Posts tagged with: Essay

When writing an essay, is it true that the SAT doesn’t penalize if the example given contains incorrect or made-up information to support the prompt?

This is technically true, but flaunt it at your peril. Most people who find this out and then decide to just fabricate their whole essay end up doing poorly because they’re not as clever as they think they are.

SAT prompt is “Does our society value certainty more than wisdom”. I read the prompt without reading the excerpt, so I misunderstood it, which should be interpreted “People who are certain seem sure about everything and think this will help to conceal weaknesses, while wise people tend to doubt everything.” I understand “certainty” means the steady growth and stability of the society and “wisdom” is the use of wisdom to get greater benefits (power, profits), sometimes unfairly. Will I receive 0?

Look—I’ve never personally known a student who got a zero, and I’ve known lots of students who didn’t fully understand the prompt. That’s not what zeros are for.

Zeros are for essays that are clearly prefabricated and have nothing to do with the prompt. In other words, zeros are for cheaters. As long as what you wrote looks like you made an effort to respond to the prompt, even if you missed the point, you won’t get a zero.

Hello Mike,
Is it necessary to fill up the two pages on the essay in order to have a high score?

It doesn’t hurt, but it’s definitely not sufficient. Try to fill the pages, but make sure you’re filling them with worthwhile stuff. The reason longer essays get higher scores is because better writers tend to have more to say, not because there’s some secret word count that you need to hit.

Is it acceptable to use examples from fantasy novels and TV shows in my essays? Will this cause a decrease in my score?

If you’re confident in your ability to write about that stuff well, then go for it. I know a student who got a very high score with an essay about SpongeBob Squarepants.

Today I finished reading your Essay Guide (which was very helpful thank you!). I have a quick question on the body paragraphs of an essay. From my understanding, it seems as if a body paragraph for the SAT includes a mini-thesis, and details germane to the thesis follow. Now I’ve been taught that a general body paragraph structure should be topic sentence, evidence, commentary, evidence commentary. Would you say that, for an SAT essay, this structure should be ignored?

Sounds more to me like those are different ways of saying the same thing! Mini-thesis = topic sentence, etc.

Hi Mike,
I got a 10 on the October essay, which was “is it effective for leaders to compromise?” I really thought it was better than a 10, and got 1 MC wrong (770). Some of the essay is illegible due to the scanning,-even though I did erase a lot-it was readable when I proofread. Unfortunately, my whole first line, is unreadable! Should I try to get the College Board to regrade it? I’m not sure what to do/how to do it.
-Not sure how to post image of essay
Thanks for you help!

From College Board’s page on score verification:

“If you choose to have your essay score verified, the College Board will determine whether there was an error made in the scanning or processing of the essay scores assigned by essay readers. In this situation, your adjusted score is automatically reported and your fee is refunded.

IMPORTANT: The verification of essay scores does not include rereading the essay or an appeal of the essay score. The score verification fee will not be refunded for essays written in pen.”

So the question is, really, whether it’s worth $55 for you to go from almost perfect (770) to possibly higher. That depends on how much $55 means to you. 🙂

I struggle a lot with coming up with good pieces of evidence for essay prompts. Do you recommend I just research a copious amount of “could be” pieces of evidence? And what do you recommend doing if, while taking the SAT, you can not think of sufficient pieces of evidence for the prompt? I personally hate making stuff up, so when I come to a prompt that I have very little knowledge about, I usually draw a blank, and am unsure of what to do.

Yes—do some research. Also, spend some time going through the books you’ve read for school over the past couple years and writing them all down. You might find that although these things haven’t sprung to mind in the past as great examples, the act of writing this list helps you realize that you have more to draw on than you think.

Is it possible to use examples in the SAT Essay from books that I haven’t read but have gone through their summaries?

Yeah, although I wouldn’t unless I didn’t have any other examples I could use that I knew a little better. You write best when you know what you’re writing about very well.

I’ve been preparing for the SAT for some time now but I have not really practiced the SAT essay. A deadly mistake I guess 😛 What should be my practice routine if I’m giving my SAT in October?

If you’re like many students I meet, then you just skip the essay when you do a practice test. Stop doing that. You need to get used to writing roughly 2 pages in 25 minutes and having your output be somewhat coherent and mostly free of grammar and syntax errors. Almost everyone gets better at that simply by doing it a few times.

If you want to get really good at essay writing, well, then there’s a book I recommend. 🙂

PWN the SAT Essay Guide Front Cover

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.