For a lot of students, the essay section of the SAT continues to cause the most anxiety. With its exceedingly general style of prompts and limited time constraint of just twenty-five minutes, it’s hard to know where and how to begin.
The SAT proposes broad questions that can sometimes be overwhelming. Rather than allowing it to be a source of confusion, remember that it’s the one part of your standardized test that allows you to channel creativity. But creativity comes at a cost as well: it’s difficult to outline a good, coherent, and creative first draft in less than half an hour and then actually write the whole essay. The trick is to do some of it beforehand.
I hear you – how can you complete part of your essay when you haven’t even seen the prompt?!
It’s easier than it sounds. During my time practicing for the SAT (this can also apply to other standardized writing tests), I used a tactic that allowed me to practically recycle my essays so that I could spend less time thinking of examples to use and more time fabricating better quality essays.
I was tired of overusing examples from The Great Gatsby or talking about Hitler and morals because I always ended up concluding with the same cliche aphorisms. Eventually, I found a book just as general as the SAT prompts: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. When I read chapters of the book for an English class, I started thinking about more than just imaginary characters and mulled over the more transcendental thoughts that Thoreau reflected. These were thoughts about happiness, independence, personal success, and morality – which happened to be the exact content of SAT essays. Jackpot.
Now, Walden might not be the most interesting book (it is, after all, about his nearly isolated life in a cabin next to a pond, so no convoluted plot-lines there), but it is one of the most widely applicable books I’ve ever read. Questions about overcoming obstacles, honesty and conscience, and even interactions with other people (clearly something Thoreau rarely did out there in the woods for a couple years) could be answered by some of the reflections he recorded in Walden, making my life much easier as I took the SATs.
Let’s take a quick look at some past SAT prompts, all from the CollegeBoard’s website:
- Does true loyalty require unconditional support?
- Must our achievements benefit others in order to make us truly happy?
- Is having too many choices a problem?
- Should we always think before we speak?
These questions could go either way. I could easily say “it depends” for a number of these prompts, but it’s hard to come up with solid, evidential support on-the-spot. But the philosophical musings of a sophisticated fellow like Thoreau helped me make my shaky opinion sound much more academic. Because I’d read, re-read, contemplated, and actually learned from his writings, I was able to apply it to every single SAT prompt I could find, which lead me to great double-digit success on the actual test.
This is exactly what I advise all future SAT-takers to do. Walden itself may not be your cup of tea, but there are dozens of books out there that are highly applicable to many of these essay prompts. Books like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill A Mockingbird all help students nurture their intellect, but in scenes like the SAT, they stifle originality. By finding a lesser known but equally sophisticated read and trying to apply it to prompt after prompt, you can essentially recycle parts of your essay.