How To Avoid The Biggest Problem Many Students Experience On The SAT Essay

What is your worst SAT nightmare?

It's testing day. You've practiced writing essays at home and thought you did pretty well. You are feeling pretty confident. You open your test booklet. You read the topic.

Then, all of a sudden, without warning your mind goes blank. You sit for ten minutes before you can come up with examples to support your topic.

You write fast, and you hope well, but you are unsure. Since that was the first part of your test you've lost your confidence. You don't feel good about the rest of the exam.

You hope you might have done well. You know you did less than your best.

How can you keep this from happening to you?

You can prevent this painful problem by learning one simple thing: how to understand the SAT prompt.

Once you learn this important skill you will never get stumped by any SAT topic, ever.

You have my word on this with one condition: you must follow all of the advice contained in this chapter and the next on preparing examples word for word.

The Destructive Myth That Causes So Many To Fail...

So why do so many students get stumped by SAT writing prompts?

I'll explain with the following example.

The following topic appears in "The Official Guide to the New SAT" page 453.

Technology promises to make our lives easier, freeing up time for leisure pursuits. But the rapid pace of technological innovation and the split second processing capabilities of computers that can work virtually nonstop have made all of us feel rushed. We have adopted the relentless pace of the very machines that were supposed to simplify our lives, with the result that, whether at work or play, people do not feel like their lives have changed for the better.

Adapted from Karen Finucan, “Life in the Fast Lane”

Assignment: Do changes that make our lives easier not necessarily make them better? 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 reading, studies, experiences, or observations.

In response to this essay many of my first-time students wrote about technology. Most didn't know enough details about technology to really prove their points and the scores were very low.


The first-timers didn't really understand the topic.

They assumed that they should write about technology because that's what the quote is about.

They were wrong.

They were fooled by the idea that you must respond to the quote. As a result they weren't able to use their well-prepared examples that had nothing to do with technology.

Burn the following words into your brain:

You never, never, never respond to the quote.

You always respond to the prompt question. The only exception to this rule is when you are specifically asked to respond to the quote.

The quote is there for one reason and one reason only-to help you think.

Unfortunately, it often backfires and confuses students who have not been taught what you've just learned: respond to the prompt question and not the quote.

Another Problem That Keeps Students From Writing High Scoring Essays

However, even students who know this might have a hard time with this or any SAT topic.

Many students spend several minutes thinking about what kinds of examples they can use to answer a prompt question. Often the examples they come up with don't fit the topic very well or the ways they use their examples don't fit the prompt question.

How You Can Understand The Prompt Every Time... And Write Well

How can you avoid these problems yourself?

Using a process I devised called Prompt Dissection.

Prompt Dissection is a process you can use to break down any prompt into its two basic elements.

Once you do this you can create two simple questions that will help you to figure out which examples can be used to answer the prompt question and how to best use them in your essay.

Examples Of How To Use This Powerful Technique

To demonstrate how to use Prompt Dissection I'll use a topic from page 517 of the Official Guide to the New SAT.

Assignment: Is conscience a more powerful motivator than money, fame or power?

So what two concepts do we find in this essay topic?

I circled “conscience” and then the words “money, fame or power” since these last three are really one idea unit in this topic.

So my two questions are “does conscience show up in stories?” and does “money, fame, or power” show up in stories?

My answer to both questions is “yes”.

OK so let's make a list of books and historical events.

  • Romeo and Juliet

  • Lord of the Flies

  • Antigone

  • Hitler's Invasion of Russia

  • Napoleon's Invasion of Russia

  • Battle of Britain

  • Assassination of Caesar the Great

  • To Kill a Mockingbird

Let's pick one that most high school students have read “To Kill A Mockingbird”.

So in this story does anyone have a conscience?

Yes. Atticus, Scout, Calpurnia, Mrs. Dubose. Actually quite a few characters show conscience.

Second, does money, fame or power show up in this story?

No. None of the characters showed an interest in money, fame or power.

So we could use this example to prove that “People are more motivated by conscience than they are by money, fame, or power.”

If we take Atticus as an example we could write a paragraph that makes the following points:

  • Atticus defended Tom Robinson despite ridicule from other members of his town

  • Atticus did this because he believed it was right (conscience)

  • This shows that Atticus was more motivated by conscience than he was by popularity (fame).

If you already know the story then you might have predicted what I was going to say already because the Prompt Dissection made the logic you need to prove so clear.

Let's try this on another example from literature—Romeo and Juliet.

So we've already dissected the prompt. We know we need to ask "who showed conscience" or "who showed an interest in money, fame or power".

At first glance it may seem that you can't find any material from this story.

All that happened was that Romeo and Juliet met, fell in love, got secretly married, and ended up committing suicide together right?

Think for a moment though about what conscience means.

Doesn't it mean doing the right thing?

Then didn't Romeo and Juliet do the right thing according to them? You definitely couldn't say that they were motivated by money, fame or power.

If you take this tack you produce logic like the following:

  • Romeo and Juliet met and fell in love.

  • They knew their families wouldn't like this. (popularity)

  • So they got married in secret. (doing the right thing in their mind)

  • This shows that people will follow their consciences instead of doing what is popular.

Again the logic might seem to be a stretch but take a look at the following paragraph based on the outline above.

One example that proves that people are motivated more by conscience than by other factors such as popularity and fame is that of Romeo and Juliet in the play by William Shakespeare "Romeo and Juliet". In this play the two lovers meet, fall in love, and get married in secret even though they knew their warring families would disapprove. Romeo and Juliet did these things because they loved each other so strongly that these actions seemed like the right things to do. Their example shows that people are often motivated by inner drives like love and conscience much more than they are by fame or popularity.
The logic is actually strong in this paragraph.

The evidence used to prove the thesis "People are more motivated by conscience than they are by other factors" is clearly laid out.

If all the other paragraphs are as well written the essay can easily score in the 10-12 range.

The Three Essential Steps...

So what are the steps of prompt dissection?

The first step is to circle the key concepts in the topic question.

The topic question was "Do changes that make our lives easier not necessarily make them better?"

For this topic I would circle the words "easier" and "better".

The topic is about how changes that are supposed to make our lives easier might not make them better so there is no point circling the word changes because it applies to both concepts.

However, if you do you might want to draw an arrow from change to easier and from change to better.

After doing this you can see that your essay needs to address two things: a change that is supposed to make our lives easier, and whether or not that change made our lives better.

You need to address both points with each example you use.

Once you do this you need to follow the second step in prompt dissection which is to ask "does ____________show up in stories?" and "does _____________ ever result in _________ in stories or history?"

So for this prompt you would ask: Do changes that are supposed to make people's lives easier show up in stories or history? Do changes ever result in one's life being better or worse in stories and history?

The answers to such simple questions will almost always be yes.

The third step in prompt dissection is to brainstorm.

During this brainstorming process you want to make a list of examples as fast as you can without thinking about whether or not they fit the topic.

Don't think too much. Don't try to come up with good examples. Just list the names of books you've read in school and historical events you've recently studied.

You might come up with a list like the following:

  • Romeo and Juliet

  • Lord of the Flies

  • Antigone

  • Hitler's Invasion of Russia

  • Napoleon's Invasion of Russia

  • Battle of Britain

  • Assassination of Caesar the Great

  • To Kill a Mockingbird

Once you've listed several items you want to ask yourself your two questions from above for each novel or historical event.

Let's choose Romeo and Juliet since I know almost all high school students have read it or at least have a general idea of the story.

So was there a change in Romeo and Juliet that was supposed to make someone's life easier?

I'd say yes. The change was that Romeo and Juliet fell in love. They might have thought that this should make their lives easier.

So our second question is did this change make their lives better?

My answer is no. Since they ended up dead there lives were no better.

So if we were to use this example we'd use it to prove the following thesis.

"Changes that are supposed to make our lives easier do not necessarily make them better in fact they often make our lives worse."

Just to make it clear how this example proves this thesis I'll explain the logic.

  • Romeo and Juliet fell in love which made life seem better for a while.

  • However, Romeo and Juliet soon realized that they were in love with someone from an opposing family.

  • Their efforts to solve this problem resulted in both of their deaths.

  • This proves that changes that are supposed to make our lives easier do not necessarily make them better in fact they often make our lives worse.

...end of free report.

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Best Regards,

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Author of "The SAT Essay Formula"

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