenario. In earlier released questions, we were shown questions about a traveler dealing with exchange rates and bank fees—pretty tough stuff. Here, we’re dealing with an arrow being shot from the ground, which is tough stuff if you haven’t taken physics yet, but pretty standard if you have. What was interesting to me about the questions, though, was the amount of information provided that you don’t need at all. You are given 3 equations, and you need only one of them—the same one—to answer both questions. The old SAT wouldn’t have done that. We’ll have to keep an eye on how often the new one will.

Holy cow, I rambled on for a good long while. If you’ve got the stomach to sit down with the test, I’m very curious to hear what you think. Please, make liberal use of the comments section on this post. 🙂

I have a lot to say about  the new SAT’s essay; I might not end up being able to squeeze it all into one post, but I’m going to try. In order to give this post a bit of structure—both to help me organize my thoughts and to help you find what you’re looking for—I’m going to break this post into three sections: what we know (including the basic structure of the task), what we don’t, and what I think. If you’re interested in this stuff and you haven’t already, you might want to download the College Board’s Test Specifications for the Redesigned SAT. I’ll be referring to page numbers from that document once in a while.

What we know

The new SAT’s essay will look very different from the current SAT’s essay. Here’s what the new prompt will be for every test administration (from page 76):


This is a major departure. Although the prompts on the current test do contain some of the same instructional text every time (“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.”) the task varies significantly from test to test.

The actual passage students will write on a 650-750 word passage that will be generally characterizable as an “argument written for a broad audience.” In the Test Specifications document, two example passages are given—one concerning a decline in reading among America’s young people (page 77), and one concerning light pollution (page 122). Both strike me as passages that could very easily appear on the current SAT in a Critical Reading section.

The most interesting thing here, to me, is that the author’s main claim is given to students in the question, and students are specifically instructed to set their own opinions aside.

The other big headlines about the new SAT’s essay are that it will be optional, and that students will get 50 minutes to complete the task. I’m sure I’m not the first person to have told you either of those things. 

What we don’t know

So, we know a fair amount of things! But we don’t know everything. As I was reading through the Test Specifications for the Essay, I jotted down some as-yet-unanswered questions.


test_specifications_for_the_redesigned_sat_na3_pdf 2

It’s not clear yet how the new essay will be scored. The College Board candidly admits that it’s still trying to figure out how to evaluate the thing. As it stands right now, each essay will be evaluated by two readers who will each rate the essays on a 1–4 scale for each of three broad essay traits: Reading, Analysis, and Writing (see screencap above from page 82). There’s no rubric yet, and honestly I don’t feel like it’d be productive for me to speculate much about how this will evolve. I’m in wait-and-see mode on this one. (For my take on the general scoring scheme of the new SAT, which might be summed up as o_O, click here.)


The College Board has been very specific about how long students will have to write the essay, and even a the word count of the passage prompt, but has not specified whether students will be limited in the amount of writing they can produce. The current SAT essay allows students two hand-written pages for 25 minutes. Will the new one double that?

Computer vs. paper

It’s also worth pointing out here that although David Coleman announced that students would be able to take the new SAT on a computer in 2016 in his big announcement back in March, there’s not a single mention of that anywhere in the 211 pages of Test Specifications released last week. I know a lot of students who are pretty fast typists. How will the ability to type impact essay length restrictions? Will there even be length restrictions for computer testers?

Maybe more importantly, how can handwritten essays be evaluated on the same criteria as typed essays? When you think about who will be more likely to take the test on a computer—students at schools that can afford to provide computers for every student taking the test— it’s easy to see how this might work counter to the College Board’s goal of “delivering opportunity.”

What a good essay looks like

test_specifications_for_the_redesigned_sat_na3_pdf 3The College Board has quite notably not released an example of what would be considered a strong essay. It does provide annotations of the two sample prompt passages (example on right, from page 81), but those read much more like the notes of someone about to write a set of Critical Reading questions about the passage than they do like an outline.

The prompt specifically instructs students not to write about whether they agree or disagree with the prompt, but the scoring guidelines as they stand do require students to “provide a precise central claim.” For now, I’m assuming that means that good essays will begin with sentences like, “Dana Gioia combines emotional appeals with concrete and authoritative data to argue that the decline of reading in America will have a negative effect on society.”

When we finally see some exemplary essays (Ideally in two sets—one of good handwritten essays and one of good typed essays) we’ll know a lot more.

Who’s going to care

Huge question mark here. At least at first, there will probably be a lot of colleges who don’t care, which will mean many students will be able to take a 3-hour multiple choice test, and then go home without slogging through the 50-minute essay. This might compel students to a bit more proactive in compiling their college list before they do much testing.

Competitive students who don’t know which schools they’re going to apply to will probably have to take the SAT essay just in case they choose to apply to schools that require it later. I’m betting that at least a few of the most competitive schools will be on board right away. The Dean of Admissions at Harvard seems to like the new SAT, for example, so students with Harvard aspirations should probably plan to take the essay.

What I think

The College Board set out to address the weaknesses of the current SAT essay, and has successfully neutralized a couple of them. First, students will no longer be able to fabricate examples about their uncle George to support their argument—truth will matter in the new SAT’s essay. I’m super psyched about that. One of the only truly tiresome parts of the otherwise super-fun job of being an SAT tutor is when a student says “my friend says he just made all his examples up and he got a 12 so why aren’t you telling me to do that?” I’ll be very glad to stop having that conversation.

Second, a major, and valid, complaint about the current SAT’s essay is that it doesn’t really tell colleges anything worth knowing about a student. There is certainly some skill involved in writing a coherent essay on a prompt you’ve just been given that you might not have ever thought about before, but that skill isn’t really required for serious college work—written assignments in college will afford students plenty of time to research and form well-reasoned positions. In forcing students to leave their opinions at the door and analyze how an author makes his or her argument, the new SAT’s essay task serves as a better proxy for college preparedness. I do, however, pity whoever gets hired to read these things. They’re going to be super boring.

The other major complaint about the current SAT’s essay, that length is so highly correlated with scores, will probably still hold. Frankly, that’s fine by me. Good essays aren’t better because they’re longer, they’re longer because they’re better. For the most part, students who have more to say write longer essays.

I obviously think the whole new SAT will be susceptible to prep just like any other standardized test, but I think the new SAT’s essay might be the most “preppable” thing on there. Further, I’m pretty sure that’s intentional. Look at this quote from page 76:

test_specifications_for_the_redesigned_sat_na3_pdf 4

What do you make of that?

As for what prep’s going to look like, here’s my best guess: students will go through the prompt and annotate it with a few shorthand codes: “AS” for evidence from authoritative source, “F” for well-known fact, “E” for emotional appeal, “W” for stylistic word choice, etc. That’ll give them a picture of which common devices the author uses to make his point. Then students will write a quick intro (“Dana Gioia combines emotional appeals with concrete and authoritative data to argue that the decline of reading in America will have a negative effect on society.”), and devote a paragraph to each important device and how it furthered the author’s argument.

It’s going to be a boring 50 minutes, writing this essay. But students who learn to do it will will very possibly also learn to better, more careful readers.

PWN the SAT: Essay Guide is available now in two formats:

Note that you don’t need an actual Kindle device to read the Kindle version—there are Kindle apps for iOS and Android devices, and Kindle books can also be read right on your web browser.

About the Essay Guide

Before I explain what this book is, I’d like to say a bit about what it’s not.

  • It does not contain pre-written templates for you to memorize
  • It does not spend pages and pages summarizing historical events and book plots (Wikipedia does that for free)
  • It does not promise you a perfect essay score if you make up evidence, or fill 2 pages, or use every big word you know, etc.

What I’ve tried to do with this book is help you to develop skills that will make you a better and more reliable producer of SAT essays, and persuasive essays in general. I do this by focusing on the five factors that the official SAT essay scoring rubric focuses on:

  1. Development and support of point of view
  2. Organization and focus
  3. Grammar, usage, and mechanics
  4. Variety of sentence structure
  5. Use of vocabulary

It’s important to think about all five of these factors at once because all five will contribute to your score, so I’ve created the Essay Star to help you think through your own strengths and weaknesses, and identify opportunities for growth.

The Essay Star

One reason I like the Essay Star is that it shows how two very different essays can end up getting the same score. The first star above represents an essay that’s strong on some factors, and not so strong on others. The second one is much more even all the way through. Both get 8s.

I also like that it shows how hard it is to get a top score: if you want a 12, you’ll need ALL FIVE POINTS of your star to be full. If your essay is devoid of a point of view, pumping it full of arcane vocabulary isn’t going to get you a 12.

Anyway, I devote a section of the book to helping you address each point on the star.

Actually writing the essay

Of course, an understanding of what’s expected of you from a scoring perspective will not, on its own, deliver you the essay score of your dreams. You also need to know how to think through a prompt, plan, and write your essay in 25 minutes. Here’s a hint: good planning take a little bit of time, but pays off.

Book owner’s privileges

Being able to write a good essay requires practice and useful feedback. Obviously, you can practice on your own, but you probably aren’t the best judge of your own writing, so the feedback bit is a little trickier.

This is a work in progress and I’m open to your feedback as it evolves, but I’ve created a password-protected Tumblr blog where book owners can have a practice essay graded by me (in the form of an Essay Star, of course) and commented on by other book owners. The password is the 4th word on the top of page 27 in the Essay Guide. (Kindle owners, forward a copy of your Amazon receipt to mike[at] and I will respond with the password.)

My Essay Guide is now available as a Kindle book. It’s about 100 pages long, and contains a bunch of the essay advice I’ve posted to this site over the years, plus a bunch of other stuff that I’d never really written down before I decided to write this book. It’s aimed at helping you become a better writer of SAT essays, obviously, but I think a lot of the advice inside will also help you become more adept as a writer in general. I’m selling it for $4.99.

Here’s what you’ll find inside
  • How the essay is scored and how that should inform your writing
  • A step-by-step process for picking a position, outlining, and writing your essay
  • The DOs and DON’Ts of essay writing
  • How it all comes together via critiques of sample essays written by real students
Here’s what you won’t find

I don’t believe in the template memorization technique espoused by a lot of other people in this business. In my experience, it leads to awkward, jerky prose, and anyone who’s read more than a few SAT essays can sniff out a pre-written template in about two seconds. So I don’t do that.

Why Kindle?

Currently, there’s no paper version. I’m not sure if there ever will be, although I’m not totally opposed to the idea. The reason it’s only digital for now, honestly, is that I want it to be affordable, but I also want it to be in color. Printing in color is prohibitively expensive. I can sell the book digitally for less than it would cost me just to print, let alone ship, a paper version.

Aside from cost, there were some other compelling reasons to release the book this way:

  • Kindle books have a built-in dictionary function. I’ve been conscientious in using a bunch of good vocabulary throughout the book, and used bold type for words you should learn as a gentle reminder to look them up if you don’t already know them. Just highlight the word and Kindle tells you its definition. Nice.
  • I can include links in a digital book. So when I mention something you might want to consider using as evidence in your own essay, I can link you to a Wikipedia article for further reading. When I mention a College Board policy that surprises you, I can link you right to the page on the CB site where it’s spelled out.
  • Kindle has a neat lending feature. I like the idea of you being able to let a friend borrow the book.

A bunch of people have asked me how they can read the book if they don’t have a Kindle. The reason I went with Kindle is that you can read a Kindle book on pretty much any device, from your iPhone to your desktop PC. If you’re able to read this blog post, you’re able to read a Kindle book.


A bunch of you were cool enough to write essays for me to critique in this book. Even if I didn’t end up using your essay, I’m incredibly grateful for your help. I couldn’t have put this together without you.

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


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.

I find myself giving this bit of quick advice to students all the time, but realized today that I’d never written it down for y’all.

You might not have time for this, and that’s OK, but if you finish your essay early, there are a few productive things you can do that don’t involve wholesale changes (which are not realistically advisable given the fact that you’re writing in pencil). The minute you write the last period on your conclusion, go back to the beginning and scour your essay for two things:

  1. Grammar errors (especially in the introduction, where they’ll really make a bad first impression)
  2. Opportunities to erase one word and replace it with a better vocabulary word

You’ll never know for sure, of course, but the tiny changes you make here might improve how your Essay Star looks on 2 of its 5 points, and therefore might tip the scales in your favor if a grader is on the fence about your score.

[With the 2nd edition of the Math Guide all done, I’m again turning my attention to my Essay Guide, which I’ve been quietly working on for some time. It’s really starting to take shape now, but I need sample essays to fill it out. If you’re interested in writing some practice essays for me, in exchange for scores, commentary, and access to the Beta, fill out this form.]
© Copyright C P Smith and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence.

My grad school semester is winding down, and I’m starting to think about all the fun Essay Guide work I’m going to be doing the minute I had in my last paper. To that end, I wanted to invite you to write an essay in response to the prompt below. If you do, I’ll grant you access to the Essay Guide Beta, and I might choose to use your essay in the book. Details below.

Physically, morally, and emotionally we are woven into the web of life with old-growth redwoods and rainforests and dying lakes and polluted rivers. We need them, not simply as a matter of intelligent resource management, but for the good of our souls. The same toxins that kill them run in our blood, the ugliness of their suffering afflicts our eye, for all we know images of their dire fate haunt our dreams. And surely children who grow into life without knowing wild nature will be less than fully human.

Adapted from Theodore Roszak, “Sanity, the psyche, and the spotted owl”

Assignment: Does one’s emotional well-being partially depend on one’s environment? 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.

The details

I’m looking for clear, concise writing in SAT essay format. Which means I need to be able to believe that what you submit could fit on 2 pages, hand-written, and that you did it in 25 minutes. I will score the first 10 submissions I get and I will dissect some in great detail in my Essay Guide. To gain access to the guide, submit your essay as a comment below. Once you’ve done that, use this form to tell me your GMail address, ignoring all the bits about Facebook (that’s for a different contest). For more details on why you need a GMail address, read up on the Beta here. Please note: By entering this contest, you are giving me permission to reprint and comment on your essay in a book that I might sell someday. I will not use your name.. In exchange for this, I am giving you early access to that book as I draft it. If that doesn’t sound like a good deal to you, do not enter this contest.

I’ve been very slowly working on an Essay Guide. So frustratingly slowly.

The plan is for it to be an ebook (and maybe, if people really like it, a print book at some point). And it’s still very far from being done, but it’s getting to a point where I think it’s not a waste of time for you to read what I’ve got, and I’d like to start getting a bit of feedback. So I want to start a Beta program for it, just like I did for the Math Guide when I first started working on it.

This time, though, I’m not going to sell access. You can only get into the Essay Guide Beta if you have a Math Guide, or if you write me an essay that I might choose to include (and pick apart) in the Essay Guide.

If you have a Math Guide and want access to the Essay Guide Beta right now, here’s what you can to do:

  1. The Beta will take place on Google Drive, so you need to make a Google Account if you don’t already have one. If you have a Gmail address, you already have a Google Account.
  2. Take a picture of yourself with your Math Guide.
  3. Post it to the PWN the SAT Facebook timeline.
  4. Submit your Facebook username and Google Account username to me using this form.
  5. You’ll hear from me about access within 24 hours.

If you’d like to gain access to the Essay Guide by simply writing an essay, fill out this form.

This is a bit of a cliche, but you really should hold your reader’s hand and guide him through your essay. Avoid reader whiplash at all costs—your grader should never have to pause to wonder how he got to where he is, because you should be there at every juncture, reminding him exactly how he got there. Each sentence should flow neatly from the sentence before, and into the sentence after. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence, and stick to points relevant to that topic sentence.

You accomplish this by being sedulous about organizing your essay. Outline carefully before you write, jotting down the topic (and maybe the topic sentence) of every body paragraph. And then, as best you can, stick to that outline. If you come up with a brilliant idea for your second paragraph while you’re still working on your first one, it’s OK to deviate from the plan, but if you’re making up your argument as you go, your grader will be able to tell, and you’ll pay for it with a less than stellar score.

If you want your essay to have good organization and focus, you need to tell your reader what you’re going to say, say it, and once in a while remind her that you said what you told her you’d say.


Below you’ll find body paragraphs from the same essays whose introductory paragraphs were in this post. Note how the first writer fails to remain laser-focused on furthering his argument and inserts details that don’t really help his cause. This gives the reader the impression that, at best, the writer is a bit confused, and at worst, the writer is desperately trying to fill space. Contrast that scattershot prose with the output of the second writer, who diligently reminds his reader at the beginning and end of each paragraph that the reason he is writing about lying brothers and dead presidents is that they are germane to the topic of the value of truthfulness, and then inserts enough details to give his examples context, but not so many that his point is muddled.

Bad: After leading the Americans to victory in the Revolutionary War, George Washington became the first President of the United States. Most people have heard the story of when he was a boy and chopped down an important cherry tree. His father was very angry about the tree’s demise, and asked young George who did it. George told his father that he could not tell a lie, and his father forgave him. This story is famous because it shows how it is never OK to lie. George Washington, America’s first and best president, always told the truth.

My brother got in a lot of trouble with my Mom last weekend when he lied about where he was going on Saturday night. He told her he was going to be sleeping at a friend’s house, but really he went to a concert 45 minutes away. She caught him because she opened his duffel bag the next morning and the clothes he was wearing smelled like smoke and there was a ticket stub in his pocket. She does not like rock music (she calls it devil music) and was really mad. She took away his phone, and he had to come right home after school all week and can not leave the house this weekend.

Good: One indicator of the value people place on honesty is that of George Washington. Legend has it that long before his heroism in the Revolutionary War or his inauguration as the first President of the United States, the young George Washington was honored for his adherence to the truth. He had chopped down a cherry tree for sport, the story goes, not realizing that his actions would anger his father. When the elder Washington discovered the downed tree and demanded to know who had perpetrated the crime, young George stepped forward and said “Father, I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.” That this myth persists, even though these events almost surely did not transpire, speaks to the value our society places on honesty. Teachers and parents, in recounting this story, are making an effort to encourage children to be truthful, even when lying would be easier. Therefore, the child who learns this lesson well and lives by a code of honesty will be more likely to earn society’s respect.

My brother Gerald, unfortunately, could use a refresher on the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. He recently found himself in hot water as a result of his dishonesty. Although our mother forbade him from attending a rock concert 45 miles from our home, he decided to attend the concert anyway and simply tell our mother that he was sleeping at his friend’s house that night. When my mother discovered his deception, she told him that she was more disappointed than angry (and she was pretty angry). She had trusted him implicitly, and he had betrayed that trust. His immediate punishment was a temporarily restricted social calendar, but my mother made it clear that the lasting impact of his actions would be that he would have to earn back her trust. As it is in the society in which we live, truthfulness is valued in my family. My mother’s disappointment at Gerald’s dishonesty and his appointed task of earning back her trust are further evidence that those who are honest will be better respected.


What you should take away from this post:

  • You don’t have to use examples that support your point directly
  • You can also use reverse examples to support your point indirectly


  • Let’s say the point you want to make is that teens to need make their own decisions and face the consequences to become more mature
  • (Direct example) Teen makes own decision to go out with friends instead of studying, resulting in a poor grade. He learned to make the right choice the next year and earned an A, demonstrating his increased maturity.
  • (Reverse example) Teen was forced by parents to study instead of going out with friends. He earned an A on final, so the next year, parents thought the teen knew how to balance his life and let him make his own decision. He decided to go party and got a C on the next final because he was never given the chance before to learn from his mistakes and mature.

Examples don’t have to support your point directly. If you can provide an example that addresses the flip side, that’s just as good.

For instance, let’s say you want to argue that letting teens make their own decisions and face the consequences creates more mature young adults. To directly support this point/argument, your example might be a time when your parents allowed you to decide if you wanted to go on an overnight camping trip with your friends or study for your Chem final. You decided to go camping, which resulted in a C on your final because you didn’t study enough. The next year during your Bio final, you were again faced with a similar decision: go out with friends or stay home and study. This time, you stayed home to study and earned an A, clearly growing from your past experiences.

But I could support the same argument with what I call a reverse example. Rather than supporting your thesis directly, you’d be doing so indirectly. I might use an example where my parents DIDN’T let me make my own decision about camping or studying. As long as the outcome of your (reverse) example supports your thesis, you’re good. They made the choice for me and forced me to study. The next year, my parents believed I had learned how to balance work and play, so they let me make my own decision. Yet because I never had the chance to make my own decisions before or to learn from my own mistakes, I decided to go out partying with friends. Consequently, I earned a C. This shows what happens when adults DON’T let teens make their own decisions. This shows that teens will NOT grow to become mature adults. Basically, you’re just addressing the reverse side to argue the same point.


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

SAT essay assignments require you to take a position and support it using “reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.” In other words, you don’t just have to say what you believe, you need to try to persuade your reader to agree with you, or at the very least convince him or her that you have good reasons for believing what you do.

You accomplish this by crafting a well-formed argument, and not trying to overstep the scope of the assignment. That means you establish a number of premises, and tie them together logically to build towards your conclusion. Remember that, because of the murkiness of the topics essay assignments usually cover, you’re not usually going to be able to craft ironclad proofs of universal truths. Be conscious of the strength of your premises, and make sure you draw an appropriately qualified conclusion.

Resist the temptation to make your argument seem stronger than it is with words like “always,” “definitely,” “completely,” “never,” etc. Far from bolstering the strength of your essay, these extremes have a deleterious effect. They make it seem as though you don’t have enough faith in your argument to let it stand on its own without these crutches—they call attention to your argument’s weaknesses.
Instead, own up to the fact that you are limited by the time you have to write the essay and the scope of the prompt, and make a solid case for your position based on a few pieces of evidence. A nuanced, narrow argument will trump a failed attempt at incontrovertible truth every time.

Please note that I am not encouraging you to take both sides of an argument here. I’ve seen a few people do so effectively, but I don’t really think there’s time or space for that on the SAT essay, so I don’t advise it. You need to take a position. I’m just saying it should be a thoughtful one.


Below you’ll find two example paragraphs. Note how easily a contrarian could refute the first thesis, and how much more difficult it would be to do so to the second thesis. Note also that historical accuracy isn’t all that important on the SAT, so while the second essay might turn heads with its use of apocryphal, the first essay would not suffer from failing to mention that the story about the cherry tree is of dubious veracity.

Bad: Lying is always wrong, and examples that prove this can easily be found in history, literature, and my own life. When George Washington was a boy and cut down a cherry tree, he told the truth about it and later became the first President of the United States. When my older brother lied to our mother about where he was going last Saturday night, and then got caught, he got grounded for a week.

Good: Although there are occasions in which it might be advisable to lie, those who make the truth a priority are more likely to earn the admiration of their peers. George Washington, the first President of the United States, was so admired for his honesty that the apocryphal story of the cherry tree is one of America’s most well-known folktales. In contrast, my older brother disappointed my mother last weekend when he failed to tell the truth about his plans.

This is Part 5 of a multi-part series on how to write a stellar SAT essay. Check out the other parts here: [part 1part 2part 3, part 4]

Things You’ll Learn From This Post:

  • Paragraph 3 is identical to Paragraph 2 w/ one exception (transition)
  • There needs to be transition between paragraphs
  • “Like” and “Addition” transitions
  • Transitions are still topic sentences, so relate them back to your thesis

We’re onto Paragraph 3 now. It’s exactly the same as Paragraph 2 with one exception. You still start with a topic sentence, but because this is your second example paragraph, you need to seamlessly transition between the end of Paragraph 2 and the beginning of Paragraph 3.

Something as simple as “Another situation where…” or “(Your example) is another event that (supports your thesis)” are okay. They are better than no transition at all.

But we’re not happy with “okay” around these parts. We want things to be spectacular!

There are many ways to transition, but here are a couple tried and true favorites. No need to get fancy, just enough to show you can transition. Abrupt changes are bad. Smooth is good, like Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal.

The “Like” Transition (moving between the same aspect of your thesis):
Let’s say you’re writing on the power of words to move people to great action. The first example you give is King George VI giving a powerful and rousing speech that inspired the English people to be brave and fight in World War I. The second example you give is simply another example of how someone used words to inspire action. For example, maybe the president of a club at your school gave a speech that made everyone pitch in. You are talking about the same aspect of your thesis – that words have the power to move people to action. In these situations, use the “like” transition.

e.g. “In the same way that King George VI’s speech riled a nation to arms, the president of my school’s community outreach club used passionate and deliberate words to inspire our club to fundraise over $5,000 for the homeless orphans of L.A.”

Remember, the transition is also a topic sentence. That means it needs to relate back to your thesis, so go ahead and give your thesis a nod. I did that above with “[someone] used passionate and deliberate words to inspire…[action].” Because, remember? I’m trying to argue in my essay that words are powerful and can get people to do something.

The “Addition” Transition (moving between different aspects of your thesis):
Let’s say one of your body paragraphs talks about how spending time in nature is important because it helps people observe phenomenon they would not otherwise pay attention to, which can lead to great discoveries about our universe. To support this point, you brought up the example of Isaac Newton and his observation of gravity as an apple fell and hit his head.

Let’s say your next paragraph has nothing to do with the importance of taking time to observe things in nature. Instead, you want to bring up a completely new aspect about the importance of nature, like how it gives people an opportunity for philosophical reflection and to work through life’s issues without violently punching through a wall like my roommate did in college. Weird guy. Don’t be like him. If only this guy, let’s call him Jimmy, had spent some time outdoors instead of cooped up at the library or lab studying all the time…maybe he could have prevented this explosion. He could have gotten in touch with his emotions and realized he was being irrational.

Here’s one way to transition between these two unrelated examples:

e.g. “Beyond giving people pause for observation, which has led to some of the universe’s greatest discoveries, spending time in nature also allows people to work through emotional issues, reflect, and gain perspective, which can reduce anger and adverse consequences.”

These two types of transitions (“like” and “addition” transitions) should serve 99% of you writers, so use them when appropriate.

Do not, I repeat DO NOT, spend too much time fretting over transitions. Throw something in and leave it. Even if it doesn’t sound perfect or how you want to word it, leave it. You have more important matters to tend to than worry about a transition (like deep analysis). The fact that you have a transition is enough. Remember, SAT graders are not looking for perfection in 25 minutes, only evidence that you know there should be a transition.

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

This is Part 4 of a multi-part essay series. Check out those other parts first, if you haven’t already.
[part 1, part 2, part 3]

Deep analysis avoids claim and summary as much as possible. If you make a claim, you back it up with examples and reasoning. If you give a summary, you also explain the purpose of telling us that summary.

If you make a claim, then you have to tell us why you believe that, then you have to tell us so what if it’s true (in other words, why should we care?) If you make a summary, you have to tell us the purpose or role of that summary in your overall argument.

One of the telltale signs of weak writing is the repetition of the same claim in different words. Take, for example, an essay trying to argue for placing stricter regulations on factory pollution output to save our planet.

This weak writer might say something like:

Pollution is bad. Not only does it hinder our breathing, but it also hurts the world. We will not have a place for our children at the current rate of pollution, so pollution is a serious concern. We must pass laws to ensure that factories, cars, and other pollutant-producing agents do not continue to harm our planet. If we stop pollution, then we can have a clean, safe earth to enjoy. 

Think long and hard about what that paragraph actually said. In a nutshell, it told us in no less than five ways that pollution is bad and that we need to stop it. Every sentence is a claim. Not once did this writer explain WHY he feels pollution is bad or HOW it is hurting our world.

Sure, he claims that we will not have a place for our children with such high levels of pollution, but did he explain why not? No. He expects the reader to make the connection himself that pollution leads to ecosystem death which leads to an impoverished earth with little natural resources left for our children. This writer completely omitted that crucial link, that critical middle step that connects his claim to true analysis.

He is betting on his readers already agreeing with him that pollution is damaging the world, so he is in effect, singing to the choir. But what happens if his reader is the pro-factory businessman who argues that if we stop pollution, then you can kiss your iPhones and fancy laptops goodbye? Maybe the truth is we need some pollution in order to advance our world technologically.

Here’s how I would go about fixing things:

Pollution is a serious concern to the future well-being of our planet because pollution is throwing our ecosystem out of balance. As factories pump out millions of pounds of toxic gases each year, the natural protective ozone lining in our atmosphere has eroded, which allows damaging radiation waves to infiltrate our world. While the radiation may feel subtle and slow, just looking at the last ten years will reveal a much different story. In South America, the radiation caused as a direct result of pollution has killed off thousands of acres of natural forests. Without sustainable vegetation for the herbivores to consume, the population of these animals has dwindled tremendously. As a result of these diminished numbers, the carnivores are also left scrambling for food (the herbivores). Ultimately, pollution has caused many forms of life that depend upon one another to die out.

Furthermore, pollution has adversely impacted natural processes that living organisms need to survive. Normally, plants are able to convert sun energy into energy for themselves to grow, but the increased radiation has actually stopped photosynthesis from occurring altogether in some species of plants. This leads to widespread plant death, which not only affects the plants, but also the animals that depend on them. Not only this, but the loss of such tremendous amounts of plants means there are fewer plants to filter out the toxic CO2 gases that animals breathe out. There are also fewer plants to give off life-sustaining oxygen. Clearly, pollution creates a long chain effect of damage, so we must place safeguards in place to curb such damage to our world.

Notice the difference here. I actually explain HOW pollution damages our world by describing how pollution ripped a hole in the ozone layer, which allowed radiation to enter our atmosphere, which in turn destroyed vegetation and animals. I explain that because of pollution, the entire ecosystem has lost its balance. I even describe how radiation caused by pollution stops photosynthesis from happening, but I didn’t stop there. Because so what if photosynthesis stops? I actually take it all the way home by saying that photosynthesis failure means the death of animals, loss of CO2 filters, and decrease of oxygen production. Only after all of that do I make a final summary claim, but even this final summary claim explains HOW pollution hurts us (it creates a long chain effect of damage).

Deep analysis follows a simple structure:
   Claim  How/Why?        →        So What/Who Cares?
 Summary         →          So What/Who Cares?

  • Claim: Pollution is bad.
  • How/Why (is it bad?): It created hole in ozone layer, which allowed radiation to enter and kill off plants, which killed off animals. Radiation caused by pollution also hindered photosynthesis, which stopped CO2/O2 exchange.
  • So What/Who Cares?: So if we don’t stop pollution, our world is going to crap.

Remember, the summary is where you simply describe what happened. A summary does not tell us why this detail or event is important. Therefore, you MUST tell us the reason you wanted us to know about this detail or event, this summary. You must tell us the role/purpose of your summary. In other words, the so what/who cares.

TRY IT OUT – Deep Analysis

Classify the following as 1) claim, 2) summary, or 3) analysis.

  1. Parents who shelter their children are doing a service by protecting these kids from harsh experiences that may permanently emotionally scar them.
  2. The most successful people in life are those who can identify and leverage the skills of others rather than those who learn to possess such skills themselves.
  3. Sharing knowledge and working as a team is more effective than working as an individual.
  4. The bee colony exhibits a remarkable team effort in which no individual bee survives alone; each bee is part of a hive mind.
  5. This hive mind allows individuals of the colony to share experiences, skills, and knowledge, thereby creating a stronger unit.
  6. Competition with rivals incentivizes people to work faster and harder.

Write your own analysis for the following claims on another sheet of paper:

  1. It is important to obey authority.
  2. Competition rather than collaboration is a more effective motivator and results producer.
  3. The journey to achieving a result is more important than the accomplishment itself.

Good luck, friends!

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

Katelyn’s 10 essay (in the comments)

Because even though you only get one score, your essay can fail or succeed along 5 axes. The above is something I’m working on to try to help people understand a little better how, even if their grammar is perfect, for example, their essay score might not improve. It may or may not factor heavily into an Essay Guide I may or may not be working on.

Because I want to see if this works and makes sense, the first 3 practice essays left in the comments on this post will be scored and represented with a similar star. My favorite of the three will receive a copy of the Math Guide. Please note that, by submitting an essay to here, you are giving me permission to take it apart and use it as an example. Criticism will likely be involved. I won’t be mean about it or anything, but still. Be forewarned. 😉

Here’s your prompt:

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.

-Gordon Gekko, Wall Street

Assignment: Can acting in one’s own self interest make the world a better place? 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.

Here are a few more star charts for the essays in the comments section.

Edgar Allen Iverson’s 10 essay.
Rajat’s 7 essay.