Dos and Don’ts on the SAT essay


Dos and Don’ts on the SAT essay

The SAT starts with the essay section so it is extremely important to take the essay seriously so you can start your test off on the right foot. Mike McClenathan, author of PWN the SAT, takes a look at some Dos and Don’ts when approaching the SAT essay:

Read enough SAT essays and patterns begin to emerge. Some of them are good (I mostly still love seeing The Great Gatsby used as an example even though I've seen it a million times, as long as it's appropriate for the prompt) and some not so much. Here's a smattering of common things you should or should not do, based on things I have seen people do over and over again.


  • DO write a clear and concise intro that states your position, mentions your examples and gets out of the way.
  • DO choose examples that fit the prompt and about which you are knowledgeable.
  • DO conclude your essay succinctly and without fanfare.
  • DO be as specific as you can about everything. Specificity is probably what I harp on the most when I work with students on their essays.


  • DON'T try to make the question broader than it is, or spend time pontificating about definitions of words, or different philosophies about the subject. And please do not start your essay with "In life." Just get to the point.
  • DON'T claim that your examples are proof of anything. You are making an argument, not constructing a rigorous logical proof.
  • DON'T use hypothetical examples. Anyone can come up with an imaginary scenario that plays out in a way that supports an argument.
  • DON'T try out vocabulary words in your essay if you haven't been using them successfully in real life. If you use a word wrong, it makes you look silly.
  • DON'T make too much up. You don't need to know every single detail about your examples and it's OK to fudge a minor detail or two, but if you're completely in the dark about your example, you're spending too much energy making up details and not enough energy crafting an argument. I get so much push back on this from students who have heard that they can't be graded down for making things up, so I'm gonna hit you with the truth. Great works of literature with robust plots and salient themes were carefully crafted over months, if not years. If you're so arrogant that you think it's easy for you to come up with a realistic sounding plot of a completely new book in 25 minutes, I won't argue with you. But I will have no pity on you when your grader is not impressed.
  • DON'T cut an example paragraph short in order to write a conclusion if you're running out of time. You are graded on what you put on the page, not what you leave out, and you'll do better to make good points about your examples than you will repeating yourself in a conclusion.
  • DON'T start your conclusion by writing "In conclusion." I hate that.
  • DON'T make overly grandiose claims about what you have accomplished in your essay.

Please refer to Mike’s Blog,, for more specific examples and information regarding the SAT.