Writing an Interesting SAT Essay in 25 Minutes

Download Free: Preparing for College in High School: A To-Do List for Eleventh Graders

A skeleton does not a human make.

A common mistake students make on the SAT essay is thinking that if they stick to a formulaic approach, they will get a good SAT score essay-wise. The thing is using a “cookie cutter” approach to the essay can often result in a dull, predictable—and not at all convincing—essay.

What is this approach, I speak of? Well, many students have the following formula in mind: intro with a thesis, three body examples (topic sentence and final sentence that ties back to the thesis), and a conclusion. They plod their way through the essay with about as much enthusiasm as someone about to go the dentist’s to get his wisdom teeth pulled.  That is not to say you don’t want to follow a general outline. Indeed, that quick formula is about as good as any other. However, a skeleton does not a human make. In other words, you got to make your essay interesting, by keeping your examples fresh and your writing lively.

Below are two excerpts from the SAT essay prompt: Do we need adversity to help us realize our true potential?

Example #1

We need to struggle to improve. Last year, I got a bad score on my history test. It was the first ‘F’ I got. I was very disappointed with myself. Moving on from that time, I studied every day history because I wanted to score well. This time was very hard for me. But I studied all night for the final and I got an ‘A’. Therefore, we need adversity to help us improve.

Example #2

In the sophomore year, the Napoleonic Wars held about as much fascination for me as paint drying on a wall—and it showed: I failed the first history midterm. I had always been at least a ‘B’ student, something I could pull off without too much effort. But history, with all those facts, dates, and names, made my head throb in pain, and attaining a ‘C’ seemed like a feat that would require more than one all night study session. At first, it was worse than I thought. After hours of studying I could only remember a few main themes (okay, the Austrian Empire lost the war); but Mr. Thompson would want to know the exact date and the names of the losers and winners. After weeks of struggle, I came up with a system of memorizing facts that actually worked. For someone with a memory of a sea sponge, this was an incredible accomplishment. I didn’t end up falling in love with history, but through the adversity of actually failing a test, I learned to become a better learner. Oh, and that World History class? I actually ended up getting an A-.

Besides some questionable grammar, what is the major difference between these two essays? The second one actually tells an interesting story. Not one with generic facts (“bad score”, “studied all night”), but with specific and engaging details (“my head throb in pain”, “the Austrian Empire lost the war”, “ended up getting an A-“). Notice the second essay also has some comical phrases (“paint drying on a wall”, “memory of a sea sponge”). That is not to say that you have to write exactly like this student. But learn to inject colorful details and clever turns of phrases to your writing. If you do so, your essay will be more persuasive.

I should note that the second example is not perfect; there isn’t too much analysis on how adversity shapes us. Also, it is a little vague on this pivotal “system of memorizing facts”. I would have liked a bit more on how the process was very difficult and the student felt like giving up, but that he/she stuck with the “memory system”, making them a better student. That said, the second example keeps our attention riveted throughout with its turns of phrases, and would probably be a part of an essay that went on to score a ‘10’ (SAT essay scores are based out of ‘12’ points).

The moral of this story: Don’t get so fixated on structure that you forget to tell an interesting—but relevant—story. And to tell an interesting story, don’t be afraid to use a colorful phrase (or two!).

Download Free: Preparing for College in High School: A To-Do List for Eleventh Graders

magooshThis post was written by Chris Lele, resident SAT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on taking the SAT, check out Magoosh’s SAT blog.

Waitlisted! What Now?

Listen to the full recording of 'Waitlisted! Now What?'So, you’ve been waitlisted and you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. You can choose to do either, neither or both, but then it is time to figure out what to do next.

Listen to the recording of our latest podcast episode to hear Linda Abraham’s six tips for waitlisted applicants. Make sure you know what to do (and what not to do!) to ensure that you are the candidate on the very top of that waitlist.

00:01:28 – Devastated about your waitlisted status? Don’t give up!

00:02:16 – Don’t be an independent thinker please.

00:03:43 – Self-evaluate and take action.

00:04:24 – Spread the good word (even if it doesn’t relate to your weaknesses).

00:05:44 – Schools like applicants who are interested in attending their program!

00:06:13 – Don’t spam the adcom.

00:06:48 – How a waitlist letter should begin and what it should include.

00:07:33 – Addressing your weaknesses without sounding weak.

Admissions Straight Talk Subscribe to Admissions Straight Talk in iTunes so you don’t miss a single show!

*Theme music is courtesy of podcastthemes.com.

Relevant Links:

•  MBA Waitlist Advice 101
•  Med School Waitlist Advice 101
•  Grad School Waitlist Advice 101
•  College Waitlist Advice 101 
•  The Nine Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make on an MBA Waitlistan ebook
•  The Nine Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make on a Med School Waitlistan ebook
•  The Nine Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make on a Law School Waitlist, an ebook

Subscribe to Admissions Straight Talk:

Subscribe to Admissions Straight Talk in iTunes!     Subscribe to Admissions Straight Talk in Stitcher!

Two Ways to Reveal Leadership in Your Applications

Leadership is one of the of the most valued attributes in admissions. In this short video, Linda Abraham discusses two main ways you can show the adcom that you are a leader.

For more tips on revealing leadership in your applications, check out:

•  Leadership in Admissions, a free special report.

•  4 Ways to Show How You’ll Contribute in the Future

•  What Should I Write About? Making a Difference

•  MBA Admissions A-Z: L is for Leadership


Review of BenchPrep’s Online Test Prep Site

Check out BenchPrep!I just logged into the BenchPrep test prep website and am welcomed with their greeting of “Gain an unfair advantage on test day”; I like this – a test prep site with an edge! Let’s continue exploring…

After you sign in and choose your test (see list below), you’ll then choose your target test date. The program then generates a study plan of week-by-week tasks that you’ll need to complete to achieve your optimal preparedness for your chosen exam. Each task has a timeframe next to it, indicating the expected amount of time the exercise should take – a nice touch.

As you move through the little icons on the left side of the screen, you’ll encounter some nice features – games (mainly flashcard games – pretty simple and straightforward), practice tests, discussion boards, study groups, and others. Another organizational feature is the table of contents icon which, when you click on it, gives you a very clear outline of your study plan with links to other parts of the site.

There is also a BenchPrep mobile app (Android and iPhone), making this program excellent for test-preppers on-the-go!

One thing I’d like to see more of on this site are videos. There is certainly no shortage of written prep resources here – there are loads of practice tests and explanations and tips, which of course are extremely important. For some people, this may be exactly what they’re looking for, but others – those auditory/visual types – the absence of video will be noticed.

Tests (a sampling):

• AP Exam • GRE • Police Officer Exam
• CFA Level I Exam                       . • LSAT • Postal Exam
• CLEP • MCAT • Praxis Test
• EMT • Nursing School Entrance Exams        . • SAT
• Firefighter Exam • PE Exam


• Ask-a-tutor, and receive an answer within 24 hours
•  Bookmarking and highlighting features
•  Ratings/tracking of your confidence level (so you can go back to review those weak areas)
•  Games
•  Practice tests
•  Discussion boards
•  Study groups

Head to BenchPrep now to check out these features on your own!

MBA Admissions A-Z: 26 Great Tips


Personal Statement Fatal Flaw #1: Lack of Substance

Click here to learn how to avoid the other 4 personal statement fatal flaws.Writing about nothing tends to bore, like a trite sitcom or movie with no plot. They lack substance and so will your essay if it isn’t based on:

• Substantive self-reflection.

• Use of specifics, examples, and anecdotes.

• Willingness to reveal your thought processes and feelings.

So start your writing process with self-knowledge. You don’t have to search the internet or a large library. Start with your experiences and your dreams. Search your head and your heart. That is where the substance of a good personal statement is stored.

Then use anecdotes, specifics, and examples to reveal what’s in your heart and show that your dreams are grounded in experience. Good examples can bring your essays to life and engage the reader.

At the same time, recognize that essays with only examples and anecdotes don’t reveal your thought processes and consequently are also superficial. Make sure you balance your stories with insight and analysis.

Avoid Fatal Flaw #1: Bring your essays to life with self-reflection and astute use of examples balanced by analysis.

This tip is an excerpt from Five Fatal Flaws: Eliminate the 5 Most Common Flaws in your Application Essays and Personal Statements. To view the entire free special report, please click here.

5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Application Essay or Personal Statement


How to Write Waitlist Update Letters

You are so close to acceptance, but still not quite there! Get the guidance you need to get that offer of admission.

Continue fighting for that acceptance!

The application process is not over for waitlisted applicants. You’ve still got a chance of getting into your dream school, so now’s not the time to slack off, and it’s certainly not the time to give up. Continue fighting for that acceptance!

Your waitlist updates (you write those) and letters of support (other people write these) should focus on three areas:

1) Your growing list of qualifications. You want to prove to the adcoms that while you were a responsible, accomplished, impressive candidate before, now you are even more so. Discuss recent initiatives you’ve taken—in the workplace and in your community—and developments or advances you’ve made in your career or academics.

2) Steps you’ve taken to ameliorate shortcomings. Figure out what weaknesses were revealed in your application and/or interview and work to improve them. Be able to discuss specific changes you’ve made in your life—education and career—that make you a stronger candidate.

3) How you fit with the school. You were born to attend this school and this school was created just for you. Your fit is as perfect as a cozy glove on a cold hand.

Waitlist Update Writing Step-By-Step:

1) Begin your letter by briefly thanking the school for considering your application. Don’t talk about your disappointment; instead focus on how the school’s philosophy and approach fit your educational goals.

2) Discuss your recent accomplishments. Choose achievements that you did not address in your application and try and tie them back to key themes in your essays. These could include a recent promotion, freshly minted A’s, a new leadership role in a project or organization, a recent volunteer experience, initiatives you’ve taken in your department, business, or club, additional work responsibilities, etc.

3) Talk about the measures you’ve taken to ameliorate your weaknesses, if necessary. Focus on the action you’ve taken rather than on the actual shortcoming. For example, if you have/had weak communication skills, discuss how you enrolled in Toastmasters and how the experience has influenced and inspired you.

4) If you are sure that upon acceptance you would attend, inform the school of your commitment.

Above all, stay positive as your letter will reflect your attitude. Adcoms do not want to read a bitter and angry letter, nor will they want that writer in their classrooms.

A couple of caveats:

• Don’t waste your reader’s time by repeating material already in your application.

• Don’t write if the school states explicitly that it doesn’t want to hear from you.

Help! I'm on the waitlist!

For more information on how to transform your waitlist status into an acceptance, check out one of Accepted’s popular waitlist ebooks:

• The Nine Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make on an MBA Waitlist

• The Nine Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make on a Med School Waitlist

• The Nine Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make on a Law School Waitlist


So You Aced the PSAT: Should You Still Study for the SAT?

Check out 'Preparing for College in High School: A To-Do List for Eleventh Graders'

Warning: A top score on the PSAT doesn’t guarantee anything.

Man, what a feeling. You take the PSAT at the start of junior year and have a higher score than almost anybody you know. You’re set, right? In the clear. Don’t even have to worry about the SAT—it’s pretty much the same thing right?

Alright, so this doesn’t happen to everybody. After all, only 10% of students can be in the 90th percentile. That’s how it works. But let’s say this is you, just as it was me: you’ve confirmed that you’re a good test-taker and you know your stuff, and you’re ready to wash your hands of the whole thing.

Stop there. Don’t get cocky; it’s not that simple. Even if you already know everything you need to know about the PSAT vs the SAT, a top score on the PSAT doesn’t guarantee anything. Yes, if you did well, you’ll probably do well on the SAT, too. But it’s not a sure thing, and this isn’t worth gambling over. SAT scores fluctuate, sometimes by a hundred points or more, and the less experience you have with the test, the more likely that there’s going to be some inconsistency.

Besides that, your reach schools might be looking for scores that are already on level with your PSAT score as it is, even if it is high. And if your PSAT scores drop jaws but your goal schools are only modest, then it’s time to start looking at even higher-tier schools: ivy leagues tend to look pretty good on resumes, and you’ve just shown that your test-taking skills, at least, might be up to snuff.

And if you do decide to go for the gold and apply to the best-ranked schools, then you might need to do some serious test prep to seal the deal, rather than gambling based on your PSAT score. Take a look at Harvard SAT scores, for example: 75 percent of students score over 2100. (If we compare that to the PSAT, that’s around a 200 composite score.) The story isn’t so different with Yale SAT scores, either; top schools expect top scores. Are you absolutely certain you’re going to score that high? If you aren’t—and who is?—then yeah, you might want to study for the SAT. It’s a lot of work to take on when you’ve already got classes, extra-curriculars, and a life, but whatever you can make time for is worth it if it brings you closer to your dream school.

All that being said, I want to make it clear that I don’t recommend serious prep for everybody. If you’re absolutely sure that any and every school you want to apply to has average SAT scores much lower than what you’re expecting based on your PSAT, then there are probably other things you should be focusing on. Your test scores are only part of the package, and if they’re already the strongest part by far, then you shouldn’t spend too much time and energy on them, of course.

But be careful not to write those scores off, either.

Here is what you can do to prep for college in high school.

magooshThis post was written by Lucas Verney-Fink, resident SAT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on SAT prep, check out Magoosh’s SAT blog.

4 Tips for Writing about Last Minute Extracurricular Activities

Learn how to demonstrate leadership in your admissions essays!

It’s possible that you’ve been involved in extracurricular activities without even realizing it.

You want to write about all your fantastic non-school and non-work endeavors so that you really stand out from your competition, but when you start to think about it…you draw a blank. There must be SOMETHING you can show for how you use your free time, but what?

Have you found yourself in a last minute lurch looking for extracurricular activities? Note the following:

1. Better Late than Never.

If you don’t have any extracurricular activities to speak of, then I suggest you find something interesting to do and start NOW. You may ask: “Isn’t it better to try and bypass the subject of extracurriculars entirely rather than highlight the fact that I’ve only gotten involved in an activity for the sake of my application? Won’t that seem phony?” While involvement in an extracurricular activity for just a few months is less impressive than long-term participation, it’s still better than presenting no participation at all. You can keep kicking yourself, over and over again, wishing that you had thought of this earlier and gotten involved in some activity years ago, but now’s not the time to harp on regrets; now is the time to act. Get out there and do something.

2. Even Short-Term Involvement Can Transform You.

Participation in a non-school and non-work activities, even if just for a limited period of time, will elevate your flat, one-dimensional admissions profile into something more vibrant, colorful, and interesting. Now’s your chance to transform yourself from a pile of grades and scores into a real, live human being – one who pursues his or her interests and passions outside of the work and school arenas.

3. Your Application Efforts May be Delayed or Extended.

Another reason why you should jump right into an extracurricular activity, even though you may feel like it’s too last minute, is because you don’t know for certain the outcome of your application effort. You may, for one reason or another, decide to push off applying until the next year; you may get waitlisted; you may get dinged from all your top choice schools and decide to reapply next year – whatever the case may be, this could be the beginning of what turns out to be an entire year of extracurricular involvement.

4. Hobbies are Good for YOU!

Forget for a minute that you’re applying to school (if that’s possible) and think about what’s actually good for you. It’s not healthy to site at work for 18+ hours a day only to go home and crash on the couch because you’re too tired to make it to bed. Forget the application process – you should find something to do non-work (and non-school and non-other-obligations) related because it will enrich your life and make you a happier person.

Also, it’s possible that you’ve been involved in extracurricular activities without even realizing it. Mine your experiences to uncover unique experiences that could be considered “extracurricular.” You don’t need clear-cut activities like “Acted as president of the chess club” or “Volunteered in local soup kitchen”; consider non-traditional or non-altruistic activities, like singing in a choir, participating in a weekly fiction writing circle with friends, helping your hyperactive triplet cousin do homework catch-up once a week since forever ago.

These are all completely valid ways of breaking from work, and it won’t be hard to illustrate your passions and interests in these activities, not to mention the leadership skills your developed and the other ways in which you grew and learned from them.

Take home message: It’s NEVER too late to get involved in some meaningful, interesting, and fun extracurricular activity!

Learn everything you need to know about how to tackle the tricky leadership questions that the adcoms love to throw into applications and interviews.


What You Need to Know About Post-bac Programs

Listen to our conversation with Dr. Barry Rothman!Career changers and academic enhancers on the way to med school: Meet Dr. Barry Rothman, a leader in the field of post-bac education, SFSU Professor of Biology, Director of Post-Bac Programs, Director of SFSU’s Health Professionals Advising Committee, Director of the Pre-Health Professions Certificate Program, and Director of the SFSU U of Pacific Dental Post-bac Program (wow!).

Listen to the full recording of our interview for excellent insights into post-bac education and admissions from the post-bac guru.

00:03:21 – The journey from snail nervous system research to post-baccalaureate education.

00:08:57 – The support group model: The SFSU post-bac program.

00:15:33 – Post-bac programs for career changers.

00:18:30 – Post-bac programs for academic enhancers.

00:21:50 – When is it time to actually apply to med school? (And a word about tug-of-war with parents.)

00:24:51 – The advantages of a formal post-bac program.

00:29:00 – Post-bac programs come in many flavors: how to figure out which is best for you.

00:33:10 – Is there a future for post-bac education online?

00:36:07 – Advice for career changers.

00:37:57 – “I study so hard, but my friends get As and I get Bs!” Sound familiar?

00:47:36 – Plan on applying to med school in June? The fastest way to medical school is slowly. A good pace can = good results.

Admissions Straight Talk Subscribe to Admissions Straight Talk in iTunes so you don’t miss any segments! Stay in the admissions know.

*Theme music is courtesy of podcastthemes.com.

Relevant Links:

• A Second Chance at Medical School: The A-Z of Applying to Postbac Programs
• Navigating the Med School Mazetips to help you apply successfully to medical school.
• Medical School Reapplicant Advice: 6 Tips for Success

Health Professions @SFSU with info about different post-bac options.
Dr. Barry Rothman’s Bio
The Student Doctor Network
AAMC Post-Bac Resources Page

Related Shows:

• A Window into the World and Life of Medical Scribes
• MCAT Tips and Strategy: An Interview with Don Osborne
• Med School Admissions with Cyd Foote
• Med School Application Process: AMCAS, Secondaries, Interviews, Decisions & More!


Subscribe to Admissions Straight Talk in iTunes!     Subscribe to Admissions Straight Talk in Stitcher!

Interview Tip: Prepare Questions

Learn how to use sample essays to create exemplary essays of your own!

An interview is a two-way street.

Usually when applicants prepare for their admissions interviews, they spend their time trying to figure out what questions will be asked and how they can best answer them. This is important and a good idea. But it’s not the only step to prepping for an admissions interview.

An interview is a two-way street.

Your interviewer will ask you questions and listen your answers, and then will turn the asking over to you. When your interviewer says, “Do you have any questions?” you don’t want to shut the interview down by saying, “Nope, I’m set” but want to keep the flow of the conversation going by taking the reins of the interview into your hands and asking some questions of your own.

There are two things you can do before your interview to help you come up with intelligent questions:

1) Familiarize yourself with the program’s website and other literature. Never ask a question that can be answered easily online.

2) Review your application. Your questions should be specific to your unique situation – your skills, interests, and goals. Questions about the faculty or clubs, for example, should relate to your own education, career, and goals.

Since your goal should be to come up with questions that are specific to your situation, I can’t give you a list of must-ask questions without knowing who YOU are. But here are a few sample questions that you can review and tweak so that the questions are more appropriate for YOU:

• How difficult is it to enroll in a popular class like XYZ? (Insert a class that appeals to you. Not a required course.)

• Do recruiters from XYZ (a company or a particular field that interests you) visit the school? How do students get interviews with recruiters?

• Are business plan competitions (or something else that’s relevant to you) open to all students, or are there certain requirements to qualify?

If you are interviewing with school alum or a second-year student, then you should ask questions about their experiences, for example:

• Who were some of your favorite professors? Favorite classes?

• What is/was a typical day like for you?

• Are there clubs or activities that you would recommend for someone interested in XYZ? What clubs are you involved in? How important do you think it is to be involved in extracurricular activities?

• If you could change anything about your experience at this program, what would it be?

You get the idea. You want to come up with questions that personalize you and that show you have an interest in your interviewer’s experience (if relevant). Be specific, show that you’ve done your research, and most importantly, relax!

Good luck and let us know how we can further help you prepare for your interviews!

Click here to download our free report!