In my previous post, Mastering the SAT Essay – Part 1 , we talked about the importance of planning what you’re going to write before you begin your essay.
Did you try it for yourself? If so, take out your notes and look back at them as we go through each step in the process.
We’ll use the essay question from the first practice test in the “Official SAT Study Guide, Second Edition.”
They give you this prompt:
“Sometimes it is necessary to challenge what people in authority claim to be true. Although some respect for authority is, no doubt, necessary in order for any group or organization to function, questioning the people in charge- even if they are experts or leaders in their fields- makes us better thinkers. It forces all concerned to defend old ideas and decisions and to consider new ones. Sometimes it can even correct old errors in thought and put an end to wrong actions.”
Then they give you this question:
“Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in authority?”
Step 1 – Decide whether you agree or disagree
I am going to agree. I personally believe that’s it’s important to question the ideas and decisions of people in authority. Because I believe it, I’ll have an easier time making my case.
Step 2 – Brainstorm examples that can help you prove your point
I think of brainstorming as using a flashlight to look for your keys in a dark room.
If you’re waving your flashlight all over the place, it’s going to take you longer to find your keys than it would if you had a plan for where to look. You wouldn’t waste your time shining your flashlight on the wall or the ceiling. You want to be systematic and narrow your focus.
It says on the SAT to support your position with examples from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.
That’s a little too broad for me. I think of the basic categories this way:
- books (which could include movies, theater and music)
- history (including cultural history)
- current or recent events
- things that happened to people I know
- my own experiences
When I go through the categories one by one, this is what I come up with.
Books: I come up with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, “The Great Gatsby”, and “Catcher in the Rye.”
There are many other examples you could use here. I chose these because each of them is commonly read in high school English classes. You should start by thinking of the books you’ve read in the past couple of years.
If you have the “Official SAT Study Guide,” you might want to flip through all of the essay questions and notice how the books I picked here could be used as examples for many of the essay questions you might see.
History: I come up with Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Jesus, and Hitler.
There are many other historical figures you could use. I chose these because you probably know something about them. Just as with the books, you should start by thinking of common, obvious figures whom you know something about.
Also, as with the books, if you flip through the other essay questions you’ll notice that each of these examples can be used to answer many of the essay questions you might see.
Current events: Depending on your point of view, you might use either of our two most recent Presidents. There are other examples you could use in this category, too.
People I know & my own experiences: I won’t go into the last two categories, mostly because I’ve got some great examples already. However, if you’re having trouble coming up with examples, you should feel free to use these categories. A personal story can be especially relevant and compelling.
You should also feel free to make up a story as a last resort, but remember that the devil is in the details. The most common problem I see students run into when they make up a story is that they don’t have enough relevant details to support their argument. If you’re making up a story, it has to be solid.
Step 3 – Pick the best 2 examples to use in your essay
Every example I’ve listed can be used to write a great essay. I’m going to pick Huck Finn and MLK, for 2 reasons.
First, I know them pretty well, which is a criteria you should also use when picking your examples.
Second, I can relate them both to a single issue, race. One addresses the issue of race from a fictional standpoint, the other from a historical standpoint.
I don’t mean to suggest that race is a particularly good issue to address, just that if you can find two examples that relate to the same thing in different ways, it can give your essay an added boost.
Step 4 – If you can’t come up with 2 good examples, take the opposite position and repeat steps 2 and 3
I have good examples, so I’ll skip this step.
If I were going to take the other side, though, I could use some of the same books, at least one of the historical examples, and plenty of current events.
Step 5 – Write out your thesis statement in the form, “I believe X because of “Y”
Do it simply as shorthand or fully work it out, either way. I’ll do it in shorthand:
It’s important to question authority because doing so creates progress and moves society forward.
Step 6 – Write a very short outline of your paper
I mean very short. This is just to keep you on track, so you don’t meander while writing. Think of it as the directions for your essay.
- Intro – It’s important to question authority because doing so creates progress and moves society forward
- Huck Finn
- MLK (put your stronger example second)
- Conclusion (just so you remember to write one)
The whole brainstorming process should take 5 minutes. When you’re done, you know that you’re going to write 4 paragraphs, and each paragraph will be about one thing and one thing only.
That leaves you 20 minutes to write your essay. Once you know what you’re writing about, the actual writing always goes much more smoothly.
There are only 2 other things to keep in mind
1) The third paragraph should begin with a sentence that transitions your essay from the first example to the second.
I might write something like this:
The racial tensions explored by Mark Twain in 1884 came to a head 80 years later when Martin Luther King led his march on Washington.
That’s just one possible way to go. There are many different sentences that could join those examples, just as many different essays could be written from the short outline I’ve just shared with you.
2) Your last paragraph is your conclusion.
It should be just a sentence or two that ties everything up and restates your argument in slightly different words. Essentially, you want to say, “As you can see, I’ve proved my point.” Don’t add anything new.
That’s it. Now you’re ready to write an essay.
Try it and let me know how it works.