SAT Essay, Part 4: Three Tips for Taking a Strong Position
This is the fourth part of our series on preparing for the SAT essay. All of these articles are excerpts from the curriculum for WriteAtHome’s new and popular SAT Essay Prep course.
The first thing essay readers look for is a strong position. Taking a half-hearted or diplomatic approach to the topic is a sure way to drop your score. In Part 3 of this series, I talk about the importance of getting your thesis right. The thesis is the starting place of an essay with strong content. In this article, I’ll show you three ways to keep your position firm throughout the paper.
Tip #1: Don’t Be Wishy-Washy
Humility is a rare and precious virtue in our culture, but it won’t score you any points on the SAT essay. That doesn’t mean you have to be obnoxious or arrogant; it just means that you should hold consistently to your opinion. Below are mistakes common to the wishy-washy. Avoid them.
Indecisiveness. Your first priority is to take a position on the issue presented in the prompt and defend it with confidence. Even if you are genuinely undecided about the issue, choose a side and stick to it. Presenting both sides of the issue will come across as wimpy equivocation, not thoughtful open-mindedness.
Remember that there is no “right answer” regarding the essay (enjoy it – it’s the only part of the SAT that doesn’t have a right answer!) Don’t worry about what the reader might think about your opinion. The important thing is that you are clear and confident about your position. The readers will not judge your paper based on what you think – only on how your present your case.
Usually, it will be best to write what you really believe. You are free to take either position on an issue, whether you really believe it or not, and if you feel like you can write a more convincing paper on a position you don’t sincerely hold, go for it. But in my experience, the most persuasive papers come from the heart. Instead of spending time wrestling with which side to take, it’s usually best to go with your first instinct.
To Concede or Not to Concede. Good essayists often include a concession to the opposing viewpoint. A concession is an admission that those you disagree with are partly correct. For example, in a paper advocating stricter gun control laws, a concession might look like this:
Although the right to bear arms is a vital mark of freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, reason dictates that some restrictions are necessary for a safe, peaceful, and truly free society.
The first part of this sentence concedes the importance of the right to bear arms — a right often cited by opponents of gun control. By acknowledging this point right away, the writer accomplishes two things:
1) He demonstrates that he is open-minded, reasonable, and fair.
2) He beats his opponent to the punch, stripping him of a strong point of argument.
Notice, however, that the concession is brief – only half a sentence — and that the concession is immediately followed by a qualification or counter-argument. If you decide to include a concession in your SAT essay, be sure to follow this example – keep it short and follow it up with a point that affirms your thesis. Also be sure to make your concession early in the paper (usually in the first body paragraph).
For the average SAT-taker, however, I recommend skipping a concession altogether. With limited time, you are better off investing it in sentences that directly support your position. An additional concern is that writers unskilled in concession-making can seem to be contradicting themselves rather than simply acknowledging the validity of a particular point.
In summary: unless you are a confident and experienced essayist, don’t bother including a concession in your SAT essay.
Unnecessary Qualifiers. Papers riddled with qualifiers come across as timid and uncertain. In seeking to be humble and even-handed, writers too often dilute sentences with qualifiers like “I believe,” and “in my opinion.” Let’s keep this simple: Never, ever write “I believe,” or “In my opinion.”
If I say to you, “The lasagna is delicious” wouldn’t you assume that was my opinion? If you read the words, “Education is the most important factor in a successful career,” isn’t it obvious that this is the opinion of the author? If you write it, the reader will assume it is your opinion. Therefore including the words, “in my opinion,” is always redundant and unnecessary.
But there are other words to avoid as well. Subtler and more tempting ways to water-down your prose. Words like “sort of,” “a bit,” “somewhat,” and “pretty,” wear away at the forcefulness of your paper. Check out these examples:
weak: Corporate America is somewhat to blame for the current climate.
stronger: Corporate America is to blame for the current climate.
weak: The government’s ability to invade our privacy is just a bit disconcerting.
stronger: The government’s ability to invade our privacy is disconcerting.
See how these little qualifying words can strip a sentence of confidence?
Tip #2: Don’t Overstate
Don’t misunderstand – I am not suggesting that all qualifiers are bad. You should avoid only unnecessary qualifiers. Resist the temptation to sprinkle your writing with qualifying words and phrases that make you seem unsure of yourself. There are, however, appropriate occasions for using qualifiers – namely, to avoid generalizations and overstatement.
Generalizing and overstating are common problems with novice writers.
Examples of Generalizations:
Scientists are by nature objective people.
All politicians learn how to lie and distort the truth.
Examples of Overstatements:
Everybody knows how important nuclear power is to the armed forces.
Nothing is more important than self-confidence.
When you generalize or overstate, you give a reader an easy point to dispute. It’s a simple thing to find an exception to a generalization or to disagree with an overstated point. If your argument is strong, you don’t need to exaggerate. Wisely qualifying statements will help you appear more reasonable and honest.
Most scientists are by nature objective people.
Too many politicians learn how to lie and distort the truth.
The importance of nuclear power to the armed forces is commonly known.
Self-confidence is important.
Tip #3: Be Insightful (Not Obvious)
There’s no trick to this. Stating the obvious will not impress an SAT reader. They will not reward statements like:
It is better to be a success than a failure.
Responsible people do what is expected of them.
Perhaps you chuckled as you read these. Obvious, right? Be careful, however; many good writers resort to this kind of needless filler when in a time crunch. And sometimes we make statements like this without even realizing how silly they sound.
Don’t treat your reader like a numbskull. Assume they know as much, if not more, than the average human being.
Your greatest challenge will be to come up with something original, interesting, and insightful to say about the topic you’ll be given. You’ll want to convince the reader that you are a deep thinker. In fact, you will want to seem as though the topic is something you have pondered for years (rather than a subject you just got handed a moment ago).
The best SAT essays take a firm position on the topic. That means you must stick confidently to your opinion, avoid generalizations and overstatements, and present something insightful to the reader. Be careful about qualifying your statements and watering down your argument. And do your best to avoid stating what would be obvious to any reader. Abiding by these principles will help you maintain a strong position — a crucial element of a high-scoring SAT essay.
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