4 Ways to Improve Your SAT Essay

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4 Ways to Improve Your SAT Essay

All of us at Prompt are passionate about writing. John, one of our co-founders, wrote a book about the SAT Essay called the SAT Essay Ace Template. Writing an SAT essay is a lot like writing a college essay: you have little time and few words with which to make a big impression. The only real differences are that college essays tend not to be horribly contrived (like SAT essays are), and they tend to be really polished–which is one of the reasons why Prompt exists.

The Ace Template has a section dedicated to small changes you can make to your writing that make a huge difference in its perceived quality. To get all the tips, you’ll need to buy the book (either from its website or on Amazon), but John was nice enough to let us publish a few of them here!

Comma Splices are Evil; Here’s How to Fix Them

A quick layman’s refresher on comma splices: a comma splice occurs when a comma is used to join two independent sentences without the use of a conjunction such as “and” or “but.” Here are a few examples:

I went to the store to get some veggies, I couldn’t find any.

I knew three people who went to school at MIT, they all graduated with sub-2.0 GPAs.

We are not just leaders, we are people who pride ourselves in being the best.

The Ace Template suggests that you just use semicolons (;) as drop-in fixes for comma splices. You can use a semicolon to join two related sentences into one; exactly where a comma splice comma would go! If any of the above sentences had used a semicolon instead of a comma, they would have been perfect. In fact, they would have been much more impressive to an admissions counselor than any other comma splice fixes (adding a conjunction or just splitting the sentence into two pieces).

Remember that semicolons can only be used to join related clauses. Hopefully, this is not relevant here. If you have unrelated clauses in a single sentence, then your piece likely suffers from severe organization problems, which Prompt can help with.

You should also keep in mind that overusing any one word or device–semicolons is a bad idea. You should show off a breadth and depth of knowledge in your writing. Most comma splices can also be fixed by adding a conjunction (“and,” “or,” “but,” etc.) or by replacing the comma with a period and capitalizing the next letter. Regardless of what you do, get rid of all your comma splices! Prompt editors know what to look for and will be happy to help you fix all your grammatical issues.

The Passive Voice is a Waste of Words

Using the “passive voice” means that the object of an active sentence is placed before the subject. In other words, the thing (i.e. object) that receives a sentence’s action comes first, rather than second. If you’re not familiar with these terms, do not worry: the passive voice becomes clear after reviewing a few examples.

Active: I bought a new car. (5 words)

Passive: A new car was bought by me. (6 words)

Active: Harvard rejected my best friend. (5 words)

Passive: My best friend was rejected by Harvard. (7 words)

Using the passive voice tends to make your writing more opaque and harder to understand. It also tends to be wordier, since most passive sentences contain some version of the verb “to be” and the word “by.” On college essays, where words are at a premium, using the passive voice can add up. In addition, overusing the passive voice makes your writing sound horrible (imagine what this article would sound like if it were written exclusively in the passive voice; it is known by us to sound a little funky).

This is not to say that you should never use the passive voice. If you are having trouble finding a good active version of a sentence and the passive version sounds passable within the flow of your essay, then just leave the sentence in passive voice. Prompt editors will be happy to lend our expertise with stamping out passive voice.

Explain with Colons

There are a lot of great uses for colons, but we are going to discuss one in particular: explanations. The Ace Template outlines a simple formula for colon explanation sentences:

[Subject] [Verb] [Adjective] [But/Yet/And] [Adjective]: [Explanation of the first half of the sentence]

For example:

I was surprised and happy: Prompt finished editing my essay in less than six hours!

The dog looked lonely yet happy: he seemed to enjoy his own company.

These sentences let you express a powerful idea. Often, you can choose near-antonyms for your adjectives and use the second half of the sentence to explain yourself; showing off your grammatical prowess at the same time! You are allowed to use a colon in these sentences because the second half explains the first half. If the second half of the sentence does not explain the first half, then you should not use this device. In addition, as with any of the other tips presented here, go easy. A few colon explanations are great, but putting ten in your essay would be overkill.

If you are unsure of whether you should use a colon comparison, put it in your essay and then ask Prompt for help. Our editors will be happy to provide feedback.

Length is a Virtue (And It’s Easy to Get Longer!)

There is a very strong correlation between essay length and perceived essay quality. The Common App imposes a 650-word limit; your essay should be no fewer than 600 words. This should not be much of a problem: the SAT Essay Ace Template recommends no fewer than 500 words for the SAT Essay, and you only have 25 minutes to write it! John claims that his own SAT essay was 587 words–and we believe him, because we did not at first, and then he showed it to us (as you might expect, he is really serious about the SAT essay).

The purpose of this paragraph is not to encourage you to pollute your essay with meaningless filler. It is not an invitation to dust off your thesaurus and add several adjectives to every sentence in order to sound more “sophisticated.” It is not even meant to tell you to describe things more. Quite the opposite: you should describe more things. The point of your Common App essay is to help your admissions counselor get to know you better, and the best way to help him or her with that is to provide him or her with more information. The trick is to say everything as concisely as possible so you have room to say more things.

Of course, while you’re doing this, you should follow all the other advice in the Prompt Writing Center, too:

The 40/60 Essay Rule: Story Time Versus Introspection (quite possibly the most important article we have)

The 3 Things Colleges Actually Look for in Your Application

3 Keys to Writing the Perfect College Essay

How to Select Your Essay Prompt for the Common Application

How to Differentiate Your College Application

This is definitely a lot to digest, but luckily, Prompt editors are here to help. Hit that big upload button on the right side of the page if you would like our advice! Finally, who could forget: Write well and prosper!

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