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Alright folks – sorry I’ve been away for this last week. I met a lovely young lady and she has been distracting me from SAT prep with trips to the bowling alley and tasty restaurants in town. She’s really smart, too! Ah, life is good :)
Now, here’s the lesson this experience has reminded of – it’s really easy to get distracted and lose focus in life and that can be disastrous. (This reminds uncannily me of a classic SAT essay prompt: “Can success be disastrous?” and all the related prompts)
Anyway, before I met this wonderful girl, it was easy to stay laser-focused on writing an SAT prep blog post per day. After I met her, though, my concentration got shaken up by this new and interesting person in my life, and it would have been very easy to slowly but surely forget about this blog.
After all, it’s not hard to convince yourself that you’ll have time to write “later,” without ever getting around to “later.” “Later” becomes “never” and at a certain point it’s too late to recover.
(For example, this is one reason I see some students never really improve their SAT vocabulary knowledge – they just put it off forever and then it’s too late!)
How this relates to the SAT Essay:
No student wants to write an essay at 8 am on a Saturday before diving into over 3 more hours of testing. And most of us, when confronted with a task we don’t want to deal with, will look for any distraction to let off some steam – plus, a good distraction provides a good excuse for ourselves – we “allow” ourselves to fail, explain away our low score, by pinning the blame on whatever we allowed to distract us.
And the potential causes of distraction on the SAT are numerous: Panic. Fear. Sleepiness. A cute guy or girl, someone drumming on the table, friends whispering, a cell phone or siren going off.
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Another tip: Avoid “Overthinking” your SAT Essay
That’s right: Overthinking can kill you on the SAT. Especially on the SAT essay.
Overthinking is that state of mind where no forward progress is happening. No points are being accumulated. Thoughts run wild or in circles. Interesting but irrelevant trains of thought are pursued without regard for the task at hand. It can be pleasant to put the pencil down and just “think.”
In extremely short doses – 10 seconds here, 15 seconds there – this is effective, as it allows us to compose ourselves, rest our hand, and attack the page again. The danger is that 15 seconds can stretch to 30 seconds, and 30 seconds without making progress on the SAT essay is enough time to realize that you just wasted a lot of time, and then panic starts to set in, and momentum disappears.
And then you’ve wasted 2 1/2 minutes staring into space (does it really matter if it’s deep thought or simple panic? Nope!), which is about 10% of your entire allotted time to write the SAT essay. And now you’re in trouble.
Why speed is so important when writing an SAT essay
Why does every second count so much on the SAT essay?
Well, keep in mind that independent research has demonstrated a fairly significant link between SAT essay scores and length of the essay. Plain and simple, all things being equal, the longer essay will receive a higher score. (I need to find my citation, but this is my experience as well!)
That’s why I tell my students to fill both pages of the essay. Tricks like adding tons of details, effective summaries, using cool vocab words, and advance preparation of your evidence can help you get there.
Time, on the SAT essay, is either your enemy or your friend – stay cool and work tirelessly, and you’ll put everyone else in the room to shame as they panic and succumb to hand cramps. But think too long or too deeply and you’re missing the forest for the trees – “critical thinking” is not what the SAT essay measures so much as “essay production.” You’re more of an essay factory than a philosopher when it comes to the essay section.
Don’t forget to check out my SAT essay strategy guidebook for serious in-depth information on these topics and more.
SAT Essay Tip: Make plans before test day
So what am I supposed to do on the SAT essay – just never ever apply any critical thinking whatsoever? Great question! NO! Of course not – I don’t mean for you to read that far into what I’m saying. Heh. It’s simply a matter of when you do that thinking.
Most of your SAT essay critical thinking should be done before you even set foot in the testing room. Prepare your evidence weeks ahead of time (this website can help with that) – have a lot of options to choose from, and have some variety in your examples.
Use people and events from history and literature, current events, your personal life. Just get your examples together ahead of time, and know some cold, hard facts like names, dates, places, and plot points (6-10 for each person, book, or event is a good number) so you can write tons and tons without having to think a lot.
My book, Top 30 Examples to Use as SAT Essay Evidence, provides dozens of great prepared examples for you to use! The rest of your thinking should come mainly in the first 3 minutes of the allotted SAT essay time.
Three minutes is all you need (and all you can afford to spend) to “spin” or twist your prepared evidence to fit whatever ridiculous topic the College Board has dreamed up for you.
Select which bits of evidence can apply best (and most easily) to the topic, pick a few key specifics from the facts you’ve memorized, and then START WRITING.
Don’t hesitate. Don’t slow down. DON’T OVERTHINK.
Picking the right evidence and having a good personal essay routine and standard format will go much further towards a “perfect 12” SAT essay than 15 minutes spent thinking on the day of the test.
Try to include some vocabulary words – this overlaps with other demands of the verbal section, so you might as well work on it now!
How it feels to write a perfect 12 SAT essay:
When I wrote my SAT essay (which scored 12/12) I felt like I was just vomiting all my prepared evidence and arguments onto the page. The words and arguments came out so fast and with such a lack of original, creative thought that it startled me.
In my opinion, my “perfect” SAT essay was the worst essay I’d ever written in my high school career – bar none. There was a total lack of experimentation, passion, and flexibility – the essay had no soul. No heart.
Another reason was my deliberate planning and forethought regarding my use of advanced vocabulary words in my essay.
Unfortunately, until the College Board designs a better way of testing writing skills, this is where you want to be. Don’t get fancy. Pump out a good, solid, well-structured 4- or 5- paragraph essay in your neatest handwriting and fill as many lines as you can. That’s how you do it.
More SAT essay tips to come. And I’ll try to follow my own advice and post more often! The funny thing is how much I love it, once I get started! Give me a shout if you learned something new from this article!
What is the SAT Essay?
SAT Essay Time and How Best to Use It
Top 5 Historical Examples for the SAT Essay
How to Write a Great 5-Paragraph SAT Essay
Top 10 Tips for the SAT Essay
4 Tips for a Better SAT Essay