A Masterclass on the SAT Essay Section

Jeremy Caldwell ‘19, Tufts University

You’ve made it through over 3 hours of SAT testing. You’re doing amazing, but who wouldn’t be tired at this point? After a final break, you’re in the home stretch: the optional essay. “Optional” is a tricky word, because some colleges require you to submit a writing score along with your SAT score. So it’s time to buckle down and write a great essay!

Format

You’ll have 50 minutes to write your essay. Each SAT essay provides you with a short persuasive passage that you’ll have to read and respond to. Your response should discuss how the author of the passage builds their argument using evidence, reasoning, and other persuasive elements rather than restate what the argument is. The purpose of this essay is to assess your ability to analyze an author’s argument. 

Preparing

At the beginning of your essay section, you’ll have a blank page to plan. Use it! This is your chance to organize your thoughts, decide on the structure of your essay, and choose what evidence from the text you want to use to build your analysis. You’ll be able to write much faster and more clearly when you have a clear idea of what you want to say.

Beginning

The structure of your essay should be pretty straightforward. One sentence to introduce the topic, a transition to your analysis, and a very clear thesis statement. Remember: your thesis sentence should state your argument, and briefly discuss what each paragraph will go over. 

Writing

A few key things to remember: 

  • Be careful with your word choice. Don’t be repetitive with the words you use, and avoid vague terms like “so,” “very,” “maybe,” and “like.”
  • Don’t spend too much time on evidence. While it’s important to cite why you have made an argument, don’t quote the passage too heavily. The readers want to hear what you have to say, not the author. 
  • Be objective! While you are writing an analysis, don’t say “I think,” “I believe,” or “in my opinion.” Have confidence in what you have to say!
  • Write clearly. This one is really tricky because of the time crunch, but if the readers can’t understand what you wrote, they won’t be able to score your essay as well.

Timing

Final tips

This essay may seem stressful, but it’s no different from any essay you’ve had to write in English class. Just focus on having a clear argument that is well supported by evidence. And don’t stress about sounding like you have the biggest vocabulary in the world. Being smart doesn’t mean using big words. It’s about being thoughtful and thorough when writing your essay, and being confident in your ability to nail this!

How to Ace the SAT and ACT

Simarn Regmi, CollegeFindMe Intern

It seems like people won’t stop talking about the SAT and ACT. For some reason a 1600 or 36 are the most important numbers for a high schooler, even though the numbers themselves don’t seem to make a lot of sense. That’s because these tests are not like any test you’ve taken before – but that doesn’t mean they have to be scary. Like most things in high school and college, these tests just require some practice, focus, and time management skills. Luckily, we’re here to share some tips we’ve learned along the way to help you prepare.

Try it out

It’s helpful to take the SAT, ACT, or pre-test before your senior year just to try it out. They’re big and challenging, but once you go through the real deal the first time, you’ll know what it’s like and won’t have to focus on the “unknowns” anymore. Also, when you get your score back, you can identify which subjects you’re strongest in, and which ones you need to work on.

Study consistently

Studying one time before the test will not prepare you. SATs, ACTs, and standardized tests do not measure your intelligence, but rather how many questions you can correctly answer in a short period of time. Often, they will try to trick you with their wording, so the best way to overcome confusion is to understand the test inside and out. Work slowly and steadily over several months to build up your understanding, rather than tackling it all at once. It can also help to take full length practice tests so you can build up endurance as well.

A really good tool to plan out your studying is Khan Academy, where they can help you understand what areas of the test you should focus on. The platform gives you freedom to plan according to your schedule and you can always sneak in a little practice whether you are on your way to work, school, on the train, etc.

Read!

It is proven that reading makes you smarter and exercises your brain, and it especially comes in the reading sections, which contain hefty non-fiction and historical texts that can be a lot to take in. Try to read more nonfiction articles and familiarize yourself with their structure so that when the big day comes, you’re ready to go.

Recognize your mistakes

After taking practice tests and seeing where you went wrong, it is crucial to not be discouraged by your mistakes, but to learn from them instead. On Khan Academy, when you get your results back, they break down the problem when showing you the right answer. Additionally, if you do not understand a concept, they have videos with tutorials and walk through examples that range from easy, medium, and hard.

Challenge yourself

When practicing, don’t just stick with the easiest questions. You definitely don’t have to dive into the “hard” section head-first, but you can work your way up each week or until you think you can handle more intense problems. You are doing yourself a disservice if you just practice with easy problems that you are already familiar with. When you push yourself to tackle advanced problems over time, you’ll be ready for any curveballs on test day.

Time management

On the SAT and ACT, every question is worth the same amount of points, so if you get stuck, move on. Focus first on the questions you can confidently answer to boost your score, and then come back to the tougher questions. Even if you still don’t know the answer, use process of elimination to get rid of wrong answers and improve your chances of guessing correctly.

You’ve got this!

Believe in yourself, even though it can be hard and you might not feel the best about these tests. Just know that at the end of the day, you are not a number. While we can’t ignore the seriousness of standardized tests, remember that in no way do they measure your intelligence or what you can achieve. Be ready to roll your sleeves up and work on your critical ready and time management skills, but also don’t forget that confidence and a clear head can take you far, both in the testing room and in all of high school. Good luck, and remember that these tests are just one of many paths to college!

Your SAT/ACT Prep Guide

Jay KC, CollegeFindMe Intern

The SAT and ACT can be stressful exams for a student can take, and combining that with regular schoolwork is a recipe for high-level stress. Here is some advice on how you can handle them both.

Keep a calendar

A lot of people find keeping a calendar excessive or tedious, but it can actually be a great way to manage your time. A calendar is especially useful because it helps you physically lay out your day and keeps you in check. I’m someone that is pretty forgetful, so looking at a calendar that says “Study for SAT 6:00-8:00” is a simple reminder to stay on top of my goals. Even better, make sure to turn on notifications or download one of the many apps that can help you remember to study.

Don’t procrastinate

While it might seem easier, procrastination can really hurt your progress. You have to manage your schoolwork and test prep efficiently, but procrastination can force you to rush and eventually cause you more stress than if you had just worked consistently from the beginning. Preparing for these tests can feel like a lot, so be sure to break it into smaller pieces that you can check off of your to-do list and feel more productive. Also be sure to reward yourself as you cross more things off your list – this will keep you motivated!

Prioritize

This is one of the most important things to do when it comes to handling the SAT and ACT with school. It is likely that school and standardized testing aren’t the only two things taking up your time. Sports, jobs, after-school clubs, volunteering, and family can fill up your schedule, so make sure to come up with an action plan of what needs the most work. If you’re struggling with the essay portion, set aside time specifically dedicated to your writing skills, even if it means holding off on other activities for a little while. 

Study

Of course, studying is one of the most important parts of this process. You have to know how to study efficiently and effectively. The SAT and ACT cover a broad range of topics spanning from 9th-12th grade, and it is difficult to go over all of that information in depth. The best way to go through this is by taking a few practice tests to figure out what areas you are struggling in, and then devoting your attention there. 

Relax

Relaxing is one of the most important parts of handling the SAT and ACT while in school. While both school and standardized tests are important, neither should force you to sacrifice your mental health. Besides, in taking care of your mind, you’re setting yourself up for success further down the road. These tests aren’t everything, so don’t overwork yourself to get the best score possible. Try your best, but don’t forget that you are so much more than any test score, and colleges know that. 

When you get your score, be sure to add them to your CollegeFindMe profile, but remember that these scores are only one piece in a much larger puzzle that can help you stand out to schools. 

Breaking Down the SAT

Meghna Chhabra, Senior, Prospect Hill Academy

What is the SAT?

The SAT is an entrance exam many colleges and universities use in the college admissions decision. The purpose of the SAT exam is to give colleges a better sense of how ready a student is for college and acts as a universal point of comparison when colleges are comparing applicants. It is important to keep in mind that not all schools weigh the SAT equally. Some schools may place more importance on the SAT than others and some schools might not even look at your SAT scores. Remember that the SAT does not determine how good of a student you are. 

When to take it

Many high school students take the SAT during the spring of their junior year or the fall of their senior year. We recommend taking the SAT during your junior year because you have the ability to retake the test during your senior year if you are not happy with your score before you apply to college. Most local high schools schedule test dates every year in the months of August, October, November, December, March, May, and June. Visit this link to find specific dates: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/register/dates-deadlines

SAT sections 

The SAT has three sections: math, evidence-based reading and writing, and an optional essay section. 

  • 1 hour, 20 minutes to complete the math section
  • 1 hour, 40 minutes to complete the reading and writing section
  • 50 minutes to complete the essay section (if you decide to take it)

You’ll get a 10-minute break after the reading section and a 5-minute break after the math without the calculator section. With these breaks, the exam time becomes 3 hours, 15 minutes long. 

If you choose to take the essay, your exam time will be 4 hours, 5 minutes long.

Math sections 

There is a calculator and a non-calculator part of the math section. 

In the non-calculator section, you have 25 minutes to answer 20 questions (87 seconds per question). There are 15 multiple choice questions and 5 grid-in questions. 

In the calculator section, you have 55 minutes to answer 38 questions (75 seconds per question). There are 31 multiple choice questions and 7 grid-in questions. 

The questions focus on algebra, problem-solving & data analysis, and some questions about the basics of higher math.

Reading and writing section 

In the reading section, there are 52 multiple choice questions and you have 65 minutes to answer all questions (75 seconds per question). The questions will focus on reading and vocabulary in context. 

In the writing section, there are 44 multiple choice questions and you have 35 minutes to answer all questions (48 seconds per question). The questions will focus on grammar and usage. 

Scoring

The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600. Each section is worth a maximum of 800 points. 

Essay section

The SAT essay is optional because not all colleges factor in your essay score while looking at your application. You’ll have 50 minutes in total to complete your essay. 

Each SAT essay provides the student with one short persuasive passage that they will have to read and respond to. The essay prompt is the same on every test, but the passage you are given is not. Your response should discuss how the author of the passage assembles the argument using evidence, reasoning, and other persuasive elements rather than restate what the argument is. The purpose of this essay is to assess your ability to analyze an author’s argument. 

Your score on the essay is separate from your scores on the math and reading sections. Your essay is assessed by two scorers. Each grader will give you a score of 1-4 in 3 categories: 

  • Reading – How well your essay shows your understanding of the text. 
  • Analysis – How well you analyze the text and explain how the author builds their argument.
  • Writing – How well your response is written.

The scores from both graders will be added together to give you a score of 2-8 on each section. Each section score is added together to give you a final score of 6-24. 

Registering

To register for the SAT, sign up on the College Board website. The website will give you all of the possible SAT dates and will give you deadlines to sign up by. Check out the College Board SAT day checklist for more information about what to bring: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/taking-the-test/test-day-checklist

Remember that your SAT score is just one step of your college process. Your score does NOT determine who you are as a student. Some schools don’t even ask for the SAT, while others superscore. This means that if you take the test multiple times, they’ll take you best score from each section out of all the tests you’ve taken. It’s more important to always try your best despite any difficulties you might face. Make sure to set goals for yourself and take breaks!

Breaking Down the ACT

Jeremy Caldwell ‘19, Tufts University

The ACT is one of two main standardized tests that most colleges might ask for when applying. It’s not as popular as the SAT, but it could be a better choice for you to take. Let’s review the format of the ACT.

Format

The ACT is split into five sections (four required sections and one optional essay), each of which is graded on a scale from 1-36. The first four sections are then averaged together to get one overall score from 1-36. You can’t lose points on the ACT for getting a wrong answer.

English

For the English section, you have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions. If that seems like a lot, that’s because the ACT focuses more on time management and quick thinking than the SAT. Each of the questions in this section is multiple choice with 4 answer choices. 

The questions in this section are organized into 5 sets of 15 questions, each following a short reading passage. The questions will focus mostly on grammar and punctuation, with some questions about sentence structure and word choice. For this section, it’s helpful to study how to combine sentence clauses, proper use of punctuation (:;-,), verb conjugations, and transition words between sentences/paragraphs, since these are the most common types of questions. 

Math

Next is the math section, where you have 60 minutes to answer 60 questions. While all questions are worth the same, the math section is organized in order of difficulty, so make sure to leave time for the end of this section since those questions will probably take longer to answer. This section is also multiple choice, but there are 5 answer choices for each question. 

About one third of the questions in this section will involve modelling, or interpreting diagrams and graphs. The questions are split fairly evenly between different areas of math: numbers, algebra, geometry, functions, and statistics.

Break

After the English and Math sections, you’ll be given a short break. Now is a great time to run to the bathroom, stretch your legs, and have a snack. No matter what, don’t just stay at your desk. There are still three sections to go, so take the chance to move around and clear your head. You’ve got this!

Reading

The Reading section might seem pretty similar to the English section, but it focuses more on your reading comprehension skills. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions, split between 4 reading passages. Like the English section, each question is multiple choice with 4 options.

Most of the questions will focus on key ideas and details from the readings, so circle anything that stands out while reading. Some questions will also focus on the technical aspects of the writing, like the structure of the passage. You may also be asked to compare two shorter passages. 

Unlike the SAT, the ACT doesn’t focus much on difficult vocabulary. There might be vocabulary questions in the Reading section, but they’ll be based on words in the passage that you can define using context clues.

Science

Like the Reading section, you’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. If science isn’t your favorite subject, don’t worry. Most of these questions focus on interpreting graphs and data, not memorizing concepts or formulas; many will also involve more close reading, which is why it’s paired with the Reading section. 

Each question will be multiple choice with 4 options, and will be split fairly evenly among different sciences like geology, biology, chemistry, and physics. About a quarter of the questions will also involve the scientific method. For example, you might have to read a paragraph and figure out the hypothesis and methods. 

Break

If you aren’t doing the writing section, you’re done – congratulations! If not, you only have 40 minutes to go, but make sure to stretch your hand. 

Writing

The Writing section is your last push, and focuses on your ability to make an argument and defend it. You’ll be given three passages that discuss different perspectives on a contemporary issue. Then, you’ll have 40 minutes to write your own perspective and connect it to at least one of the other perspectives. 

While you’ll be graded on the quality of writing and the organization of your argument, students tend to do better in this section when they discuss two or three of the perspectives and how they connect to each other. Even if you disagree with a perspective, mention how it might be connected to yours and what you can learn from it, or why you might disagree with it. This shows that you thought critically about several perspectives before offering your own.

Key takeaways

The ACT might seem like a lot to process, but think of it like a time management test, like multiplication tables. Every question is worth the same, so start by answering the ones that feel easier to you. Then take your time with the remaining questions – some of the sections offer you clues to the right answers, so look closely at questions and passages. Most importantly, pace yourself. This test is long, but you’ll get through it if you stay focused! As with any other test, practice can also be one of the best ways to get ahead. Check out some test prep options here. As long as you stay organized and get familiar with the structure of the ACT, you’ll be able to enter the test room feeling confident!