1) Don’t write too little. Many scorers grade on perceived effort, which they often judge—for better or worse—on the number of words written. Use most if not all of the space allotted. Write at least 4 paragraphs (5 is even better), with at least 3 sentences per paragraph.
2) Don’t be controversial. Not even a little. You may think that the United States’ invasion of Iraq was super whacky, or that the Tea Party Movement is brilliant—but keep those kinds of topics far, far away from the SAT essay. Write about things like heroism, generosity, and kindness. In other words, play it safe. You’ll have plenty of time to share provocative thoughts in college.
3) Don’t use first-person pronouns (“I” or “me”) in the first paragraph. The graders of the test know who wrote the essay. You don’t need to say “I think peanut butter is the best thing since sliced bread.” Just go ahead and assert, “Peanut Butter is the best thing since sliced bread.” It’s a stronger statement anyway.
4) Don’t be vague. We get it; these essay topics are super broad and boring (almost by design). But that doesn’t mean you should respond in a super broad and boring way. Home in on specifics. Don’t use words like “society” or phrases like “in this day and age.” Besides, it’s easier to be specific. Draw on concrete examples. For example, if you’re asked to write 400 words about “honesty,” drill down the topic to talk about honesty in business, or the honor code at your school.
5) Pick a thesis and stick to it. Don’t make too many concessions to the other side. If the essay prompt asks whether a penny saved is a penny earned, and you think the answer is an emphatic “Yes,” don’t waste any time making the case for spending a lot of money. Think of yourself as a lawyer advocating for a perspective, not a historian summarizing the full spectrum of events.