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Ten Tips for Composing a Successful Essay for the SAT or ACT

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To gain admission to undergraduate programs in most American colleges and universities, students must take a standardized test--usually either the SAT or the ACT. And both of those tests now include a timed essay.

Composing under pressure (25 minutes for the SAT essay, 30 for the ACT) is probably not on your list of life's simple pleasures. Nonetheless, by the time you reach the testing center, you should be ready to write an effective exam essay.

According to the College Board, you're expected to do three things in an SAT essay--things that you've likely heard countless times before:

  • develop a point of view on an issue presented in an excerpt
  • support your point of view using reasoning and examples from your reading, studies, experience, or observations
  • follow the conventions of standard written English
At CollegeBoard.com, you’ll find a few Strategies for Success on the SAT Essay. Likewise, ACT offers Tips for Taking the ACT Writing Test. Both sites offer a series of sample essays with graders' comments.

Here are our own ten tips for composing an effective exam essay under pressure. But please note: we've saved the most important piece of advice for the very end.

  1. Relax.
    When faced with a time limit, you may be tempted to try composing an essay before composing yourself. Resist that temptation. Breathe in, breathe out. Before writing, take a few minutes to read and think about each question.


  2. Read the instructions.
    Make sure that you read the instructions carefully to pick up any tips regarding the expected length, content, and organization of your essay. Of course, for standardized tests such as the SAT or the ACT, you should make sure that you visit the test websites well before the day of the test so that you can read all instructions and suggestions ahead of time.


  3. Study the topic carefully.
    Read the topic several times, looking for key words that indicate how you should develop and organize your essay:
    • state: present the main points in a logical order
    • list, enumerate, trace: be brief and to the point, as if you're making an outline (but make sure that you write in complete sentences)
    • summarize, review: give a short version of the main points
    • discuss, criticize, evaluate, justify: use specific facts and examples to back up your judgments
    • show, explain: present specific points clearly and logically in step-by-step order


  4. Schedule Your Time.
    Calculate the time you have in which to write the essay, and set up a schedule. While working under a 30-minute limit, for instance, you might designate the first five minutes for discovering ideas, jotting down notes, and planning your approach; the next 20 minutes or so for writing; and the last few minutes for revising and editing. Be sure to plan a realistic schedule--one based on your own writing habits--and then stick to it.


  5. Jot down ideas.
    Trying to write an essay before you have figured out what you want to say can be a frustrating and time-wasting experience. Therefore, plan to spend a few minutes jotting down your thoughts in any fashion that works for you: freewriting, listing, brainstorming.


  6. Start with a strong first sentence.
    Don't waste time composing a long introduction, especially if you're still unsure where the essay is headed. A catchy opening sentence is fine--unless you just can't think of one. In any event, clearly state your main points in a sentence or two, and then use the rest of the essay to support and illustrate these points with specific details.


  7. Stay on track.
    As you're writing the essay, periodically reread the topic to make sure that you haven't wandered off course. Don't pad your essay with information unrelated to the topic. And don't try to bluff the examiners by repeating information using different words. Cut the clutter.


  8. Write to inform, not impress.
    Compose your essay with the goal of showing what you know, not showing off. Trust your vocabulary: don’t use "big words" if you’re unsure of their meanings. But do use specific words. And remember that lengthy sentences won’t impress anyone if your key points are unclear.


  9. Don't panic.
    If you find yourself running short on time, don't worry about crafting a lengthy conclusion. In a pinch, a simple one-sentence conclusion emphasizing your main point should do the trick. Whatever you do, don't panic and begin writing frantically: hasty work at the end could undermine the value of the rest of the essay.


  10. Edit and proofread.
    When you've finished writing, take a few deep breaths and then read over the essay, word by word: revise and edit. As you reread, you may find that you've omitted an important piece of information or that you need to move a sentence. Go ahead and make the changes--carefully. If you're writing by hand (rather than on a computer), use the margins to locate new information; use an arrow to redirect a sentence. And make sure that your corrections are clear and easy to read.

Finally, the most important bit of advice:

Practice, practice, practice.
In the months leading up to the exam, compose at least one practice essay every week. Share your work with your instructors and classmates, and rely on them for some helpful advice.

Good luck on the exam. We'll see you in college!

Next: How to Write a Passing Essay for a Standardized Test

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