Features of a Top-Scoring SAT Essay

On the current SAT, the 25-minute essay section comes first. It helps set the tone for the rest of the test. Done well, a winning essay will help a student relax and feel confident with the start of the multiple choice sections. If not done well, the essay will linger in the mind of the student and erode his confidence. This is the one somewhat right-brain activity on the SAT. I would argue that top-scoring essays are somewhat formulaic, however. It is easier to know what the “formula” is than to creatively organize a 25-minute essay “on-the-fly”.Even with a formula, the key to a high-scoring essay is having specific and descriptive examples to use for support.

Go-To List of examples

To prepare for the essay, I recommend that students create a Go-To list of people and events that they know about before the test in order to feel confident that in the first 3 minutes they will be able to creatively “choose” examples (from that list) that fit the essay prompt. In creating the Go-To list, students may choose examples from their academics – history and recent English books – and from their knowledge of current events. Student-athletes often follow professional athletes; these sports stars can make wonderful examples for the SAT essay. Recent movies, tv shows, and even personal anecdotes are fair game. Students should review a list of recent SAT essay prompts and see how many of the recent prompts might work with their examples.

Strong stance that is Qualified

Once prepared with a Go-To list, students should understand that the task is always a persuasive essay that requires a student to take a stance. To achieve a higher score (e.g. 10 or higher out of 12), a student must acknowledge that both sides of the argument could work. This allows students to show more critical thinking. A student does this NOT by being wishy-washy but by taking a firm stance that is qualified with a set of conditions that must exist in order for that stance to hold. For example, one might state, “Technology should be avoided, even when it makes our lives easier, WHEN 
the technology introduces significant danger to people.” 
A student can then use a “however” clause to explain that when the conditions are not present, the opposite stance holds. Or, a student may opt to allow that “however” to be implied. Either way, this leaves open the opportunity for a student to provide a “Twist” example in his final body paragraph – that is, taking the opposite stance when the opposite conditions hold. This structured thesis statement with a set of conditions is the first part of the formula for a high-scoring essay.

Additional elements of a successful essay

In addition to having prepared Go-To examples and structuring the thesis statement, a high-scoring essay also has these key elements:

• 3 embellished, descriptive examples – one in each body paragraph

• plethora of high-difficulty SAT vocabulary words

• unique punctuation – semi-colons, colons, or question marks

The detailed, descriptive examples in the next three body paragraphs are the second part of the formula. Students may opt to write positive examples (character takes the student’s stance and is successful), negative examples (character does NOT take the student’s stance and fails), or Twist examples (set of conditions is opposite and so the stance is opposite too). Students will NOT be graded down for incorrect facts; indeed, specificity is required for the higher score. So if you don’t know your facts, or you can be clever and make up plausible “facts” that enhance your argument, do so! In addition, students should try to add as many high-difficulty SAT vocabulary words as possible. Last, being creative with punctuation can also help boost a score. Consider adding semi-colons, colons, or question marks. Varying sentence length and structure, or adding rhetorical questions will make the essay more interesting.

12-Score essay example from October 2015 test

Yes, I sit with the regular students and take these tests, too! My essay examples may differ somewhat from those of a typical junior in high school. In my Go-To list are GMOs, vaccines, and health-oriented issues. And you may notice that I forgot Thomas’s name in the Maze Runner movie. Nonetheless, my essay provides a successful example of the winning formula.


October 2015 ESSAY PROMPT: Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below:

Some people say that leaders are most effective when they are unwilling to compromise. Leaders who refuse to yield are likely to gain the respect of others because they stay true to their beliefs despite fierce opposition. Other people say that leaders are most effective when they are willing to compromise. Leaders who are willing to compromise, they argue, find better solutions to problems because they can understand different perspectives.

ASSIGNMENT: Are leaders more effective when they are willing to compromise? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.


Essay response:

Leaders are not always more effective when they are willing to compromise. If the leader’s original idea benefits the community-at-large or is better for the greater good, then the leader must stick to his original game plan. However, when a compromise would yield a far more beneficial (or less harmful) result, then the leader should compromise. Matt in the Maze Runner movie, the Governor of CA, and the CEO of Monsanto all support this position.

In the Maze Runner movie, Matt quickly became a leader when he broke the long-standing rules of the tribe by entering the maze at the end of the day when the walls were closing. He understood that forces were occurring more quickly, and in order for the tribe to survive, its members would need to change their ways. When all of the walls in the maze opened, Matt vehemently argued that they must get the “Runners” to enter the maze while the others would have to hold down their huts and flee to hide in the forests. The tribe argued, but Matt held steadfast to his vision. In the end, the majority of the tribe survived only because Matt followed his vision and convinced enough of the tribe to band together and follow his lead. Had he compromised, the tribe would surely have been overcome by the monsters.

The Governor of CA, on the other hand, refused to compromise with the issue of forced vaccines. Earlier this year in 2015, SB277 was passed. This new law requires all school children to be vaccinated on schedule in order to attend public schools. We have scientific evidence that this onerous law will definitely harm a great number of infants and young children as we have knowledge of the harmful ingredients of toxic metals (aluminum and mercury), foreign DNA, squalene, formaldehyde, and even potentially nagalese, an enzyme that impairs the immune system. Many eminent doctors wrote letters to the Governor and to the head of HHS arguing that this law would be harmful. The Governor CA should have compromised by maintaining philosophical or religious exemptions to the vaccines.

The CEO of Monsanto is another leader who should have compromised for the greater good of humanity. Monsanto’s mission is to one day control the world’s food supply. They are doing this through the proliferation of genetically modified foods and the use of glyphosate – Round Up – which was recently named a carcinogen by the WHO. Even if Monsanto believed that its poisonous food and fungicides were appropriate, the CEO of Monsanto should at least compromise by allowing all GMO food to be labeled. However, Monsanto has spent tens of millions of dollars battling state initiatives to prevent labeling and to prevent consumers from knowing what they are eating. Had the CEO of Monsanto been willing to compromise, more people would be able to avoid toxins.

Leaders are more effective when they are willing to compromise only when doing so allows for the greater good of the community.


Ok, so now that you have the formula, go write!

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