This is the hard part.
You sit at your desk, biting on the end of your pencil, listening to the furious scribbles of the students seated around you. You start to panic. What should you write about? There are simultaneously too many options and not enough. You sift quickly through your inner Rolodex, flicking through picture after picture of faces you associate with leadership; presidents, literary figures, your mom.
Ooh. You could totally write about your mom! She’s awesome, and works really hard, and still makes you lunch every morning. Plus, you know way more about her than any of the other examples that just flickered through your brain. You’ve got this. You pick up your pencil, confident, and begin to write.
If the above paragraph sounds great to you, we’re about to burst your bubble. Sadly but truthfully, we don’t care about your mom.
Now, let’s not be too harsh here. Of course we care about your mom, in that your mom is a human and deserves respect and compassion from other humans like us (contrary to popular belief, SAT essay graders are people too). But we simply do not care about your mom the way we care about Martin Luther King Jr., or Galileo, or Abraham Lincoln. We don’t care about your mom the way we care about Amelia Earhart or Benjamin Franklin or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. We don’t care about your mother the same way because your mother is not a well-known academic example.
Choosing to write about a personal example—your piano teacher, your brother, your favorite teacher, that time you worked really hard and earned a position on the varsity soccer team (congrats, by the way)—isn’t as a strong of a choice as writing about a well-known (or even relatively obscure) historical or literary figure. Referencing history and literature makes you look smart and well-informed, and shows that you are able to make connections between disparate academic concepts. Referencing your mother just makes you look like you really like your mom.
But academic examples are harder, right? You have to do research and stuff, and who wants to do that?
You should. We’re not asking for a 200 page manifesto. All you need to do well on the SAT essay is cursory knowledge of your examples roughly equivalent to the top of a Wikipedia page. In other words, you don’t have to know much.
While Martin Luther King Jr., Galileo, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, and Abraham Lincoln are fantastic examples, you can also expand the scope of your research to include less familiar historical figures. This is your chance to show off how much you know about Nellie Bly, Garret Morgan, or Empress Myeongseong. Don’t know who those people are? Go ahead and Google them. History is fascinating, and a few extra minutes of research will not only help you ace your SAT essay, it will teach you about some of the incredible people that have contributed to the development of society.
Choosing examples that you are passionate about (or at least interested in) is going to make it considerably easier to write a killer essay. If you are bored writing the essay, we are going to be bored reading it, which doesn’t necessarily inspire us to give you a high score.
SAT essay graders are looking for sharp, clear arguments that are backed up by strong academic examples. Give them what they want. Spend an hour learning about three or four awesome historical or literary figures and lock that info in your brain for all eternity. Write an essay that your mom would be proud of, not one about your mom.