How to write an effective SAT essay

Read the directions, organize and review

The SAT Essay is a simple evaluation task that can strike fear into the heart of even the most prepared student. Answering the essay can be nerve wracking, especially if you don’t understand the purpose of the essay.

The essay portion of the SAT is a tool that is designed to measure a student’s ability to:

  • Develop a point of view on a specific issue
  • Support his or her point of view using reasoning and examples from reading, studies, experience, or observations
  • Follow the conventions of standard written English

The essay gives students an opportunity to show how effectively they can develop and express ideas.

How to prepare for the essay

You won’t know what the essay question is, but you can bet it will ask you about a universal theme like honesty, honor, or courage.

Be aware of current events, both nationally and internationally. Referencing a current situation or action can score big points (just make sure you have all your facts straight).

Read and/or review a few timeless books that address a multitude of themes. A Shakespearean play can work (greed, honor, deception) as can a classic book such as The Wizard of Oz (courage, family, trust). It’s better to know a few specific examples that can be applied to a variety of themes than to try to remember different examples for different situations.

On the day of the test, make sure you bring plenty of pencils with good working erasers. Also, it helps to wear a watch. The SAT essay is a timed test; know when it starts and when it ends and allocate your time accordingly.

How to write the essay

Read the directions

Don’t make assumptions about the assignment. It’s important to read each word of the essay prompt to see if you can repeat or rephrase what you are being asked to write about.


The SAT essay is not about how creative you can be with your writing; it is about how you follow directions and how organized you present your thoughts when asked to write about a specific topic.

Take three to five minutes to outline your essay response. Many students hate to create outlines but it’s one of the most important tools you can use when crafting your response.

Remember that your outline does not need to be very complicated.

With a five-paragraph essay the outline would look something like this:

  • Introduction, main idea
  •  First supporting paragraph — (2 supporting points )
  •  Second supporting paragraph — (2 supporting points)
  •  Third supporting paragraph — (2 supporting points)
  •  Summary, conclusion

Once you’ve written the general outline, fill in your points and details. Only put down enough to remind you what you’ll be writing about. There is no need to pre-write the entire essay in your notes.

One important word about proper language: with so many teens using social media and texting written language skills have gotten lax. SAT essays are no place to use slang or acronyms or to inject your personal “voice” into the essay (OMG). SAT essays require you use full traditional English sentence structure (I know, right?). If you are finding this to be a difficult task, work with your English teacher on learning sentence structure or pick up a grammar book.


This should only take a moment or two but make sure you have used correct sentence structure. See if any words pop out as being misspelled and check that details such as proper nouns are capitalized. You won’t have too much time, but check to see if anything jumps out at you. Attention to detail will impress the graders.

Avoid writing “The End” at the end of your essay (it will be obvious to the graders and you might actually lose points) and unless asked, don’t offer your signature as a way to sign off on your work. Try to remember that it’s not about you; it’s about how you present your ideas.

How the essay is scored

According to, two graders give your SAT essay a score on a scale of one to six. You can achieve a total score of 12 (six from each grader) on the SAT essay and a low score of two (one from each grader). SAT essays that don’t answer the topic are given a score of 0.

Graders are instructed to look at your essay as a whole, judge the quality of your ideas, and how you prove your ideas, to come up with the overall score.

Other important grading considerations include:

Topic: Literature and history examples tend to help an essay score better. Examples based on personal experiences tend to score lower.

Organization: One paragraph per example or major point scores better than paragraphs with multiple examples. It also helps to keep your paragraphs on the shorter side. Five to seven sentences work much better than blocks of text that don’t have a break.

Explicitness: Tell readers what you are going to tell them in your introduction and the first sentence of each paragraph. Use the last sentence of each paragraph to remind them and the conclusion to repeat your main point. Your essay should follow the timeless presentation advice of “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.”

For more information on SAT preparation and essay prompts, go to or

Wendy E.N. Thomas teaches writing at Nashua Community College and she’s coached four of her six kids through the SAT essay.

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