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?
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.
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!).