5 SAT and ACT Essay Tips You Can Use on Every Paper for the Rest of Your Life

January 13, 2016
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The SAT and ACT essays are strange birds. While most colleges don’t factor them very heavily into their admission criteria, some do, and your essay/writing scores show up right alongside your scaled scores when you’re being reviewed by admissions committees. But there are two pieces of good news:

1.  They might not be overwhelmingly important, but with just a bit of work, they’re extremely easy to write well.

2.  The best methods available for writing these essays will be useful for every piece of writing you do for the rest of your academic career.

In this quick guide, I’ll give you five tips that’ll help you to get perfect or near­ perfect SAT and ACT essay scores and boost your grades on every paper you write from here on out.

The Five All­Purpose SAT/ACT Essay Writing Habits:

Plan in advance. Every poor SAT and ACT essay I’ve seen has been a product of bad or nonexistent planning. Because of the time limits inherent in these tests, most students rush to put pen to paper, and their essays suffer as a consequence. Spending just 4­8 minutes plotting out your entire essay before you start writing will lead to a more coherent, well-­supported, and well-­structured piece. More importantly, if you realize during the planning phase that you don’t have enough to say, you can craft a new thesis or some new topic sentences ­ a much better scenario than realization the same thing 17 minutes and two pages of writing later. The same thing goes for every essay you write in school ­ for every page of your assignment, devote a minimum of five minutes plotting out your structure, topic sentences, evidence, etc. ­ the two hours you’ll spend plotting a 24­-page paper will save you countless hours down the line, and will result in a far more readable, more enjoyable essay for your teacher.

Boil down your thesis. “People are often in the habit of making promises that they cannot keep to the people in their lives that matter most to them.” Whenever I see a thesis like that, I shudder. Your thesis should be as simple, clear, and short as possible ­ you have the remainder of your entire essay to fill in the details. Wouldn’t “most people break their promises” do just as well? The same thing goes for your papers in school; aim for a thesis of no more than 7­8 words. It’ll be much easier to support, to think about, and to 

Make sure to separate your topic sentences from your proof points. Your topic sentences should be the summary of the paragraphs that follow them. They should beshort, general, and punchy. More importantly, they should introduce the evidence that supports them ­ they should not be the evidence. For instance, let’s say that your thesis is that “great men often make great sacrifices.” Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind as a fantastic example ­ but he is not your topic sentence! If you start one of your body paragraphs with this ­ “Martin Luther King Jr. went through unimaginable hardship to further the Civil Rights Movement” ­ you’ve already used up your evidence, and now your paragraph needs to prove all the sacrifices he made, which wasn’t the original point. Instead, your topic sentence should be ­ “Some of our most influential leaders led harsh, challenging lives to make the changes they wanted in the world.” Now Martin Luther King Jr. can serve as perfect proof of that topic sentence! If you’re trying to prove that yogurt is better than cheese, don’t start a paragraph with ­ “Cheese has over 3X the saturated fat of yogurt” ­ this is very specific, and serves as a proof point. Instead, your topic sentence should be ­ “yogurt is healthier than cheese” ­ now you can use the saturated fat facts to prove your topic sentence! When you’re writing any essay, make sure you keep this in mind! Evidence is not the same thing as a good topic sentence ­ evidence is there to prove the validity of your topic sentences! Speaking of which…

Make sure to include a “so what?” A great essay should have very specific, well­ordered parts. Your thesis is your main point. Your topic sentences are the general statements that back up your thesis. Your evidence is the specific proof within each body paragraph that proves that each topic sentence is true. But there’s another essential ingredient here, and one that will guarantee that all of your body paragraphs should be there in the first place: your relevance statement. A topic sentence is useless unless it serves to prove the truth of your thesis ­ and you shouldn’t count on your reader to make the connection. You should always sandwich a relevance statement in between each topic sentence and its supporting evidence. For example: “Yogurt is much healthier than cheese. When evaluating which of two foods is “best,” we must take all elements of these foods into account ­ their flavor, their versatility, and their healthiness. If a food is inherently unhealthy for us to eat, then it becomes far less desirable. Cheese is full of saturated fat, and….” One or two sentences will do ­ just provide the reader with enough information to prove that the paragraph itself actually proves the thesis! Better yet, getting into this habit will “snap you out of it” and prevent you from accidentally including topic sentences and evidence that, upon further inspection, don’t really do much to further your thesis!

Remember to address the negative. Any great argument has two parts ­ it needs to prove that your opinion is right and that the opposing opinion is wrong! Unfortunately, many students forget this when they write their essays! If you’re proving that John is a better guy than Matt, you can’t just prove how nice John is ­ you also have to prove how mean Matt is! Unless you address the opposition, your point is only half made. With that in mind, it’s essential that you devote at least 1/3rd of your body paragraphs to dismantling the opposing point. If you’re proving that all great men make sacrifices, spend a paragraph proving that most insignificant people are lazy and selfish. If you’reproving that yogurt is better than cheese, don’t just describe how great yogurt is ­ make sure you spend some time bashing cheese as well! If you devote just a bit of your essay to this purpose, you’ll enhance your overall argument every time ­ and you’ll automatically fill some space as a bonus!

Writing great essays is an essential skill, and the more time you devote to it, the better you’ll get. If you’re armed with the right strategies, and if you put them into practice in your everyday writing, you’ll automatically put them to use when you take your SAT or ACT. Be sure to keep all five of these tips in mind when you write your next essay for school ­ you might be surprised by how easy they are to implement, and by how much of a difference they make in the quality of your writing!

Anthony-James Green, founder and CEO of Green Test Prep, was recently called “America’s Top SAT Tutor” by Business Insider, and his work and insights have been featured everywhere from The New York Times and The Atlantic to CNN and FOX Business. In his career, Green has tutored over 450 students one-on-one, and thousands more through his online SAT and ACT prep program. Green lives in New York City where he works on his online prep software full-time.

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