Begin at the beginning

To write a good SAT essay, you don’t have to be Michel de Montaigne; in fact, it’s probably better if you’re not. Most classic essays have a discursive complexity that wanders from idea to idea, discussing fine sub-arguments and defining subtle nuances of thought.

Such an approach would likely not get you a great score on your SAT essay. Sorry, Michel.

Michel de Montaigne: Dresses dashingly, but probably would get an 8 on his SAT essay.

Michel de Montaigne: Dresses dashingly, but probably would get an 8 on his SAT essay.

Top-scoring SAT essays tend to take a more direct approach, answering the question in the prompt unambiguously and then presenting examples to support that position. That means that your essay needs to have a strong, clear thesis statement.

Take a look at this plausible SAT essay prompt:

“Is honesty always the best policy?”

Which thesis is better?

A. “Honesty is not always the best policy.”

B. “Honesty can be a good approach.”

C. “Both honesty and dishonesty are good approaches depending upon the situation.”

D. “Abraham Lincoln was a very honest man.”

E. “It is important to be honest whenever possible.”

If you said A, congratulations! It’s not a perfect thesis by any means, but it does provide the clearest answer to the question. Let’s take a look at why the others are flawed:

B. This sentence merely says that honesty “can be” a good approach, but the question is asking if honesty is “always” the best policy. A good answer to this question takes a side: yes, honesty is always best or no, it is not always best. You can, of course, say that honesty is never the best policy, but that’s probably a harder line to hold.

C. The idea here is, I think, correct: both honesty and dishonesty are useful approaches in different contexts. But for this essay, take a side. In this person’s case, it probably makes more sense to go with the idea in A. Why? Well, think about the question: it is asking if honesty is always best. If you say that the usefulness of honesty depends on the situation, you are saying that it is not always best.

D. Though this may be true, it is not a good thesis for this essay because it doesn’t answer the question in the prompt.

E. This one is a little more difficult to disqualify. Clearly, the writer believes that honesty is the best policy. But this answer choice say that in an oblique, disguised way. Write thesis statements that give an obvious answer to the prompt.

We’ll talk more about the essay tomorrow.

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