Posts filed under: Writing

While it’d be great if we were all consummate grammarians, you don’t need to be one to score very well on the SAT writing section. You just need to know how to spot the most commonly tested errors, and (on Sentence Improvement and Paragraph Improvement, anyway) fix them. I’ve made mention of Dangling Modifiers before in my general Sentence Improvement post, but I thought it’d be nice to devote an entire post to the little buggers since 1) they’re fairly common, 2) they’re easy to spot with a little practice, and 3) they’re easy to solve once you’ve spotted them (again, with a little practice).

Rather than try to describe exactly what a Dangling Modifier right this minute, let’s just have a look at one:

  1. Believing for the first time that she could win the race, Amy’s speed increased despite her utter exhaustion.

    1. Amy’s speed increased despite her utter exhaustion
    2. Amy found the strength to increase her speed despite her exhaustion
    3. Amy’s utter exhaustion did not stop her from speeding up
    4. her exhaustion could not stop Amy from running faster
    5. Amy increasing her speed despite being exhausted

So, first of all, what’s the modifier? A modifier sets the scene for the sentence by giving you some extra information about the subject of the sentence. In this case, it’s “Believing for the first time that she could win the race,” because it’s giving you background about Amy’s motivation for increasing her speed. A modifier often (but not always) has an -ing or an -ed word in it, and always ends with a comma. Commas are of fundamental importance in Sentence improvement for a number of reasons, one of which is that they signify modifiers. When you see a comma in a Sentence Completion question, check whether it follows a modifier.

How do you check? If the sentence fragment before the comma lends itself to a “who” or “what” question, the answer to which could be the subject of the sentence, it’s probably a modifier. In our specific case, we can ask “WHO believed for the first time that she could win the race?” the answer to which would be “Amy.”

Now here’s the awesome part: if you are able to identify a modifier before a comma, the subject must come right after the comma. If a modifier is not followed immediately by the subject, that’s a Dangling Modifier, and that’s BAD. So, who believed she could win the race? Amy. What needs to come after that comma? Amy. Not Amy’s speed, or Amy’s exhaustion. Just Amy. Cross off any choice that doesn’t begin with Amy. So you’re left choosing between (B) and (E). Note that (E) contains no main verb (and also contains the big suck: “being”), so the answer must be (B).

Here are a few more Dangling Modifier questions. Answers and explanations follow.

Don’t leave these hanging, bro.

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So, think you’ve got Dangling Modifiers all buttoned up now? The last piece of the puzzle is to be able to spot them in the wild; it’s too easy when you know each question in a drill is going to contain one. Try this 10 minute drill, which contains a few Dangling Modifiers, and a bunch of other Sentence Improvement questions. can you spot all the Dangling Modifiers?

I remember taking a short, but very hard calculus test in high school, and watching my friend hand in his test 10 minutes before time was called. I shot him the requisite stink-eye glare, and got back to work, struggling to integrate a function that was giving me absolutely no love. I don’t remember the function all these years later, nor do I even remember if I ended up integrating it successfully or not. What I remember is walking out of the room in my typical post-exam delirium being approached by my speedy friend.

“I failed,” he said, hands in pockets and staring at his feet. “I saw that last problem and it just froze me in my tracks.”


You had ten whole minutes to ruminate on that problem, and instead you turned your test in and put your head down on your desk? And now you’re lamenting your performance?

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but sympathy for people who struggle with difficult questions (that’s why I made this site — to try to be helpful), but I can’t muster any sympathy for you if you can’t muster the strength to persevere until time is called.

In fairness to my friend, some functions are impossible to integrate if you don’t know a particular rule, and unless you’re an evil genius you’re probably not going to be able to derive the rule on the fly in 10 minutes. But he still should have kept trying. Something might have come to him. The only thing that’s certain is that nothing was going to come to him with the test off his desk and his head on it instead.

Over my years doing test prep, I’ve watched countless of kids zip through an SAT section during a proctored test and then put their heads on their desks to wait for the next section to begin, especially in reading and writing sections. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those kids get through a section with 100% of the questions answered correctly. Much to my chagrin, many of them even leave difficult questions blank!

There’s no shame in getting a difficult question wrong. There is shame in giving up on yourself when there’s still time left in the section. There is shame in not catching silly mistakes that you could have caught if you had been checking your work instead of trying to catch a 5 minute nap. There is no glory in finishing early. There is only the potential for shame.

If you finish a reading section early

Pretend that you’re going to have to defend each of your answers to a room full of people, and find the relevant sections of text that support the answers you chose. If you can’t find support for the answer you chose in the passage, it’s probably not be the right answer.

If you finish a math section early

Check. Your. Work. Do problems a different way than you did the first time. If you did algebra, see if you arrive at the same answer when plugging-in. If you solved a tough question with geometry and the figure was drawn to scale, make sure your answer stands up to scrutiny by guesstimating. Perhaps most importantly, make sure you didn’t make any silly errors by misreading questions. Those mistakes sting the most.

If you finish a writing section early

Go back through and make sure you aren’t seeing errors where there’s really just complex construction. Just because you might choose to say something differently doesn’t mean the way it’s written is wrong. Do a scan to make sure you caught all the dangling modifiers and run-on sentences. Make sure you caught all the comparisons by looking for instances of possessives (Mike’s blog; Sam’s salary; the plight of the Mets fan). Look for lists that you might have missed the first time. Do all your verbs match their subjects? Do all your pronouns match their antecedents?

It ain’t over until it’s over

If you’re trying to maximize your score, there’s really no excuse for quitting on a section early. I don’t care how certain you are about your answers. I don’t care how rarely you make algebra mistakes. I don’t care how boring the passages were. You’re either working on improving your score, or you’re sitting there in the test room doing nothing. Get back to work. You’ll thank yourself when the test is finally, actually over.

I’ve done my best here to be faithful to the structure of an SAT section 10, although I’ve obviously been a bit loose with the subject matter. Since this is designed to mirror a section 10, though, you should time yourself on it. You’ll get 10 minutes to complete the last writing section on the real test, so you should give yourself 10 minutes to do this one.

Once you’re done, click the link to the answer key, which also contains brief explanations of why the wrong answers are wrong. If you’d like more of an explanation than is provided there, obviously feel free to leave a comment right here on this post.

When you’re ready to begin, click the link below. If you’d rather print this out and do it on paper, there’s a .pdf of it here. Good luck!

  1. Inside the glove compartment were legal documents, pictures, and there were a few napkins from the coffee shop, but no gloves.
    1. and there were a few napkins from the coffee shop, but no gloves.
    2. and there were a few napkins from the coffee shop, but not any gloves.
    3. and napkins from the coffee shop, no gloves were there.
    4. and napkins from the coffee shop, but no gloves.
    5. and napkins from the coffee shop, there were no gloves.
  2. Even though I have seen the movie countless times, I still laughed when the sheriff throws his mug.
    1. laughed when the sheriff throws his mug.
    2. laugh when the sheriff throws his mug.
    3. laugh when the sheriff threw his mug.
    4. laughed whenever the sheriff throws his mug.
    5. laugh when the sheriff will throw his mug.
  3. Yesterday, I fell down the stairs and then tried to act like I did so on purpose.
    1. Yesterday, I fell down the stairs and then
    2. Yesterday, I fell down the stairs, I
    3. I fell down the stairs yesterday, I
    4. After I fell down the stairs yesterday; I
    5. Falling down the stairs; I
  4. Fleeing the horde of zombies on foot, an apparently safe building became visible to the terrified couple.
    1. an apparently safe building became visible to the terrified couple.
    2. the terrified couple spotted a building that looked safe.
    3. a safe looking building was spotted by the terrified couple.
    4. the terrified couple’s luck changed when they spotted a safe looking building.
    5. their fear subsided somewhat when the terrified couple would spot a safe looking building.
  5. In many cultures, they consider fish eggs a delicacy.
    1. In many cultures, they consider fish eggs a delicacy.
    2. In many cultures, fish eggs are considered a delicacy.
    3. In many cultures, a delicacy is considered to be fish eggs.
    4. Fish eggs, a delicacy in many cultures.
    5. They consider fish eggs to be a delicacy in many cultures.
  6. The argument between Paarin and me about the dent in his car continued until the early morning.
    1. between Paarin and me about the dent in his car continued
    2. between Paarin and I about the dent in his car continued
    3. about the dent in his car continued for Paarin and I
    4. on the dent in his car between Paarin and me continued
    5. between Paarin and I on the dent in his car continued
  7. A consummate gentleman, Stefan’s etiquette and social grace was unmatched.
    1. Stefan’s etiquette and social grace was unmatched.
    2. Stefan’s etiquette and social grace were unmatched.
    3. Stefan’s etiquette as well as his social grace were unmatched.
    4. Stefan possessed unmatched etiquette and social grace.
    5. Stefan’s social grace was matched only by his etiquette.
  8. Most of my favorite movies contain slapstick humor, however physical comedy is not the only way to make me laugh.
    1. slapstick humor, however physical comedy is not
    2. slapstick humor, but physical comedy is not
    3. slapstick humor, and physical comedy is not
    4. slapstick humor; physical comedy is not
    5. slapstick humor, but it is not physical comedy that is
  9. There are many reasons to see I Heart Huckabees, Jason Schwartzman’s performance being one reason.
    1. Huckabees, Jason Schwartzman’s performance being one reason.
    2. Huckabees, Jason Schwartzman’s performance is only one of them.
    3. Huckabees; Jason Schwartzman’s performance, for one.
    4. Huckabees, the performance of Jason Schwartzman is one of them.
    5. Huckabees, including Jason Schwartzman’s performance.
  10. Lindsey knows that the reason people dislike her is because of her being a Philadelphia Phillies fan.
    1. is because of her being a
    2. is because she is a
    3. is that she is a
    4. is her being a
    5. is that of her being a
  11. A shockingly indelible moment, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out that Kurt Cobain had died.
    1. A shockingly indelible moment,
    2. A shocking, indelible moment,
    3. It was a shocking and indelible moment;
    4. Shocked and indelible,
    5. Shocking and I will never forget it,
  12. The popular SAT blogger’s website was better than his rival because of all the pretty pictures and linked vocab words.
    1. was better than his rival because of all the pretty pictures and linked vocab words.
    2. was better than that of his rival, it had more pretty pictures and linked vocab words.
    3. was better than his rival’s, but it had more pretty pictures and linked vocab words.
    4. was better than his rival’s, it had more pretty pictures and linked vocab words.
    5. was better than his rival’s because of all the pretty pictures and linked vocab words.
  13. Study the ancient fighting art of Hapkido and you will learn to avoid directly matching your strength against your opponent’s.
    1. your strength against your opponent’s.
    2. yours against your opponent.
    3. your strength against your opponent.
    4. your strength with your opponent.
    5. your opponent’s strength against one’s own.
  14. Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian king who is famous for his code of 282 laws which codified in great detail his “eye for an eye” philosophy and was written in the Akkadian language.
    1. Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian king who is famous for his code of 282 laws which codified in great detail his “eye for an eye” philosophy and was written in the Akkadian language.
    2. Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian king, famous for his code of 282 laws which codified in great detail his “eye for an eye” philosophy and was written in the Akkadian language.
    3. Hammurabi, famous for his code of 282 laws and an ancient Babylonian king, his “eye for an eye” philosophy was written in the Akkadian language.
    4. A famous ancient Babylonian king, Hammurabi, is best known for his “eye for an eye” philosophy codified in his code of 282 laws and being written in the Akkadian language.
    5. Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian king who is famous for his code of 282 laws which codified in great detail his “eye for an eye” philosophy, wrote in the Akkadian language.

All done? Click here for the answer key.
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I was looking over the visitor stats for this blog last night and I was pleasantly surprised to discover a small international audience! The SAT is administered all over the world, and at least a few people have visited this site from (in order of frequency) Singapore, Hungary, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. That’s great! I’m glad you’re considering taking this test, which means of course that you’re seriously considering attending university in the US.

As I’m sure you’re finding out, the SAT is a very difficult test—even more so for those for whom English is not a native tongue. While English grammar required for the writing section can be mastered (and I assume you’ve been studying English for some time if you’re seriously considering the SAT), the reading section presents a unique set of challenges because it requires students to engage with reading passages in a very deep way: comprehending not only the content of the article, but the author’s tone and intent, which can be very subtly disguised and are often difficult even for native English speakers to pin down. It also requires a substantially larger vocabulary than you’ve probably ever needed for conversational English, in school or elsewhere.

There are no easy answers here, but I’d like to give you a few pieces of advice if you’re preparing for the SAT and you haven’t been speaking English since infancy:

  1. Vocabulary is important. As you are practicing, write down every single word you don’t know, and look it up later. And then save that list, so that you can refer to it again and again, until you’re sure you know those words. There are many free online word lists (like SparkNotes 1000) and many other books (people seem to really like Direct Hits) or sets of flash cards you can buy as well, but I can’t overstate how important it is to take responsibility for your burgeoning vocabulary by doing this simple exercise.
  2. Vocabulary is not the only thing. I’ve worked with non-native English speakers in the past who over-fixate on vocabulary. There are 19 sentence completion questions per test, and 48 passage-based reading questions. Of course, some vocabulary will help you in the passages, but you’re still doing yourself a grave disservice if the only thing you do when practicing reading is study words.
  3. The SAT is not the only place you can practice your critical reading. The best performers on the SAT reading section (native speakers or not) are voracious readers. Read everything you can get your hands on, but especially English magazines and newspapers, which contain essay-formatted content similar to what you will find on the SAT, and thus will give you valuable practice identifying main ideas, arguments, and author tone. These days, almost everything is available for free online. Here are a few sources I like: The Economist, The Atlantic, Newsweek, New York Magazine. Don’t just use my suggestions though, explore!
  4. When you practice, spend as much time going over the test as you did taking it. It’s important to understand the mistakes you’ve made. It can be daunting to miss a great deal of questions, especially for students accustomed to performing well on exams. But it’s important that you begin to recognize the patterns in your mistakes; that’s how you’re going to fix them. If you can identify a pattern (for example, you are picking choices that contradict the passage in some way) then you can start to eliminate that pattern. There are only so many different ways the SAT can ask a question, so if you can begin to categorize and eliminate your mistakes, you are on your way to a large score improvement.
  5. At the end of the day, the SAT isn’t the only path to school in the US. If you’re struggling mightily with the SAT, consider the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is accepted by tons of schools here in the States. You can download practice questions directly from the test maker here to see what it’s all about.

I am always impressed with students who didn’t grow up speaking English, and are still willing to take on the challenge that the SAT presents. Many students I know who did grow up speaking English have an incredibly hard time with the SAT!

I hope this advice is helpful. Please feel free to comment on this page if you have additional questions.

image source

It’s been over a week, and still not a day goes by that I don’t see a new article bashing The College Board for its decision to use reality TV as an essay topic. The topic caught me off guard just as it did everyone else, but I can’t justify all the hand-wringing that’s occurred in the days since.

Here’s the full text of the prompt:

Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?
Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?

I’m of the opinion that the prompt provides even television-less students enough information to opine about the benefits/harms of reality TV, regardless of whether they partake in the shows themselves.

A lot of test prep people are up in arms about the prompt because it caught them off guard, and they’re rightfully hearing from their students who felt unprepared to answer the question. That’s unfortunate for those who paid for prep that proved ineffective, but it’s not a fault of the test, whose stated goal is to assess how well a student develops a point of view, organizes an argument, and displays mastery of grammar and style.

A lot of us in the prep world encourage students to come prepared with a few “universal” examples ready to go — classic literature or historical figures, for example — and those weren’t exactly well suited for this prompt, but there’s no rule that the SAT has to use a prompt that will help students who’ve taken prep courses succeed. In fact, I’m sure the SAT writers are quite happy to be able to foil us once in a while.

This was a tough question, but it was fair. Different essay prompts are always accompanied by slightly different scoring tables for the writing section, and if this prompt really was more difficult than the others given on the March test, that difficulty will be reflected in a more lenient scoring table.

Believe me, I’m no member of The College Board’s booster club, but I just can’t bring myself to be mad at them for this one. I just have to tip my hat to them that they threw something at me that I didn’t expect, even after all these years.

UPDATE June 2015: The links in this post have been broken for some time. That’s not necessarily surprising, as I originally wrote it in early 2011. I’m leaving it up for archival purposes, but don’t bother clicking the links.

Although the College Board’s Questions of the Day do remain archived on the CB site, it’s not so easy to browse them from there. Conveniently, last year someone created a searchable archive that links directly to the College Board’s own archives. It looks like it was more of a one-time project than something that’s indefatigably maintained, but if you’re looking for some more questions written by the actual test-makers during the lead-up to test day, this is a great place to spend some time.

I find the “advanced” search to be the most useful. From there you can, for example, view all Math questions that have been answered correctly by less than 50% of respondents. That’s pretty good, quick access to some decently hard questions. Here’s a particularly brutal one that I give to my students sometimes when they get too cocky.

Anyway, here’s the link. Go nuts!


The Paragraph Improvement section accounts for only 6 questions per test, so mastering it shouldn’t be your first priority, but it should be an eventual priority. You’re going to see a lot of the same grammatical themes we’ve already discussed in Error ID and Sentence Improvement popping up again here. In fact, if you’ve got all those things down pat, there’s really not much more to think about here, excepting one very important thing.


In the Paragraph Improvement section, you’re dealing with paragraphs. Duh, right? But it’s important to remember that in a paragraph, every sentence should flow logically from the one before it and into the one after it. And every new paragraph should flow nicely from the one before it and into the one after it as well. Paragraphs should be neatly organized around a main idea. When a question begins by saying “In context,” this is what it’s talking about. You’re being asked to make the paragraph and the sentences therein flow nicely together, on top of all the grammar fixing you’ll be doing. Don’t sweat this too much, it’s easier than it sounds. Here are some common types of questions.

  1. Which sentence should be removed? The one that has the least to do with the paragraph it’s in. If a sentence caused you to pause and make sure you read it right because it seems to have come from left field, that’s the one you want to get rid of.
  2. Which sentence is best to come at the end? Two common correct answers here…both supported heavily by context. You’re looking either to summarize the author’s argument (but don’t fall for overfacile choices that say things like “To sum up…” those are there to trick you), or you’re looking to neatly wrap up the second paragraph.
  3. What should be done to this sentence? Usually, they’ll present you with a sentence here that’s grammatically incorrect due to one of the rules we’ve already discussed (commonly a run-on, but not always). Fix it just like you would a Sentence Improvement question, but pay attention to the sentences before and after to make sure you’re not creating awkwardness elsewhere.
  4. Miscellaneous Main Idea questions. These come in all shapes and sizes (sometimes they’ll come right out and ask you what the main idea is; sometimes they’ll ask you to pick a good title for the passage), but the song remains the same: pick the choice that best encapsulates the main idea of the passage.

2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 29

All the rules from Error ID still apply, but when you’re doing a Sentence Improvement question, you have to think about the following as well.

Run-On Sentences.

Since the only thing you need to know about Run-On Sentences on the SAT is that you can’t tie two independent clauses (translation: an independent clause could stand alone as a sentence) together with only a comma, you might sometimes see these called “comma splices.” There are basically 3 ways to fix them:

  • Conjunctions. And, but, or, nor, yet, so, for. NOT therefore, however, or because.
    • Bad: I went to the beach yesterday, Peter came with me.
    • Fixed: I went to the beach yesterday, and Peter came with me.
  • Semicolon. Unlike a comma, a semicolon requires an independent clause on both sides to be grammatically correct.
    • Bad: I went to the beach yesterday, the water was freezing.
    • Fixed: I went to the beach yesterday; the water was freezing.
  • Make a clause dependent. If neither of these are an option, you might just have to change the wording of whatever part of the sentence is underlined in order to fix a run-on.
    • Bad: I went to the beach yesterday, a lifeguard punched a shark in the nose!
    • Fixed: At the beach yesterday, a lifeguard punched a shark in the nose!

Dangling Modifiers.

A modifier begins a sentence by describing the subject without naming it, and ends with a comma. It will often (but not always) contain an “-ed” or “-ing” word. Basically, if the thing being described in the modifier doesn’t follow directly after the comma, the modifier is left “dangling,” and that’s grammatically unsound. You have to fix it. Some examples:

  • Bad: Because he had bet on the race, the horse disappointed Mr. Johnson a great deal.
  • Fixed: Because he had bet on the race, Mr. Johnson was greatly disappointed in the horse’s performance.
  • Bad: Excited for the concert, the auditorium shook with the noise from the crowd.
  • Fixed: Excited for the concert, the crowd made so much noise that the auditorium shook.
  • Bad: Fleeing the zombies, a safe-looking building appeared to the survivors.
  • Fixed: Fleeing the zombies, the survivors spotted a safe-looking building in the distance.

Concise Expression.

80% of the time, the correct answer in the Sentence Improvement section is either the shortest answer, or the second shortest. Longer answers can be wrong for any number of reasons, from improper use of the passive voice to redundant word choice, but the point is that if there’s nothing grammatically wrong with the shortest answer, it’s probably the right one. If you’re really stumped, then, it’s not a bad idea to Backsolve a Sentence Improvement question: start with the shortest choice, and move to the next shortest if that one doesn’t look good.

Oh, and One More Thing…

The word “being” is wrong something like 98% of the time. Again, it’s wrong for a number of different reasons (sometimes it’s a bad conjugation, sometimes it’s creating passive voice), but for whatever reason, I’ve only ever seen it in a correct choice like…once. When you see it, it’s almost definitely wrong. If you pick it, you’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’. Don’t believe me? I’m not alone in saying so.

Think you’ve got this?

Try a full section 10 drill! Give yourself 10 minutes, and see if you can nail all 14 questions.

You should be mechanical in checking every Error ID question for the following.


Start here.  If there is a verb underlined in the sentence, you need to check:

  1. Subject/Verb Agreement. The SAT’s favorite ways to trick you include:
    1. Prepositional phrases (The display case of trophies at the top of the stairs in my father’s house is very old.)
    2. Appositives (The display case, an enclosure of glass and wood in which my father showcases his many awards, is very old.)
    3. Subject after verb (Hidden in the back of the display case are my father’s high school report cards.)
    4. Compound subjects (A baseball, a bat, and a catcher’s glove were found in the player’s closet.)
  2. Verb Tense. Often multiple tenses are appropriate for a particular sentence, and even though you might be able to imagine a different tense, the one that’s used is not wrong. Make sure, however, that the SAT isn’t using the present tense to discuss an event that very clearly happened in the past (i.e. a scientific discovery made in 1880). Also, make sure the tense plays nicely with the other, non-underlined verbs in the sentence.



If the verbs are ok, you need to check all underlined pronouns.

  1. Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement. Common tricks:
    1. The use of “their” when the antecedent is singular (Every coach wants his or her team to win.)
    2. The use of non-personal pronouns for people (The book was about the lives of three teenagers, all of which whom grew up in New Orleans.)



There are two very commonly tested parallelism rules, and then some miscellaneous things that you might see once in a while.

  1. Lists. If a sentence is listing two or more things, make sure every element in the list is parallel in every way.
    1. Verb conjugations (There are two ways Rick knows to kill zombies: to shoot them in the head or to set them on fire.)
    2. Mixing nouns and verbs (My favorite things are pizza, dogs, and going hiking hikes.
    3. Preposition use (A good vocabulary will take you far in your career, your education, and in your personal life.)
  2. Comparisons. Only like things can be compared to each other. For more info on this, see this post.
    1. Possession (Even though he is only a shoe salesman, Justin’s income is higher than that of his boss because he’s also an underground street fighter on the weekends.)
  3. Miscellaneous.  Here are some other things you might see.
    1. One vs. You (Before you go skydiving, you should do thorough equipment inspections.)
    2. Neither/nor (I enjoy neither hiking nor biking.)
    3. Either/or (I’d be happy with either mini-golf or bowling)
    4. Not only/but also (My boss was happy that not only did I increase sales in my district, but I also kept my company car spic and span.)
  • You’ve got a lot of latitude in selecting your examples, but you should try to use at least one (ideally two) example that will impress your reader. That means Literature (with a capital ‘L’ like a book you read in school and can discuss in depth), a historical event or figure, or a personal event that will resonate with an ADULT reader.
    • It’s a good idea, while we’re thinking about examples, to have a few on reserve at all times. In fact, take a minute right now and jot some down that you think you can use for a variety of different prompts. Go ahead…I’ll wait.
  • Nobody’s fact-checking you.  This means you can make stuff up if you need to.  Please know, however, that although they’re going to try to ignore it, if your falsities are too blatant, you’ll distract your reader and that’s probably not going to help your score.
  • You should absolutely take 2-3 minutes before you start writing to outline your essay. EVEN IF you don’t usually do that when you write an assignment for school. Remember that you can’t easily go back to your intro once you’ve started writing paragraph 3 and add a sentence without making a huge mess of your page. Erasing is not going to be pretty, and will add stress to a section that is already stressful and short on time. A little planning in advance goes a really long way.
  • The more you write, in general, the better your score. Get into the habit of filling the two pages, if you possibly can.
  • Stay away from controversial topics if you can. Remember that you have no idea who your readers are, and although they are instructed to remain neutral to your opinions and grade you on your arguments, you don’t want to push them. Try to avoid:
    • Hotly contested social issues:
      • Immigration.
      • Abortion.
      • Gay Marriage.
      • Race relations.
    • Recent politics
      • President Obama
      • Bush vs. Gore.
      • Watergate.
      • Anything, basically, that your reader might remember from her lifetime and have a strong opinion about.
    • Religion
      • Seriously, just don’t go there. People get very emotional about religion.
  • Grammar (especially the kind of mistakes they test you on in the multiple choice parts of the test) is pretty important here. Don’t write run-ons, and don’t make pronoun agreement mistakes. One little mistake won’t kill you, but if your essay is full of them, it’ll cost you.
  • It’s OK to be a little informal here. You can use personal pronouns. In fact, it’s really difficult to write super-impersonally on a lot of the topics you might be assigned, so avoid the temptation to start saying things like “one should always plan ahead,” because once you go that way, you’re going to have to stay parallel and say “one this” and “one that” all over the place. It gets tiring, believe me. Don’t go overboard though…make sure all the words you use are real words. No “gonna” or “shoulda” or “lol.”  “A lot” is two words. Remember that.
  • Avoid cliches, and avoid the temptation to try to open your essay with some broad statement about life and the universe. Just answer the question. For example: “In life,” “In this world,” and “As humans,” are all bad ways to start an essay.
  • Good vocab is a good idea, but only if you really know how to use it.  Rule of thumb: don’t try a word out for the first time on your essay. Only use words you’ve used in conversation before and feel comfortable with. Trying to get fancy and using a word incorrectly will be deleterious to your score.

Your essay is technically worth ⅓ of your Writing score, but in practical terms it’s worth less than that. That’s because the technical range of possible scores for your essay is 0-12, but most essays fall within a range of 6-10. So all those points that would come from scores 0-6 are basically free points for you, provided you put in the minimal effort needed to score at least a 6. If you’re able to increase your score from an 8 to a 10, say, that’ll append about 40 extra points on your Writing score, assuming your multiple choice score stays the same*.

Your score is determined by two independent readers, who are educators at either the high school or university level who have been hired by The College Board. They won’t know each other’s scores, nor will they know your name. They will each assign a grade from 0-6 to your essay (based on this rubric). Those scores are added, and that’s how you get your score on the 12 point scale. If your readers disagree by more than one point (this is unusual), a third grader is called in to settle the score (not someone in third grade, a third person who will adjudicate your essay).

It’s important to state, right at the outset, that there’s no one way to write a good essay; there are many paths to a good score. However, I’ve found that the following format produces reliably good results.

Sample Essay Skeleton
  1. Intro (2-3 sentences)
    1. Sentence 1 is your thesis.  Waste no time getting to it!
    2. Sentence 2 (if you like) elaborates a bit on your thesis to make it stronger.  If you’re going to argue that hard work is necessary for success, for example, then maybe you make your second sentence something about failure stemming from lack of hard work. That way you’ve approached your argument from two different angles.
    3. In Sentence 3, mention your examples so your reader knows what’s coming.
  2. Example 1 – Your stronger example (7-10 sentences)
    1. Sentence 1 is a mini-thesis.  Basically, it introduces your example again and relates it directly to your main thesis.
    2. The rest of your sentences are a mix of relevant details (if your example is literature, for example, then you need to mention relevant plot points) and gentle reminders to your reader that these details support your thesis.  See if you can reference your thesis in some way at least twice in this paragraph.  The outline you jot down before you start writing should have at least 3 bullet points for relevant details you want to include about your example.
  3. Example 2 – Your weaker example (7-10 sentences)
    1. Sentence 1 is, again, a mini-thesis.  This one should, however, also contain some kind of transition.  Example (transition from a literary example to a personal one, on the topic of careful planning for important events): “Like the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, I was once forced to leave my home because of a giant, never-ending dust storm, so I know firsthand the value of careful planning.”
    2. The rest of this paragraph should again be a combination of relevant details and pointers back to the main thesis.  If this example is a little shorter than the last one, that’s fine, but make sure you still cram in as much specificity as possible.
  4. Conclusion (OPTIONAL, but if you decide to do one no more than 1-2 sentences)
    1. Don’t introduce any new information here, just wrap your essay up with 1-2 sentences by reminding the reader once more what your thesis is, and that both of your carefully chosen examples are strong support for that thesis.  Example: “Both Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and my family’s experience surviving a zombie apocalypse suggest that it is difficult to overstate the value of preparedness for difficult situations.”

For some more ruminations about the essay, click here.

* Increasing an essay from an 8 to a 10 is no easy task, which is why I like to focus more on the multiple choice section in general…that’s where the big points are. But I digress.