The toefl and sat tests- the Key to Academic Success

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The SAT is the nation's most widely used admissions test among colleges and universities. It tests students' knowledge of subjects that are necessary for college success: reading, writing, and mathematics. The SAT assesses the critical thinking skills students need for academic success in college—skills that students learned in high school.

The SAT is typically taken by high school juniors and seniors. It tells students how well they use the skills and knowledge they have attained in and outside of the classroom—including how they think, solve problems, and communicate. The SAT is an important resource for colleges. It's also one of the best predictors of how well students will do in college.

Each section of the SAT is scored on a scale of 200-800, with two writing subscores for multiple-choice questions and the essay.

SAT Question Types

The SAT includes several different question types, including: a student-produced essay, multiple-choice questions, and student-produced responses (grid-ins).

The Unscored Section

In addition to the nine scored sections of the SAT, there is one 25-minute section that is used to ensure that the SAT continues to be a fair and valid test. This section does not count towards students’ score. It may be a critical reading, mathematics, or writing multiple-choice section.

It is common test development to use an unscored section to try out new questions for future editions of the test. It also ensures that scores on new editions of the SAT are comparable to scores on earlier editions of the test. This helps to ensure the fairness of the SAT.

Test Order

The SAT is comprised of 10 total testing sections. The first section is always a 25-minute essay, and the last section is always a 10-minute multiple-choice writing section. Sections two through seven are 25-minute sections. Sections eight and nine are 20-minute sections. Test-takers sitting next to each other in the same session may have test books with entirely different content orders for sections two through nine (mathematics, critical reading, and writing).
SAT Essay Section

Writing well, though not easy, is a skill that may be reduced into understandable parts.  Too often, students make the false assumption that one has to be born with a gift to write.  Though this may be true if one is pursuing creative writing, this is not the case for academic writing, and certainly not the case for scoring big on the SAT essay. 

Here are the facts:

  • The multiple-choice section of the exam influences 70% of your score, leaving 30% of your score to the essay.

  • Students have 25 minutes in order to read the prompt and complete the essay.

  • The top possible score to earn is a 6 (from one reader).  Top possible score from two readers is a 12. 

  • To establish fairness, two readers score the essay according to a rubric that is posted by the College Board.

  • Readers are trained to grade holistically; this is a fancy way of saying that a few mistakes cannot omit a student from a high score. 

  • The essay is the first section on the exam.

  • Typical writing prompts stem from either one or two quotes, building a question that asks students to evaluate the claim(s) and develop a point of view, i.e., argument using various means of evidence for support. 

Quick Strategies for test-takers:

Consider these ideas for building muscle on your essay score:

  • Read the College Board’s rubric for the characteristics of each score.  Also, carefully read sample essays for each score (1-6) to get a feel for the game you are playing. 

  • Pacing:  Remember, with only 25 minutes from start to finish, you really need to have a game plan before you write.  Students often make the fatal mistake of jumping into the essay immediately- what they jump into is the unlikely situation of ever scoring beyond a 3.  Take time to read the SAT test prompt.  There is nothing worse than great examples and writing that completely miss their target since the student does NOT answer the question correctly.  It does not matter which side you take, but rather how you develop your support.  Always sketch out your ideas with prewriting. Take the precious time of at least 2 to 3 minutes building your blueprint.  This blueprint should contain an organized map that is simple. 


Why I’m right #1?____________________________

Why I’m right #2?____________________________

Why I’m right #3?____________________________

Use a map and follow it.  Organization, as we will examine later, is a key ingredient for scoring big.  Given the minute for reading the prompt and the 2-3 minutes to build the plan, there will be approximately 20 minutes for writing and editing. Though we will see that the 6 essay certainly has a particular length, students make the mistake of thinking more writing automatically equates to more points- this is not true!  The last advice on pacing is to leave some time, perhaps 2-3 minutes, for editing.  You should never finish the last sentence and submit at the 25th minute. 

Presentation: Students often forget that the way their SAT essay looks does count for points. Though there is no official rule for healthy penmanship or the cleanliness of the page, the SAT essay is no time for sloppiness. Excessive use of crossed-out words and arrows that squeeze in forgotten words force review of the sentence- sometimes a few times before the grader gets the idea. The presentation does not have to be perfect but constant carelessness prevents the SAT grader from reading through the essay smoothly.

Audience: Good writers must always consider their audience before they write; this axiom is particularly true when writing for an academic audience. Your audience on the SAT yearns for clarity and smoothness. Your essay must move forward with few to no obstacles and hurdles along the way. In fact, the more hurdles in grammar, organization, and clarity, the less likely you will score big. Essay graders look for clear purpose and proper development of evidence, marked by stylistic language that accentuates the writer’s purpose, and the more readily you manifest these traits in your writer, the more likely you will score a 5 or 6.

The College Board reports that less than 3% of all SAT essays must be sent to a third grader for a final score; this situation occurs when two graders miss each other by more than one point. For example, if two graders report a 5 and 4 for a single essay, then this is suitable and the score will be a 9. However, two graders, who score a single essay as a 5 and a 3, must be sent to a third grader for a third opinion.

Writing Well: Key Ingredients of a Strong Essay

No Thesis, No Points: In all writing prompts, the College Board asks students to develop a “point of view.” The words really mean to develop an argument using a thesis statement that clearly reflects their position. Thus, the opening paragraph has one purpose: establish a clear position on the topic. It must contain a thesis, a clear position that depends upon evidence to measure its strength. The clearer the position and the stronger the support, the more likelihood to get a high score.

Developing a thesis is an easy task to practice. Find a book of quotations or look up quotes on the Internet and ask yourself whether or not you agree with the claim. Take a stand and think about a number of ways you could support your argument. In essence, you will be practicing thesis writing. We will need to explore what constitutes strong support and mediocre support in a later section. So again, a clear position is the only way to a big score. Once again, no thesis, no points!

Paragraphs and Sentences for the Greater Good: There is nothing more distracting and annoying then unwanted sentences and paragraphs.  In paragraph writing, English instructors characterize well-written paragraphs using two main terms: unity and coherence.  Each topic sentence that you create sets parameters and boundaries for your discussion.  Every sentence that you write must develop and add muscle to the initial idea.  Any time a sentence strays or is loosely connected to the topic sentence the momentum of the discussion is compromised.  Students often feel compelled to say so much at once that they let their ideas fly without concern for placement.  Some students are so concerned about making insightful statements that they forget how to group them into a common neighborhood. 

Also, students seem to believe the myth that the more examples they use the better.  This is just not true!  It is the selection of which example and how it is developed that scores big points.  Playing too many ideas at once is the wrong move since the author should have chosen his strongest examples and developed them with the most strength possible.  A jack-of-all-trades-and master-of-none approach leaves an essay shallow, committed to generalizations and summary rather than strong critical thinking and digging deep, reaffirming the importance and necessity of the example.

A paragraph with unity and coherence is a paragraph whereby all sentence support the topic sentence and the sentences follow a logical order that   accentuates the power of the topic.  Additionally, all paragraphs essentially serve the same role as your supporting sentences for your topic sentence- only think of your thesis as the topic sentence and all successive paragraphs as your development. 

Provide Concrete Examples: Avoid Generalizations: Students often speak in generalizations.  In other words, when given a task, students would rather repeat the same idea rather than add depth by adding a solid example.  Building your argument with solid, tangible evidence is essential for a big score.  In fact, the College Board wants students to use examples from history, literature, current events, personal experiences, etc.  An unwritten law in the SAT essay, when shooting for the 5 or 6, is to use examples that showcase the extent of students’ education.  Personal experience may do this- but the experience must be insightful enough, tapping into the real essence of human experience to wow the grader.  A more practical approach for the wow factor is to use scholastic examples that add what we might call academic muscle to the essay; it certainly is the safe play for bigger points. 

Use Clincher Sentences to Conclude Ideas: Avoid a Full Conclusion: There is no need to develop a conclusion in the course of 25 minutes.  In fact, it would be an unwise use of time to sum up your ideas into a 4 to 5 sentence package that merely restates your thesis but is dressed in new language.  Conclusions work best in longer papers since often the reader needs to have the loose ends tied up at the end.  Your introductory paragraph for the SAT essay should be solid enough to leave no mystery about the clarity of your position.  Rather think of use clincher sentences to be your final battle cry. 

Length: The Measure of Success:  The number of words has a strong influence on your SAT score. The correlation between high scores and words simply reflects that extent of a writer’s development.  Not to say that a low number of words cannot do justice to a topic, but the College Board expects you to fill your page with enough development that manifests your critical thinking ability. The grader is looking for 350-400 words of solid composition that do not leave him guessing.  Reading the essay must be a smooth ride ALL the way through- EVERY word, EVERY sentence, Every paragraph counts.

Not the Luck of the Draw: Think Universal Examples: The SAT prompt suggests that students may develop their ideas through use of their “reading, studies, experience, or observations.”  It is possible to score a 5 and 6 using experience, yet the experience must be insightful such as a moment of dramatic change or a period of adversity. SAT Graders love anecdotes that mark incessant struggle with the finish line of victory or learning something new about yourself since these experiences demonstrate critical thinking and insight.  More importantly, if the experience is dressed in lucid language, the essay has all the traits for success.  But, if students do not have a wealth of experience to choose from, they may always count on universal examples to fill the void. Universal examples are a distinction of students’ learning- it simply showcases how well read they may be, and at some point graders look for this showcase to justify higher scores. Students should develop their own arsenal and make sure these examples are waiting in their dugout, ready to use given ANY writing prompt.  This method, however, entails that they have some level of expertise with the example.  Simply forcing the example into the essay without development or sentences that manifest their knowledge will earn no points.

Last Thoughts for the SAT Essay:

  • You need at least two large examples or three smaller examples to fulfill the 350-450 words.

  • Never begin the introduction of your essay by immediately answering the question such as “Yes, I do agree with the quote.”  There is nothing more annoying or indicative of an essay that will never hit the 5 and 6. 

  • Avoid dead language such as “I think that,” or “In my opinion,” or “I feel that.”  There is nothing more cliché and hence more mediocre.  Using language like this seriously commits you to NEVER earning above a 4. 

  • The smooth ride is the best ride.  Fulfill your purpose and move on.  Do not feel compelled to ornament your essay with nonsense.  Remember your audience- the SAT grader wants to read your essay as quickly as possible to move on to the next one.  Let him find your 5 and 6 traits quickly and clearly.

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