How to Write the Perfect 12-Point SAT ESSAY, Even if You Suck at Writing (Part 1)

By | April 30, 2008

SAT EssaySince I’ve been getting so many requests in the last few days to write about the SAT Essay, I’m going to take a break today from the Error Identification Questions to address this topic.

When I was preparing for the SAT II Writing Test, the essay was one of the biggest sources of anxiety for me. With a different essay topic for each test, it just seemed like such a crapshoot. “What if the topic is something I know nothing about?” I always wondered. There were many times when I would take practice tests, and just not write anything! I didn’t know how to approach the essay and my mind would just blank. How could you prepare for something you know nothing about?? Thankfully, I realized that just like the rest of the SAT, the essay is graded by standardized measures, and if I could just meet those measures I could achieve a high score, regardless of my writing abilities or knowledge of the topic. As many of you can imagine I eventually did very well on the essay, and I’ll explain to you how.

But before we get started, first take out the Official SAT Study Guide (yes, that big blue book). Seriously, go get it right now. If you don’t own a copy yet, you have bigger issues than worrying about the essay. Ok, now turn with me to page 200. DO IT. Stop being lazy, go pick up your book, and turn to page 200. You with me now? OK, good.

This example essay (p. 200-201) is what the Collegeboard people consider to be a perfect SAT essay – it would receive a score of 6 (on a scale from 0 to 6) by two separate graders for a total of 12 points. You don’t have to read it yet. Just glance at it for a moment. Now turn to page 202: this is an example of an essay that would receive a score of 5. Turn the page again to p. 204: this is another example of an essay that received a score of 5. Turn the page again to page 206: here’s an example of an essay that received a score of 4. Turn the page again to page 208: you’ll find another 4 essay. Turn the page again to page 210: here, you’ll see an example of an essay that would receive a score of 3. Over on 211 you’ll see an example of an essay that would receive a score of 2. And finally, if you turn the page one more time to page 212, you’ll see an example of an essay that would receive a score of 1. Notice anything??

The Superficial Things Matter, a lot

If you actually followed along with me on this exercise, you should have noticed one obvious thing, there’s a direct correlation between the length of the essay and its score. Why is this the case? Well if you ask the ETS and CollegeBoard people (the people who develop and administer the SATs) they’ll readily admit that such a correlation exists. Their reasoning is that while quantity does not necessarily equal quality, in a 25-minute essay, which is a relatively short amount of time, the more you write, the more you’ll develop and articulate your ideas – which in essence is the point of the essay. Valid point.

Another significant factor also explains this correlation between the length of the essay and its score: time. No not the time it takes you to write the essay, but the time it takes the grader to grade it. How much time do you think a grader spends on each essay? One hour meticulously weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each argument you make, determining the validity of each point, checking the facts you cite, and evaluating the structural sophistication of your sentences? No way. You would think that they have to spend at least 25 minutes, the length it took for you to write the damn thing, right? Wrong again. 10 minutes? 5 minutes? Nope and nope.

The reality is that the graders spend in the ballpark of 2 minutes, if that, on each essay. And, they probably know after just the first 30 seconds what score they’re going to give you, within the range of one point. Think about it, with 2.5 million students taking the test each year, how much time COULD they really spend on each essay? Most of the graders are volunteer teachers who already have busy lives. Plus, they’re not getting paid!

So what does this mean to you the test-taker? The SUPERFICIAL things, like length, matter a great deal on this test. Obviously the content of your writing does matter, but for the most part, the more you write, the better you’ll score, so write more! On a short 2 page, hand-written essay every sentence you add, adds significantly more to the essay. One of the best areas to add to essay is to explain your evidence more thoroughly. So anytime you site an example from a book you read in English class, or an event you learned in History class, add at least one more sentence than you already have to more thoroughly explain how this example supports your main point.

Another superficial factor that could improve your score, is the use of SAT caliber vocabulary. You know all those words you studied for the Critical Reading questions? Use them in your essay! The best place to put these words is within the first paragraph of your essay. Since your grader will make a significant judgment of your writing abilities within the first few seconds of reading your essay, it would be smart to put those vocabulary words within the first few sentences. Just make sure you use them appropriately.


Ok, now on to how you should structure your essay. When it comes to structure, it may be worthwhile to first consider how every other student is going to organize his or her essay. Almost every high school English class uses a tripartite essay format, where the thesis comes in the first paragraph and introduces two or three examples. Then the body of the essay has one corresponding paragraph that elaborates on each example from the thesis. Finally, the conclusion just reiterates the main point one last time. Refer to the example below:

What the Typical Student Writes:


– General introduction to topic.

– Thesis: Examples A, B, and C prove my point that…


– Paragraph 1:

– Topic Sentence 1: Example A supports my point because…

– blah, blah, blah

– Paragraph 2:

– Topic Sentence 2: Example B supports my point because…

– blah, blah, blah

– Paragraph 3:

– Topic Sentence 3: Example C supports my point because…

– blah, blah, blah


– Through Examples A, B, and C, I have proven my point that…

Look familiar? I’m sure this is what most standard high school essays look like, and this is pretty much what every student’s SAT Essay will look like. If you follow this format and you’re a decent writer, this should garner a score of 8 (4 points by each grader). But you’re not reading this to earn an 8, you want that 12.

So what’s wrong with this essay? Nothing, it’s just that every single student will produce the same essay, and if you also produce such an essay, you’ll have give the grader no reason to give you a higher score than average, an 8. But not to worry. I’ll go over exactly how to distinguish your essay from all the others and impress the grader enough to earn you that 12 in my next post.

Click here to continue on to How to Write the Perfect 12-Point Essay (Part 2)

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Topics: The ESSAY | 14 Comments »

14 Responses to “How to Write the Perfect 12-Point SAT ESSAY, Even if You Suck at Writing (Part 1)”

  1. SAT « Pesharim Says:
    June 7th, 2008 at 12:08 am

    […] How to Write the Perfect 12-point SAT Essay, Even if You Suck at Writing (Part 1) […]

  2. faust Says:
    December 3rd, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    helooooooo ??
    Can you please complete your blog regarding the essay ?? its very very important!

  3. GrammarNazi Says:
    January 3rd, 2009 at 8:14 am

    This is brilliant!
    Now if only we had a Part two to complete it…*Hint hint*!

  4. mia Says:
    August 2nd, 2009 at 11:22 am

    plz cud u complete this essay article its really important
    i’ve done my sat once
    i sucked at it
    i got a 1910
    same case wid my friend but she reappeared and studied wid ur blog and scored 2300!
    so i’m doing the same
    so wud u plz complete ur article??!!

  5. anonymous Says:
    December 22nd, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    I listened to this advice, i fail at writing, but got a 12 in my essay :):) and a 740 overall!

    Thanks SAT ninja

  6. Eunwhui Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    thank you so much for your adviceeee!!!

  7. How to Write the Perfect 12-Point SAT Essay, Even if You Suck at Writing (Part 2) | SAT Ninja: SAT Strategy Expert Says:
    May 8th, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    […] post of is a continuation of my first post on the SAT Essay Section. If you’re preparing for the SAT Essay, you may want to first start […]

  8. Michael Says:
    June 26th, 2010 at 1:50 am

    I concur with most of the ideas presented by the author, however I think the generic format can work if done correctly. I received a 12 on my essay using the above format, but my high score was derived from my use of unique examples i.e. Eritrea’s plight(a country in East Africa) and globalization(I cited The World is Flat), as well as above average vocabulary. Really, having 2-3 interesting, informative examples that provide the proverbial hook in order to captivate the grader will help you in attaining a 12.

  9. what Says:
    September 12th, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    ineed a visual real example

  10. Michelle, Test Prep Tutor « Michelle, Test Prep Tutor Says:
    May 3rd, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    […] (i.e. AcademicHacker’s “How to Write a 12 Essay in 10 Days”). SAT Ninja’s two-part post on the SAT essay is a useful read, as is the essay section on the Ultimate SAT Verbal blog and the RR excerpt about […]

  11. Jon Says:
    September 3rd, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Is there a part three to “How to write the perfect 12-point SAT Essay?” My students really enjoyed the article and learned many things from it. He hopes there is a part three, because part two seems to end rather sharply.

  12. SheReef Says:
    August 31st, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    in fact , that’s what i’m doing in SAT essay , but I’ve no idea about giving examples of successful people , so i wrote about imaginary people and i scored 9

    i think you should try this way
    i got 9 because my english sucks maybe you would have better than 9 😉

  13. sarah Says:
    April 10th, 2014 at 2:50 am

    Could you post more SAT words that can be used in multiple essays? (like ‘ostensible’)

  14. “Acing the SAT” | ????, ??????? Says:
    June 7th, 2014 at 9:45 am

    […]… […]


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