Reflections of a private tutor
My basic advice for approaching the SAT and ACT essays is summed up in the acronym A.C.H.I.E.V.E.R.:
1) AC - make the Abstract Concrete
--> First, brainstorm as many specific examples of the issue as you can think of in 2-3 minutes.
--> Look for patterns among the examples (i.e. examples 1, 3, and 4 all support the same argument) and then choose the strongest pattern
--> That pattern becomes the basis for your thesis.
--> Thesis should answer 3 questions: "What is my argument?", "How am I going to make it?" and "Why is it important?" A basic format for a good thesis is: "X is the case because of Y and Z reasons, which matters because of C."
2) HIE - Have Interesting Examples
--> The essays are graded most heavily on how detailed your examples are and how well you interpret them to prove your thesis, so make them vivid and deep.
--> If you have the opportunity to choose a more unusual example than the people around you might choose, then use it.
--> Interpretation of how the examples prove your claims should be at LEAST half the content of your body paragraphs.
3) VE - Vex your Examples
--> Vex means "irritate." So, challenge your examples, consider their complications, then work those complexities into your essay to make your thesis/claim more specific or more nuanced.
--> If, however, you come up with a counterargument that is too strong for you to resolve, then for the purposes of this essay, IGNORE IT. In general, you would revise that claim into your new thesis, but here you don't have time for that. Just make the argument you set out to make. It's graded on structure and depth more than perfection.
4) R -- be Rich in your style and prose
--> Start off, for instance, with your second-best example or an interesting quote.
--> Use good diction (i.e. good vocab words), but don't use words that you're not sure about. They make you look silly.
--> Use a varied sentence structure, with a variety of clauses in different positions.
--> Employ good mechanics and grammar as a matter of course (review the 24 Pitfalls).
--> Respect parallel structure!