So you have your universal SAT essay examples and your #2 pencil. You’re rearing to go! But before you open that prompt and start writing like a madman, there are a couple of general rules you need to follow that could make or break your SAT essay score.

1. Generally avoid using personal examples. Do not talk about your love of cats. Do not give a moment-by-moment account of your first kiss. Do not make an analogy using your grandmother’s family-famous pecan pie. Do not use the words “you” and “my,” because the personal examples you use may very well be made up.

Unless you are actually a famous rock star or a real-life debutante whose personal life is splayed across magazine covers, your personal examples are not as obviously credible as historical or literary examples. You’ve been in high school for three years now, give or take a few months; the College Board wants to see that you’ve actually learned something there that you can communicate clearly and concisely.

Exception: If the prompt directly asks you for a personal response, try personal examples of challenges you’ve faced in structured environments, like with a sports or debate team, or of times you learned how to do something new, like riding a bike. These tend to be the easiest examples to use in an SAT essay that could support nearly any prompt.

2. Religion is a touchy subject. It’s fine to refer to a particular religion in your essay, but only objectively. Mentioning Mormons as American pioneers would be an appropriate blend of religion and history, but the SAT essay is not an appropriate vehicle for conversion messages. You may (accidentally or otherwise) offend people with something you write – say, if you hate on another religion or promote an especially radical one. You may offend the reader of your SAT essay, who may not agree with your personal opinions or beliefs regarding the religion you bring up. Your reader is not supposed to be biased, but we’re all human beings. Luckily, you have two readers grade your essay, just in case one grades unfairly, but it’s easier if you don’t go asking for trouble.

3. Politics is also touchy. Apply a neutral, journalistic approach to political events. For example, you could deliver a stronger argument to the success or importance of the civil rights movement by mentioning Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the first African-American president of the United States. That is a fact that arguably wouldn’t be possible without the success of the Civil Rights Movement, but going on in detail about your personal opinions regarding Obama may encourage a bias in the grader of your essay.

The bottom line? You have a plethora of examples that could relate to any SAT essay prompt you come across: choose ones that are appropriate in this setting, and keep your audience in mind.

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  1. Mary on June 2, 2013

    If all else fails, it’s ok to use personal examples as last resorts. You have to remember that the graders are grading for how you structure an argument, not if you used personal accounts or made innacurate information. There are people who made up entire historical events and still got high scores. Yet, it’s easier to come up with real historical events rather than make one up. It’s worse to waste 15 minutes making a weak argument for a historical event that you barely know or an event/book that doesn’t connect well with the prompt.

    It’s better to come up with a personal account that you can draw from more effectively than use a book/event that you cannot. It’s HOW you use your examples, not necessarily WHAT it is,

    • Lily Herman on June 2, 2013

      I’m glad you expanded on something Lili touched on! As a general rule, literary/historical examples weigh more in an SAT reader’s mind because they show an understanding of classroom material and that the student actually learned something while sitting in English or History class. But as you point out, the flaw is that the SAT does not take off points for inaccurate information; I could say that George Washington crossed the Nile in 2010 and that would still be counted as correct. I think the point Lili is trying to make is that if a student is going to use personal examples, they should be heavily fleshed out and on-topic as opposed to random and not very detailed (though I do love a good pecan pie recipe).

      But at the end of the day, you have to play the game because the SAT itself is a game. You have to decide whether or not you want to take the risk if you know a fake historical fact would make your argument stronger than a personal example.

  2. Johnathon on December 7, 2013

    Making up facts on the essay is the most fun part! I put for a personal example that when I flew to East Asia to pursue my love of tai-jutsu and nin-jutsu under the teaching of my master, Kwon Shing Xiang, I learned that the true meaning of life was (insert essay prompt here). For my second example I put that the death of my parents from a microwave explosion also helped me realize whatever it was.

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