The Perfect Score Project

One mom's quest to ace the SAT.

Performance Anxiety: An Esoteric Prompt, High Stakes Pressure, and 25 minutes

The SAT Essay is harder to write than you might think


I've taken the SAT 6 times in 2011, and my highest official test day score has been a 10 (out of 12).

I've scored three 9's and two 10's (I haven't gotten back the November Essay yet). It is possible though to get an 800 on the Writing Section with a "10" on your Essay (I can attest).

If it makes you feel any better, my friend Catherine Johnson scored a 10, and she's an award-winning, professional writer with a Ph.D. whose books have been used on the SAT Critical Reading section. She thinks all writers should take the SAT. Personally, I'd extend that to teachers and parents too.

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I will say this: it extremely challenging to write a perfect SAT Essay in 25 minutes. Go ahead and try for yourself. The College Board has posted the Essay prompts from the November SAT. Set a stop watch for 25 minutes, because the time constraints are what make it so difficult.

Here's what I've learned:

  • Practice helps. During the summer I wrote an essay a day using official prompts. It got much easier. I fell off the wagon months ago though, and now I feel like the tin man. I need grease.
  • Personally, I think it's more important to be passionate and grammatically correct than it is to use impressive literary and historical examples. TheBlue Book has an Essay that scored a 12, and the subject is "Phoebe" from the TV show Friends. The one time I used "appropriate" historical and literary references, I scored a 9.
  • I find it easier to use one example and fully develop it, rather than the classic "three example" essay.
  • PWNtheSAT's advice: Answer the Question. I guess I waffled a bit on my first few Essays. He told me: "Pretend you're on the debate team and convince me."
  • Don't make grammatical errors. Save time to check pronouns and verbs. Incidentally, I'm never able to save time to do this...but I try.
  • Be passionate and specific. Details are good.
  • Vary your sentence structure.
  • Try to use sophisticated vocabulary. I'm dying to weave in a "jejune." I managed "profligacy" one time, though it was only for practice.

And just because I'm brave and have already gone this far, I'm going to post a few of my essays. NO JUDGING (unless you've done it yourself under timed conditions and are willing to post yours too).

Here is my Essay from the October 2011 SAT. I scored a 10. PWNtheSAT said he's never seen me write this way (I think he means the lack of varied sentence structure).

And.....here is an essay that I just wrote (by hand) this morning (timed), and then typed into the College Board's Essay Grader. I got back a Perfect Score!

The prompt: Is the way something seems to be not always the same as it actually is?

Very often, the way something seems to be is not the way it actually is. By scratching the surface, we can find examples of this condition in literature, history, and everyday life. I pass an anonymous quote the other day that reminded of this truism. It read, "Be kind, for everyone is fighting their one private battle."

The novel by Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, exemplifies this type of misleading impression. The main character is named Tim O'Brien, just like the author, so the reader isn't sure if the narrator is speaking the truth or is weaving a fictional tale. Regardless, both Tim O'Brien the author and Tim the main character, went off to the Vietnam war.

On the surface, the protagonist, Tim, appears to be patriotic. He lives in a small town in Minnesota where the teenaged boys leave for war when they are 18 years old. They are heralded and celebrated by the community and told that they are heroes for fighting for their country.

Tim is working in a pig factory when his draft letter arrives. The work is gruesome, bloody, and redolent with the stench of death. His peers and family assume that he's like all the other young boys in the town -- that is, anxious to leave this monotonous existence and travel across the world to fight in the war and defend their country.

But the truth is that Tim is anguished inside. He would rather do anything, including the wretched pig factory job, than have to go off and potentially kill people for his country.

He agonizes privately, all the while conveying the impression that he is brave and ready to fight. Silently he contemplates going awol and escaping to Canada. His inner conflict becomes so extreme that he finally gets in his truck and begins driving north to Canada, never telling a soul.

A few miles from Canada he stops at a cabin where an old man lives. The man invites him to stay and feeds him and offers a safe place, far from the family and friends he fears sharing his true feelings with. The two men spend quiet days together, never addressing the issue of war and Tim's imminent draft.

One day they are on a bot on a lake, and it's raining, and Tim begins to sob. He tells the man that it's too embarrassing not to go to war, and says he must go back home and follow through on his duty. Days later he goes off to war with the other boys, proud, yet deceptive.

(It says "6," but you have two graders/grades.)

Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis

Debbie Stier is the founder of The Perfect Score Project, and is writing a book about her experience of trying to get a perfect SAT score.

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