The essay portion of the SAT is always a good idea just in case you start considering a new school later on that requires an essay score. It costs a little extra, but the stress it can help you avoid later (if you end up needing it) is well worth the upfront cost — no one wants to risk losing admission into their dream school over a missing score. Keep in mind, though, that taking the essay portion of the test means your essay score will appear on every report sent to your chosen colleges, whether or not they require it.
The format of the essay on the SAT is pretty simple: You'll have to read some form of text (often an article or speech or something similar) and from there you'll have to describe how that author or speaker makes her or his argument. Your score will essentially gauge your ability to do that effectively. This is not unlike many essays you may have already been assigned at some point in high school, so here are some adapted tricks along those lines that will set you up with a head start:
You will center your essay around different elements of the source text, so in order for that to be convincing, you will need specific examples from the given text. Drawing these from the text directly is crucial so that you can convince your reader (in this case grader) that you understand how and why the source text used those elements. The trick here is to pick out a few brief quotes from the text that you feel will support your point. You can do this either while you're reading or during your initial drafting of the response (yes, even drafting a quick outline or a few notes before you start writing will be very beneficial).
No one wants to read a messy essay, including your grader. In fact, a messy essay can directly impact your score. Do what you can to keep your handwriting as neat as possible, trying to keep any eraser marks to a minimum. If you have to erase something, at least make sure that it's done neatly enough that your writing is still clearly decipherable.
Remember that standard essay structure (an introductory paragraph, a few body paragraphs, a conclusion) you were taught well before the SAT? Now is your chance to put it to good use! It's a great way to keep your ideas in a logical format that can be easily followed. Set the stage in the introduction using general elements from the passage that will be analyzed later in your essay. Additionally, demonstrate your understanding of the source text by discussing the text's thesis, author and context. With each new idea in the body of the essay, start a new paragraph. The conclusion should bring things to a sensible close. To do that, restate your position and then very briefly summarize the elements you analyzed.
Remain focused on the central argument of the source text as you craft your essay. The graders are looking for you to connect the different rhetorical elements of the text to the thesis of the text. You are not asked for your opinion about the source text, so leave that out! Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you liked the passage or not, so it's a good practice to remove yourself as far as possible from your essay. (Avoiding the first and second person in an essay like this is a best practice I highly recommend.)
While studying for the essay portion of the SAT might seem like a gray area (you certainly won't have access to the exact passage before test day), just like in the Math or Science sections of the test, there are certain rules that, if remembered and utilized, can definitely make a difference in nailing that great score.
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