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Keep up-to-date with the latest advice from the College Essay Guy on writing your essays and college admissions.

How to Brainstorm an Awesome SAT Essay Outline in Five Minutes

Ethan Sawyer

brainstorm write picture sat

I believe your first five minutes of the timed 25-minute SAT essay are the most important. Why? Because the thesis and example you outline in those five minutes can make or break your essay.

I remember once telling my AP Lang teacher that I felt my essay was disorganized. She told me it was because my thoughts were disorganized. “Fuzzy thoughts lead to fuzzy writing.” She was right. After teaching writing for almost ten years, this is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned:

Clear thinking leads to clear writing.

Here’s a tip: if you can get your thoughts clear before you even begin your essay, the essay will practically write itself. So how do you get your thoughts clear in the first few minutes of the SAT essay? Try this:

1. Underline the abstract phrases in the prompt

Why do this? Because these phrases are the ones you’ll need to make concrete in the essay.

You: Wait, what do mean “make concrete”?

Me: I mean bring to life with details, images and examples.

You: Can you give me an example?

Me: Yup. Take this prompt, for example:

Do people need adversity to discover who they are?

Me: Underline the abstract phrases you’ll need to make concrete in the essay.

You: Sorry, not following you. Can you help me out?

Me: For sure. Underline “adversity” and “discover who they are.”

So if you believe the answer to this prompt is “yes, we do need adversity…” your essay will need to be about someone who encountered adversity that ultimately helped that person discover who he or she was. (Note that you could argue that people don’t need adversity to discover who they are, but it’s easier to prove that they do.)

Okay, I think I got it. Now what?

2. Brainstorm your example before you write your thesis

You: Wait, what? Aren’t I supposed to come up with my thesis first?

Me: Either one works. But try thinking of your example first, especially if you’ve never tried it.

You: Okay, how many examples do I need?

Me: One is fine for now. Just make sure your example applies to all the underlined parts of the prompt. Here are two examples I just came up with:

Example #1 (personal) of someone who overcame adversity to discover who she was

Who was it? My former student, Kristen

What was the adversity? She had an alcoholic father who was barely around when she was growing up, and he hired babysitters to take care of her instead. This led to her basically raising her younger brother on her own as they moved around the country to over ten different cities.

How did the adversity help her discover who she was? She became extremely creative and resourceful when it came to feeding, entertaining and even disciplining her brother. Moving to ten different cities also made her extremely adaptable.

Check it out: that’s practically an outline for an essay. Granted, it took me four minutes to come up with that. But that’s why it takes five minutes to brainstorm the essay. Because it takes four minutes to come up with the example and one minute to write it down. Here’s another:

Example #2 (from history): someone who overcame adversity to discover who he was

Who was it? Lance Armstrong

What was the adversity? Cancer

How did the adversity help him discover who he was? He overcame cancer to win the Tour de France nine times.

You: Wait a second. That’s actually a bad example.

Me: Really? Why?

You: A few reasons: 1.) It was actually seven times. 2.) It’s been proven that Lance Armstrong was doping and he ended up having all his Tour de France titles taken away. 3.) You didn’t answer the third question… You didn’t actually show how it helped him discover who he was.

Me: You’re right. And the SAT reader will forgive you if you mess up #1. And maybe even #2. But if you don’t actually respond to the whole prompt--in this case if you don’t demonstrate how the adversity faced helped your example discover who he was--you haven’t really fully answered the prompt.

Notice that it’s possible, though, to come up with your example first and then your thesis. Because once you have a clear example, the thesis should be pretty clear. So for example if the prompt is:

Do people need adversity to discover who they are?

Your thesis can be as simple as:

While not all people need adversity to learn who they are, in some cases adversity can be useful in leading people to discover important truths about themselves, as it did with my friend Kristen.  

And, since I’ve answered all the abstract parts of the prompt, my essay should be pretty straightforward.

Now it’s your turn. Use the prompt above to answer this prompt: Do people need adversity to discover who they are? Answer these three questions:

1. Who was it?

2. What adversity did the person face?

3. How did the adversity help the person discover who s/he was?

Now that you have your example, write a thesis that responds directly to the prompt in bold above. Make sure you answer the question clearly and directly.

Now that you’ve figured out how to outline it, here’s a quick guide to turn your good essay into an amazing one.

Don’t forget to check out this list of four things you probably shouldn’t do while writing the SAT essay.