Top 9 Tips to Succeed on the ACT or SAT Writing Section

Master the SAT and ACT

We understand that the college admissions process can be stressful. One of the major obstacles for those applying for college is taking the ACT/SAT exam. We have spoken to several Test Preparation Instructors to find out what they recommend to students thinking about taking the writing section of the ACT/SAT exam. See below for some of the top tips to keep in mind when preparing for this very important exam. — Cathie Barclay, USD Test Preparation Senior Program Coordinator

  • Tip #1: Do It! 
    “Do the essay so you have more options on applying to colleges.” —Margaret Keig, ACT and SAT Instructor
    This first tip may seem like an obvious one but it really is vital. The University of California Schools require the essay. Many other competitive schools also require it. We recommend you prepare for it and take it. This is a situation where it can only help you. If you don’t end up using the score, don’t fret! Becoming a better writer will definitely help once you get into college!
  • Tip #2: Read the News!
    “Start keeping up with current events; subscribe to the NY Times or other major newspapers in order to keep up to date with current events as well as to improve your vocabulary and writing skills. Being informed with current events will help provide you with relevant examples to use on the essay. Also, enrolling in AP level history and English courses will strengthen your writing skills.” —Manely Leilah Yafeh, ACT and SAT Instructor
    Reading the news makes you a better informed student.  It also will naturally improve your vocabulary and understanding of written English.
  • Tip #3: Get Organized! 
    “Organize your ideas but get to writing quickly.” —Margaret Keig
    “Always use the first 10 mins of the essay to come up with an outline/structure for your essay. Make sure you have a clear thesis and topic sentences (main ideas) for each body paragraph.” —Manely Leilah Yafeh
    “Be organized.  Include an introduction with a clearly defined thesis statement, body paragraphs and a conclusion.  The conclusion can be short, but it must sum up your points and let the reader know that you are finished.  A poorly organized essay results in a lower score.” —Keisa Williams, SAT, ACT, and GRE Instructor
  • Tip #4: Use YOUR Vocabulary!
    “Don't feel the pressure to use sophisticated vocabulary if you're not used to it. It's far worse to use a word incorrectly than it is to use simple language.” —Manely Lailah Yafeh
    “Don't use fancy words that you do not know the meaning of.” —Margaret Keig
    We all know that big words can make us sound smart. On the flip side we must know that misusing big words makes us sound silly. Write confidently and use what you know. Don’t be overly careful but also don’t try to squeeze in big words just because they are big. You are being measured on your ability to think and write clearly, not to regurgitate elongated vocabulary units.
  • Tip #5: Use the Right Structure!
    “Feel free to use the standard 5 paragraph structure, but don't feel obligated to stick to it if you feel it limits your essay. Due to the ACT's unique prompt style, the 5 paragraph essay may sometimes feel too restrictive in connecting the three viewpoints together.” —Manely Leilah Yafeh
    Writing an essay is all about communicating. A clearly defined structure allows the reader to easily follow your argument and recognize the supporting ideas. That doesn’t mean it has to be boring. You can still be creative within your structure. Just be sure it is easy to follow so you don’t lose your reader somewhere along the way.
  • Tip #6: Support Yourself! 
    Preparing For the ACT:
    “Just because you are young does not mean you do not have incredible knowledge and life experiences to draw from. Use all of your educational knowledge to provide this support, as well as personal and family experience. You may also write in first person for these essays, if your support calls for that.” —Keisa Williams
    Preparing For the SAT:
    “Provide support for your points.  Your support must be present in the literature/passage provided.  You are analyzing an argument, and using that to back up your thoughts, either good or bad about the specific argument.” —Keisa Williams
    No matter what argument you make it needs to be supported. You cannot just make declarative statements. “Solar power is the best!”…okay, but why? Without evidence you cannot persuade your reader. Each statement you make must be supported be evidence and examples.
  • Tip #7: Engage Your Reader!
    “Make sure to use varied sentence structure to keep the reader engaged.  Use transitions to connect paragraphs together and ensure seamless flow.” —Manely Leilah Yafeh
    One reason people love the ocean is that it is always changing.  No two waves look exactly the same. If the ocean just sat there like water in a bathtub it would not intrigue us to the same extent.  Like the ocean you should make your writing unique. Strive to vary your sentence structure so that your reader stays on their toes. Also, you must use transitions to ease your reader through the essay. Help your score by writing an essay that is both engaging and smooth.
  • Tip #8: Learn From Others!
    “Examine sample essay responses on the ACT/SAT website and the grader's analysis of those essays. Why did those essays earn the grade they did? How does your writing compare to those essays? How can you avoid the pitfalls/mistakes those essays made?” —Manely Lailah Yafeh
    Both the SAT website and the ACT website have sample writing prompts and scored essays. This is an incredible resource. Look at the type of prompts you might get. Learn from their scoring examples. Ask yourself some questions. What score do you think you could achieve? Where can you improve?
    SAT Sample Essays
    ACT Sample Essays
  • Tip #9: Time is Fleeting!
    Watch your time so you don't run out of time and lack a conclusion.” —Margaret Keig
    Planning and writing a structured essay in a short time period is a significant challenge. You need to keep an eye on the clock without being overly stressed about the time. It is a great idea to practice so you gain an understanding of how you need to pace yourself. The more you practice the better feel you will have for the time constraints.

Message from the USD Test Preparation Office

We hope that these tips gave you a starting point in your preparation for the exam.  

We do offer classes for students who are interested in formal ACT test preparation or SAT Instruction.  All of our classes cover the entire test including the writing section. 

If have questions about the college process or anything regarding the ACT/SAT please don’t hesitate to call.  I am here to help!

Cathie Barclay
USD Test Preparation Senior Program Coordinator
(619) 260-5954

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