ACT essay

Nailing the SAT Essay Part I: Sloppy Success vs. Perfect Mediocrity

So many of us women – at any age – suffer from feelings of having to be “perfect”, whatever exactly that is. I, for one, started feeling this way in middle school – gotta love puberty! - but the quest to be perfect exploded in high school.  In the top-ranking public high school in the country – Talented and Gifted Magnet in Dallas, Texas – I was taking 8 (you read that right) concurrent AP classes my Junior year, and obsessing about getting 99’s across the board on my report card.  I was a little “cray”.

Luckily for me, my misplaced desire for perfection had definite endings – the end of the grading period, the end of the school year, etc.  Also, luckily for me, my course-load was math/science/computer-heavy, where there is an end to every problem and you just have to get there.

But what do you do when you’re writing an essay, and there are infinite ways you could craft your words, infinite examples you could utilize, infinite combinations of sentence structures and ways to weave your argument?

That, my friend, is when you need to chuck this need for perfection out the window…  ESPECIALLY if you are writing a timed essay on the SAT or ACT!!

See, even though you might not have experienced it yet, in the “real world” (outside of school), it’s fairly impossible to be “perfect”.  There will always be someone more skilled, smarter, prettier, faster, stronger, more “successful”, and wealthier than you.

If you wait until you’re “perfect” before you submit that report/manuscript or audition for that part, you’ll be waiting a long time - possibly forever – before you follow your dreams.

And if you wait until you think you have the “perfect” essay written in your head before you put your pencil on the paper and start writing it, time will be called before you finish your introduction!!!

In my experience tutoring and coaching countless high-schoolers for the SAT and ACT, the biggest essay obstacle I’ve seen is when the student just wasn’t able to finish her essay in the designated time: 25 minutes for the SAT and 30 minutes for the ACT.  (Or more, if you have extended or double time.)  That’s when you see essay scores of 2 or 4 out of 12 possible points.

Sadly, the test-graders only see what’s on the page.  They will NEVER see the beautiful thoughts in your head, or your gripping stance on how history repeats itself unless we can innovate as a society.  Therefore, your job is to get your thoughts on that page so that they can be graded.  And whatever will be, will be.

In general, if you can just write and finish the 2 pages you’re allotted on the SAT (or get 2 pages written on the ACT), you’re looking at a safe score of 8+ out of 12.  While not phenomenal, this is waaaaay better than a 2, and could mean the difference of 100+ points on the SAT Writing section!

So, if this is you, and you are paralyzed by a need to be perfect, you may be wondering how you can go from never getting your thoughts on the page and scoring a 2 – to letting go and getting a solid 8 that can be built upon.

It’s easy: practice being sloppy!

For the next month, I want to you try the following exercise, which I learned from Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” and adapted to get results for teenagers prepping for the SAT:

Mental Mastery Technique #1: Practice Sloppy Success

1)    Get a blank sheet of computer paper.

2)    Set the alarm on your phone for 5 minutes.

3)    Start writing!  Your goal is to completely fill up the page in the 5 minutes before your alarm goes off.

That’s it!  However, here are some helpful hints, as this seems way easier than it actually is:

  • Keep your pen moving and write whatever pops into your head. If you are blank, write “blank” until something pops into your head.
  • DO NOT erase or cross out anything! Not even a misspelled word.  You need to get used to not being perfect for the sake of this exercise.
  • Don’t worry about perfect grammar, complete sentences, or “stupid” ideas.  This is an exercise in getting your thoughts on the page without censoring.
  • Don’t read what you wrote. You even have my permission to throw away the sheet of paper afterwards.

I’ve gotten amazing results for my students with this practice, sometimes in as little as a couple days.  Why?  For several reasons:

  • No more over-analysis-paralysis!  Something actually gets written!
  • By writing whatever comes up, you are releasing feelings of test anxiety and other emotions onto the page, so it no longer takes up your valuable head-space.
  • You are shifting the focus of what you’re trying to accomplish: finishing as opposed to being perfect.

Please help yourself and give this a try. Right now!  After all, it only takes 5 minutes.  Then post your comments below to share the results you get.

Very Important: Can you think of a friend/classmate who’s suffering from writer’s block on the SAT or ACT essay? Share this post with them – you might just save their score!