Taking the Sting out of the SAT Essay: Tips for English teachers

In my experience as a tenth-grade English teacher, most students have been terrified of writing the SAT essay. There are so many stressful (and usually unfamiliar) aspects to this kind of essay test that students aren’t applying themselves to the task as well as they might without the burden of anxiety and fear. I’ve heard complaints ranging from apprehensions about the time constraints to not being able to come up with anything to “say” in response to the prompt.

It’s not our responsibility as English teachers to prepare students for success on the SAT – and we’re not allowed to provide specific SAT instruction to the students who take our English classes. But the SAT essay requires students to use good writing skills that will be useful throughout their lives. The College Board is simply assessing these skills, and I feel that we should respect the fact that students need to be able to write this kind of basic response. Being able to communicate a strong opinion supported by substantial “evidence” within 25 minutes can be an invaluable skill in the real world. And that’s why I teach students to master the skills they’ll need to write their SAT essays successfully. Here are a few of the ways I’ve been doing that, and I hope they’ll assist you in your efforts to prepare high school students for higher education and the workplace.

Developing & Substantiating Opinions

Just about everyone has an opinion if you ask the right question. Some questions elicit strong gut reactions from some people, while others are hard-pressed to take a side. But in the real world, if you don’t have an immediate opinion, you’re not going to be an influential force in whatever issue is being debated. It’s impossible to have an opinion about everything, so it’s important to learn how to form a solid one quickly and judiciously.

To help students learn this valuable process, I assign two take-home essays each semester. These essay prompts require students to develop an opinion on the issue described, gather extensive examples to support it, and write an argumentative or persuasive essay that “sells” their perspective to the reader. This kind of basic writing is integral to the process of learning how to communicate clearly and professionally.

Using Timed In-Class Writing Assignments

Being able to write a successful timed essay is a valuable skill – and not just for AP, IB, SAT, and other types of tests (like my midterms and finals). It’s important to teach students how to analyze a prompt or question before they worry about how they’re going to respond to it. I teach my students to look for contextual clues in all of their writing assignments, but it’s an especially important step to take with timed writing. I never use SAT prompts, but I do ask students to analyze questions and assignments in terms of keywords, unfamiliar words and their possible meanings, context, and objectives.

I make this a class activity by writing a prompt or question from one of my past midterms or finals on the board just before class starts. Each day, a different student is required to analyze the prompt – this involves underlining key words, defining difficult terms, clearly stating the writer’s objective in response to the prompt, and describing any contextual clues. All of this happens within five minutes, after which we have a short class discussion about the prompt and the student’s analysis of it. While students are usually uncomfortable during their first analyses, the process eventually becomes second-nature and they learn to think analytically under pressure.

I give two timed in-class essay tests each semester – a midterm and a final. I have found that this is just the right amount of practical reinforcement for the skills I’ve been teaching throughout the semester. And while I’m not teaching students how to write the SAT essay, they’re learning to use the skills they’ll need to succeed at this challenge and many others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *