Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My SAT Essay Boot Camp Guide

*Copyright, Elizabeth Collins; feel free to share this guide as long as you credit me. Thank you.

We all want to make our essays better and to make essay writing feel a little less painful. Remembering the point of writing an essay can help us. The word “essay” comes from the French “essaie” and actually means to talk/communicate or to teach.

With an essay, we are talking about what we know. Essays aren’t assigned to torture us. Simply remembering this can go a long way to helping us write.

School assignments as a whole will not be painful or boring if we care about what we’re studying or arguing. That’s why it’s important to find a reason to care. Write what you know; write about the topics that interest you, as a student and writer. Your interest and enthusiasm will be contagious, and your essay and schoolwork will be better.

Finding and building a good bank of examples is the first step to writing a good essay. You should ideally have at least 10 good topics (a combination of literature, historical figures, social events or phenomena, pop culture topics, etc.) that you can write about in response to a wide variety of prompts for the SAT essay. For “real-life” opinion essays, you need to know something about the world—and reading widely and keeping informed about current events will enable you to always have something to say or write about.

To practice now, choose examples that are meaningful and interesting to you, figure out how you can use them and what the examples work to prove, and then let’s get started.

This guide can be used to help you write your SAT essay, AP exam essays, or any timed writing assignment. You can also use the guide to help you draft longer writing projects; all the same issues apply, except that you’ll have more time to research and revise, and you will need to be careful when it comes to budgeting your time and avoiding procrastination.


When you see the essay prompt for the SAT (timed) essay or ANY essay from now on that you may encounter in school or in life, what is the first thing you should do?

Brainstorm examples.

How many examples?

As many as you can think of!

Why so many examples? Why not just think of two or three to get the essay started?

Because those first two or three examples that you think of are probably not going to be as good as the other six you could come up with. Brainstorming always gets progressively better, and you want more examples to choose from, and you’ll want to choose the best, most interesting and impressive examples.

Let’s see how this could work:

Imagine the sample essay prompt is the Human Experience/Morality question: Do people tend to get along better with people who are very different from them or with those who are like them?

If you only spent ten seconds brainstorming, the examples you might have thought of at first could be cliques in school, and the idea that people who date each other want to have something in common. 

Not very impressive. Those examples are obvious and pedestrian.

So what would be better?

Spend a good five minutes forcing yourself to think of as many relevant examples as you can. Make them academic and sophisticated to show that you are a smart, well read person who is aware of the world and history or current events. You also want to demonstrate that you are articulate.

If you try, you might come up with examples such as genocide, religious crusades, racism, segregation, apartheid, societies that remain closed, and orthodox groups that purposely avoid outsiders such as the Amish.

Now, those are big, general ideas. You also need specific examples to back up those broad topics.

How about: the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda (you could use the film Hotel Rwanda to make your point, if you like); the Nazi extermination of the Jews and other people, such as Gypsies, the intellectually disabled, etc., during WW2; the Serbian-Bosnian war that pitted regional ethnic groups against each other; the entire, convoluted “reason” for WW1 (nationalism).

That was just for the genocide example! Remember, you don’t have to mention all of these specific examples, but do mention one or two.

For segregation/racism/civil rights, you could discuss Jim Crow laws, “colored only” issues, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and the history of apartheid in South Africa, etc. You could also talk about the nature of “ghettos” of groups of people driven there by racism.

If you choose to write about insular societies, there are, of course, the Amish. (Please don’t mention Breaking Amish; it’s a pretty trashy TV show). There are also strict religious communities (no need to mention a specific religion) in many cities, where people intermarry, have arranged marriages, and have little contact with those who are not in their group.

Examine the reasons why these communities choose to live this way—that’s where the big, interesting ideas and philosophical conclusions will be found!

Out of all the examples you’ve brainstormed (remember: brainstorming is a deliberate time investment that will pay off for you; don’t neglect the task and don’t begrudge yourself the time it takes; great planning will save you many minutes later), choose the best two or three.

I like to specifically choose unusual examples to make my essay stand out. That means, if many essay writers are going to mention Hitler in response to an essay prompt, then I am most certainly not going to discuss Hitler.  Yes, Hitler works for many essays, but Hitler is, in a way, too easy, too boring, too common.

Choose a more unusual example to help the essay reader/grader remember your impressive essay.


Brainstorming should take up to five minutes for a 25-minute SAT essay. If you do this pre-writing well, you can also craft a thesis (at least a rough one) at the same time and maybe get your body paragraph topic sentences done.

If you’re really on fire, you might even think of some good quotes to use in either the intro or conclusion. (A relevant quote about the essay topic is something that always jumps right to my mind, so I usually start there and see where it takes me.)

An example time breakdown for a really hardcore, 25-minute SAT essay would be:

·      3-5 minutes:  brainstorming and pre-writing/planning.
·      3 minutes: Use intro formula (more on this on pages ahead) to craft a grabby opening that moves smoothly into thesis.
·      Spend 1 minute on thesis refinement.
·      Take 15 minutes to get the body paragraphs done (I like to force myself to write a topic sentence while I am planning)
·      Use conclusion formula to write the last bit in 3 minutes.
·      This may leave you with a minute or two left to self-edit and check for mistakes.

It’s not enough time, I know. It’s absurd to write an essay in 25 minutes, and yet, if there is anything the SAT essay teaches us, it is that we can write a decent essay in 25 minutes if the need arises.

Obviously, an essay that has more time allotted for its writing will be that much better, but being able to bang out a good essay in 25 minutes is a life skill that will serve you well.

Forty minutes is a much more realistic timeframe (as is seen on AP essays), so if that’s what you are practicing for, give yourself 35 minutes to write and up to 5 minutes to check your work.

Whatever your essay assignment, practice frequently under time pressure. This is the way to become a better, faster, more productive writer. It’s also the way to become quicker on your feet and more adept at brainstorming.

Keep in mind that no one expects a 25-minute essay to be perfect. Rather, it’s a skeleton of a great essay. I am a professional essayist, and if I want to write something great, I give myself a month, maybe two. No, I don’t work on the essay all day, every day for a month; I put it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes. I do this because all good writing is re-writing.

To get writing projects done, time yourself and work in sessions. You should make yourself work under time pressure. This is an excellent exercise for self-discipline and a great way to get out that first draft.

Once you get used to doing this and make timed writing sessions your go-to strategy for writing essay drafts, you will find that procrastination ceases to be much of an issue. The reason why this works is because nothing is impossible for half an hour, so, no matter how much you don’t want to write an essay, if you know that you only have to work on it for 30 minutes (at a time), it will be psychologically freeing. Also, once you get some work done, you will feel a weight lift from your shoulders, and you’ll immediately have the confidence to finish and perfect the work.

To help force yourself to work, seclude yourself in a place with no distractions. Set a timer and make yourself write a complete first draft.

If the assignment is a class essay, then give yourself permission to write a NGE (not good enough) first draft. Just write as much as you can.

You may do this writing in 25-minute chunks, or you might do half an hour or an hour at a time.  Do what works for you, but set a timer and do not allow yourself to be distracted by the phone, a person, or the internet. If you get pulled away from your timed writing practice, you must start the timed session all over again! That’s the rule. If you obey this rule, you will become more focused (and it’s like punishment if you have to begin all over again, so after the first infraction, you’ll probably be on good behavior.)

When you finish a timed session, reward yourself for hard, focused work by taking a break.

If your assignment is long-term (i.e., due in two weeks), you will plan to come back to your essay later and make it better. Plan ahead  (work backwards in terms of scheduling) to do this several times, and voila, you will have a painlessly written essay (one that was quickly written—no all nighters necessary, ever again).

THE FORMULAS: Memorize them to make writing painless

The most important parts of your essay (first line, thesis, examples, transitions, conclusion/last line) all have formulas that you should practice so that you don’t even need to consciously think about them when you are writing under time pressure. Save your thinking energy for the brainstorming, not for the essay’s organization; it should become automatic.


Every introduction ought to start with a hook, a grabby first line. The very best essays begin with an intriguing, scene-setter of an opening line (or three). On a timed essay, you simply won’t have enough time to think of something that is mind-blowing. Therefore, because you are under time pressure, you might stick to a quote or a question or brief attention-grabber in your first line.

The second line should be an explanation or expansion of that first line. Try to segue into your thesis with this line (or the next).

Third comes the thesis (which you have refined after your initial jotting down in your brainstorming/planning stage).

Finally, if you can, list some good examples.

To reiterate, the formula is Hook; Explanation; Segue (optional, but useful); Thesis; Examples.

Here is an example:

            “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” This famous saying resonates with people because it expresses the idea that we should learn from our mistakes—for example, when we’ve lost money, possessions, or personal dignity. If we continue to make the same mistakes in life and are fooled twice and lose again, then how have we grown from experience? People definitely learn more from losing than from winning because it is only through hard-won experience, through trial-and-error and open-minded reflection on past mistakes, that we can ultimately learn how to be successful.  Some examples are Thomas Edison’s many failed attempts to create the light bulb, Steve Jobs’ firing from Apple leading him to found Pixar, and the inspiration of those who have lived through great trauma and emerged even stronger, such as Elie Wiesel and Viktor E. Frankl.”

*For an essay that is longer and for which you have more time to write, you don’t have to be so obvious, re: the listing of examples.  But with the SAT essay or a short, in class essay, which may be read quickly, you should do this, if it works (it doesn’t always work if, for example, your examples are hard to explain in a short phrase).

The reason why you should list examples is because you want to guarantee that the essay reader/scorer will know what your awesome examples are—the reader who has a pile of hundreds or thousands of essays to assess may not actually read your body paragraphs in detail (sad, but true).


A thesis is your argument, the main statement that you will prove in your essay. You know this. But on the SAT essay or an application essay, be very sure that you use the wording of the prompt in your thesis, because the readers take everything literally and likely won’t notice (or appreciate) any flowery deviation from this standard.

For example, if the prompt (assignment question) is Does being ethical make it hard to be successful?  How should you respond?

Your response, thesis, etc., using key words or direct phrasing, might be something like: Having ethics does not make it harder to be successful. Indeed, having ethics in life and in business can actually increase success because today’s consumers are far more conscious of environmental and social responsibility than were generations in the past. Some examples are “green” corporations and the good P.R. these companies generate, and consumer demand for responsibly farmed food products.

That was a difficult example because it’s a two-line thesis (you might practice shortening it as a self-editing exercise, but this is what I wrote for a timed essay on the topic).

Here’s another one.

Imagine that the essay prompt is: Are established rules too limited to guide people in real-life situations?

Your response might be something like this:  Established rules can always be found too “limited” in certain complex situations or moral gray areas. Some examples are now-archaic rules or laws against adultery and medical situations that demand mercy killing.

Notice that the thesis is not simply a repeat of the assignment question; it also contains a stance and argument (this is the “because” part of the thesis. Don’t forget the “because”).

You will find the “because” after brainstorming and drafting your thesis. The “because” is the connection between the examples you’ll write about


Obviously, body paragraphs each detail a specific example (or a few examples). For any essay, you will want to begin the body paragraph with a topic sentence. Think of this T.S. as a “mini-thesis” for your paragraph. It is also the only line, or one of the only lines in your body paragraph, that may actually be read by the stressed-out, time-pressed essay scorer. That’s why you need to make the T.S. count. Don’t make it too broad or vague. Draft and hone the T.S, as you would your thesis. Be sure that the topic sentence sums up the entire argument of your paragraph.

Here’s an example. Imagine that the paragraph’s topic is how adultery rules are too limited.  Your T.S. could be:

“The societal and religious rules against adultery make sense from an organizational and/or moral standpoint, yet these are precisely the sort of rules that are the most limited, the most unforgiving of humans’ innate complexities.”

Go on to give precise examples within the rest of the body paragraph. On an SAT essay, this is where you’ll want to “namedrop” impressive, academic examples such as Socrates, or Karl Marx. Throw in some strong vocabulary words, too (but please be sure that you know how to use them). Name-dropping or word dropping in this way tends to work well on quickly scanned essays such as the essay on the SAT. I do not recommend it for longer papers that will be carefully read, unless you can do it well and honestly. There’s not much that’s worse—from an English teacher’s standpoint—than incorrectly used vocabulary words or examples that have no connection to an essay’s thesis.

Please be sure to always end your body paragraphs with a clear connection back to the thesis. You don’t want to just drop off and launch (in your next paragraph) into a totally separate topic. Instead, seize the opportunity to hammer home your argument. This won’t be redundant if you vary your phrasing; instead, it will be effective.


Typically, conclusions are the worst part of students’ essays. This is likely because students are just tired of writing and sick of the assignment (and maybe the student has stayed up all night writing the essay or paper and is brain dead, exhausted, etc.). But conclusions are key—in fact, I always say that the most important parts of an essay are first line, thesis, and last line.

If you are tired by the time you get to your conclusion, use a formula to make it easier to deal with.

Traditionally, students are taught to re-iterate their main points by listing examples again or directly repeating the thesis. Don’t do this. It’s boring, repetitive and annoying for the reader. It’s also very fifth grade.  Instead, if you can muster the creativity, sum up in a new way. Find a universal truth/connection that says what your thesis does, but with fresh words and ideas.

Example—going back to the first essay topic mentioned here (the one about whether we get along best with people who are like us), this is what I wrote as a conclusion. Note the “big, universal ideas.”

In conclusion, we live life in order to survive. If we are lucky, we can achieve more than mere survival and actually contribute to progress and to the expansion of others’ minds. But at heart, we are simply animals trying to let our families, our genetic lines, carry on. Can we be blamed for preferring those who are like us if this is the natural order?

*For the SAT, I go old school and use a concluding transition when I begin my conclusion (such as In conclusion, Finally, Thus, Overall, etc.). I usually do this when I need to make sure it is patently clear that I have written a complete essay. I don’t want to leave any doubt in the mind of a reader who isn’t really reading but, rather, is simply scanning my essay. This “obvious conclusion” is extra-important if your essay looks short (for example, it it’s just over one page long or barely a page and a half long).

Also, notice how I ended my conclusion with a question? This works well as final-line trick because it makes the reader tend to ruminate about the fascinating idea you’ve just broached (and usually, the reader will agree with you, too). It’s a neat little formula to use when you don’t have time to think of a genius final idea.

So, how long should a conclusion be? I am always asked this question.

Conclusions should ideally be about three to four lines long. In a pinch, when it’s a rush-job (such as the 25-minute SAT essay), you can write one great sentence—but please try to write more than this, and please don’t repeat earlier phrases in that single final sentence.

Instead, craft a strong, memorable finish. I like quotes (explained with a universal connection) for this purpose, so don’t forget to try to brainstorm a quote as part of your planning, or when you get to the end of your essay.

The main lesson to take away re: conclusions is that you should sum up your main points in a new way. Find a new (not stated yet) universal conclusion, or point, that you can make. END WITH A BANG—the all-important last line should leave a lingering, positive impression in the mind of the reader.

Just as first lines are read carefully (and the first line is the one that essentially determines whether or not you will get an average score or a better-than-average score), so are last lines.

On the AP essay or any essay that is assessed in terms of pure writing, and not just content, you could earn yourself a top score with a great last line; I’ve seen it happen (the line had to do with the disconcerting, surprising tone of a piece of literature, and the student wrote, “…like a badger on a grand piano” as the final phrase. It was such a creative turn of phrase that the scorer told me, “There was no way I could not give that kid a 9.”

Do the same thing: be so memorable in your final lines that there is no way you can be denied a great score!

As you know, standardized test graders are chintzy about handing out the top scores (the 12s on the SAT or the 9 on AP exam essays) because they might have to prove/argue why the essay deserved such a great score. Make their job easier by wowing readers with your opening and closing.


Transitions (or the lack thereof) are the mark of a strong (or a weak) writer. Transitions are always necessary every time you switch ideas, moving from paragraph to paragraph, or when you change/expand ideas within a paragraph.

Why are transitions necessary? You might be asking this. They are necessary because you never want your reader to get distracted or say, Wait, how did we get here? The writer was just talking about apples, so why did the topic suddenly switch to melons? I’m so confused and annoyed…I think I’ll stop reading now.

Your job as a writer is to make the reader’s job easy! The whole purpose of writing is to communicate, and we can’t communicate if our style of writing is confusing.

Transitions make writing clear and easy to understand. Not using transitions makes writing feel disconnected, choppy, and strange.  If you know you have a tendency to “forget” the transitions—especially the all-important transition from first body paragraph to the second body paragraph (in a shorter essay), then make sure you leave time, and room, to add this transition in during your final check and self-editing.

The point of transitions is to make the reader feel comfortable. The best, most sophisticated transitions reflect what you just said in a phrase while also signaling your reader (in another phrase) and pointing the way to what you’ll discuss next.

An example—when switching from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs (two different paragraphs), I set up the change and then made a solid transition:

…Repeated trial-and-error is necessary, as Edison knew, in order to eventually win-- and success is sweeter when it is realized after hard work.
     Sometimes, despite hard work, we may still lose, and even though this may seem unfair, all loss can be a learning experience, as Apple founder Steve Jobs realized.

Remember, though: not all transitions have to be long and complex. For instance, when switching ideas, use one or two transitional words such as, “Yet,” or “Even though.” 

Example: In the 21st century, we are supposed to be politically correct and accepting of others’ differences. Yet, people tend to get along best with those who are like them because “like attracts like” and what is different from us can feel alien and threatening.

Adding ideas demands only the simplest, most obvious transitions, such as “also” or “and,” “both…and” and “not only…but also.” (Notice how “not only…but also” is more impressive than “and?” Try to make your transitions as sophisticated as you can.)

Completely shifting topics takes the long, serious transitions that I first mentioned (above).

A final tip from me to you: Avoid beginning sentences with “Although” unless you already know where you’re headed and what you are arguing. “Although” as an opener in a timed essay tends to lead, more often than not, to an incomplete and very long and confusing sentence.


Syntax is a fancy term for sentence structure, and specifically, it means (if you see SYNTAX in a margin note written by me or another teacher) that you are starting your sentences the same way or repeating words or phrases to the point where it’s distracting and boring for the reader.

We ALL make the mistake of repeating what works when we are rushed or not thinking clearly. Your job is to be conscious of how you begin your sentences, and leave time to check your work and ensure that you are not simply writing, “Another example…” over and over.

Word repetition (diction) is also an issue. We all repeat ourselves, but try to be conscious of varying your words or not repeating words within a paragraph if you can help it.  If you see the same word five times in an essay, then that is three times too many; go back and edit!


Editing your own work is perhaps the hardest skill you need to learn—at least, it’s the task we never think we have time for, and we usually never bother to do it.

In order to effectively self-edit, you must know how to look for the mistakes that you tend to make. Read your teacher’s margin notes; keep a list, perhaps, of how many “Thesis is not strong and specific” or “Vary your syntax” notes you’ve gotten. Tally them up. See where your issues are. Conferences with your writing teacher are also recommended.

Maybe you tend to run out of time? If so, you need to train harder and do more homework/practice; build up more examples you can write about so that you won’t have to sit in the classroom chewing your pencil, desperate to think of something to write about.

It’s possible that you always forget transitions. If you know this is your problem, be conscious of it and go back and insert transitions, if you can.

Always leave at least a few minutes at the end of your writing session to check your work. Read it sub-vocally, if you can. Reading aloud lets you “hear” repetition that your eye might not register.  Read to someone else if you have a long-term paper (not SAT essay).  But above all, be sure to leave time to go back and see the paper again with fresh eyes (this is literally what “revise” means).

See your work; compare it to other essays. Hear what great writing sounds like. When you understand what good writing is (and you’ll only really get there by reading widely, especially current events and nonfiction), you will be more than halfway to writing great essays yourself.

We learn by observing (reading and listening, seeing), by hearing (read aloud to help yourself absorb the rhythm of good writing), and by doing (practice!).

To write the best essay you can, prepare yourself first by being well read. Pay attention to constructive criticism. Also, read good examples of essays for the SAT or AP exams, and read as many professional essays as you can (Op-eds and magazine articles). Notice what the good essays have in common.

If you pair the knowledge of what good writing is with the specific expectations listed in a rubric, you cannot fail as an essay writer.


  1. This is, without a doubt, the best essay guide I have ever read! I will be giving this to my students this year. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thank you! Lots of reads, lots of shares--hope this leads to lots of excellent essays.