Those fall SAT dates are coming! If you are a junior, you are probably taking the exam for the first time. If you are a senior, my guess is that a retake or two is on the horizon. And if you are a sophomore, you are getting a great head start (the ideal)!

From my experience, students tend to consider the SAT essay one of the most anxiety-inducing components of the exam. How do you prepare for an essay prompt that–to put it in the parlance of the day–seems “random”? How can you be sure that you will be able to come up with an appropriate thesis?  What about those body-paragraph examples? What if you cannot think of relevant supporting evidence on the spot? And let us not forget about the time pressure.

Little seems to be in your control. But control you will have if you devise the right strategy by familiarizing yourself with the basic themes test makers stick to, reviewing past SAT essay prompts, and preparing your examples in advance.

When I suggest this strategy to students, they tend to resist it. It seems like a lot of work. I won’t lie; it will take some time. Nonetheless, you will feel much more in command and confident in your work if you approach the essay in this proactive fashion.

Step 1: Studying Essay Themes and Past Prompts

To begin with, the SAT essay prompts are not as random as you think. Rather, they fall into a set number of categories (with a few exceptions).

  • Individuality versus Conformity
  • Motivation and Success
  • Technological Progress
  • Heroes
  • Tradition
  • Loyalty

In addition, you can view every SAT prompt administered since 2005, when the writing section was first incorporated into the exam. If you read over these prompts, you will begin to detect a pattern that will aid you in anticipating what will come your way when you receive your booklet on test day.

Step 2: Preparing Your Examples in Advance of the Exam

Yes, this is possible. Now that you have a sense of the general themes addressed in the essay portion of the exam, you can then further prepare.

  1. Make a general list of all the books you’ve read for school or pleasure, historical figures and events that might be relevant, current issues, and personal observations. Make sure these examples are not typical (no MLK, for example, unless you have a unique approach to information not generally known).
  2. Think outside of the box for your examples as well. Plays, songs, documentaries, articles from Wired Magazine, for example, are all fair game. The more imaginative you are in choosing your examples (provided they are correctly executed and well written), the better chance you have at receiving a higher score.
  3. Outline key characters, scenes, events. Be as concrete possible. Use character’s names and discuss the particulars of their relationship, conflict, etc.  Make sure your historical dates or general time frame is accurate and that the narrative you give about a war, a scientific experiment, or a figure’s life is clear, detailed, and correct. When addressing an issue of contemporary concern, include the specifics of the issue and the crux of the problem, conflicts involved, or the success it has brought.
  4. Note examples that may be used for more than one category. View these examples as clay you can mold. Think in an open and expansive way.
  5. You now have an example bank or storehouse at your fingertips.
  6. With your examples categorized, begin drafting body paragraphs for each. Yes, I mean it. Write before the exam. Anticipate how each could be used to provide evidence. Draft and then revise your paragraphs in order to ensure that your paragraphs are coherent, logically correct, and stylistically appealing. In other words, work out all of the kinks in advance. When it comes to test day, while you won’t have memorized your paragraphs, your prior writing and thinking will nonetheless come to mind once you begin tackling the essay.
  7. Warning: make sure your examples are on-topic and link back to your thesis statement. This is another kink you can work on in advance.

To take an example, if I have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I would immediately put it in the category “Individualy versus Conformity.” I would then outline the way in which Hester Prynne defies the ethical standards of the of the Puritan community in which she lives. Next, I would make the argument that although she is shunned by society, Hester winds up being forgiven later in life by the townswomen in her community. In the end, she dies an honorable woman, which means that her defiance and independence, despite ostracism and persecution, paid off in the end.

After all of this strategizing, I would draft this paragraph in a logical and coherent way, adding more details than in the outline. A revision would come next and then the paragraph would be filed in my example bank for future review. I would then move on to the next example.

A lot of work, yes. But students who have followed my advice have come out on top. As we all know, success for most of us depends on an advanced strategy and a bit of labor. Get to work and ace the essay!