Streamline your SAT essay planning using databases

“What is courage?”
“Are some people more equal than others?”
“Is there such a thing as an inherently selfless act?”

How about, “Is there such a thing as an easy SAT essay prompt?” While ACT test-takers  happily write about the perils of vending machines in schools or the disadvantages of strict dress codes, SAT test-takers are forced to pin down highly abstract concepts using concrete details from literature, history, or their own experiences—all within 25 minutes!

SAT essay planning

This is the guy sitting behind you. He didn’t read this post.

If you are one of those SAT students who, 12 minutes into the section, is still staring at a blank piece of paper, don’t worry! There’s a simple way to cut down your brainstorming time dramatically.

The idea is simple: if you take the time now to think of some really great examples, you won’t have to spend that time later on test-day. Granted, you have no idea what your essay prompt will be. That just means that you’ll have to brainstorm flexible example—ones you can use in a wide variety of contexts. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Write down the title of a book, historical event, piece of technology, or famous figure you know a lot about. (Let’s pretend you just read The Scarlet Letter for your English class.)
  2. Write down the names of central characters, and any other important factual information you’re not certain you’ll remember between now and test-day. (You don’t want your SAT essay to read, “Hester Prynne and that one guy… Chilling-something…”)
  3. List out any SAT-worthy concepts from the book and write a line about how the book addresses the concept. The more, the merrier. This is where flexibility comes in. The more variety you can get in this part, the more likely you’ll be able to use your example on whatever prompt the SAT throws at you.

For The Scarlet Letter, you might end up with:

 The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Facts: Hester Prynne and Pearl; Dimmesdale = reverend; Chillingworth; Boston, Puritans. Custom-House, scaffold scene, scene in the woods

SAT themes:

  • Shame – both Hester and Dimmesdale
  • Individuals and Society – Hester is ostracized from society because of her actions.
  • Personal Growth – Hester grows as a person. The “A” eventually means “Able.”
  • Tradition – Hester defies the Puritan standards.
  • Loyalty – When Dimmesdale stands with Hester on the scaffold.

If you do this with a couple books, historical events, technological inventions, and famous people, chances are that when you open up your test booklet on your SAT day, you’ll be able to draw on the examples you’ve planned ahead of time.

“What is courage?” It’s Hester Prynne, boldly embroidering her scarlet letter instead of making it plain.

“Are some people more equal than others?” The people of Boston sure thought they were better than Hester, didn’t they?

“Is there such a thing as an inherently selfless act?” Hester doesn’t tell people who Pearl’s father is. You can argue that she is performing a selfless act.

Tip: Bring a copy of your databases with you on test day. Review them while you’re waiting in the registration line so they’ll be fresh in your memory. Just throw them out before you get to the front of the line!

Databases can never entirely eliminate the need for organization and planning. However, they can easily give you a quick example or two (or three!) so that you can take the rest of that time you would otherwise have spent staring at the blank page, and use it to write a spectacular essay.

Pacific Learning Academy is a one-on-one high school offering single courses and dual enrollment, as well as full-time high school. We also offer tutoring in all subjects from 6th to 12th grade, including SAT/ACT diagnostic testing and prep, either in homes or local libraries across the Eastside (Issaquah, Sammamish, etc…). See more at

July 19, 2013

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