I often see passage-based questions asking for the author's intent or, in the cases with two passages, for a comparison of the two authors' intents. Out of multiple answer choices that seem similarly likely to be the author's motivation, the correct answer sometimes seems like an arbitrary choice. Is there a better way to narrow down the correct choice than educated guessing?
The way that the SAT reduces texts to a few multiple choice answers can seem unfair and confusing, and I'm a strong believer that there is no objective right or wrong in literature, out the testmakers are typically very predictable in what they mark as the "correct" answer. A question about the author's intent is a roundabout way to ask about the main idea of a passage and the author's perspective on it. First, identify the focus of the passage, often found in the beginning of the concluding paragraph or the end of the introduction. Does the author have a positive or negative opinion on this topic? What is the intensity of the author's feelings toward this topic? Is the author making any call to action? Chances are the "correct" choice is a combination of the answers to these questions.
My English teacher always says that my essays don't have enough sentence variation and advanced word choice. How can I improve these aspects of my essays without sounding like I'm trying too hard?
Sentence variation and word choice are difficult elements to tackle in isolation, especially because they relate to your personal voice and how you communicate ideas. For a long term solution, try reading speeches by figures whom you admire, and observe how they can speak with intellectual voices without sounding pretentious. In the short term, if you find that you are putting multiple simple sentences next to each other, try to link a couple using coordinating conjunctions, and add descriptive prepositional phrases where appropriate. After writing a first draft, a step you can take is to eliminate all forms of the verb "to be," as well as other simple verbs, like "to say," "to go," "to become," and "to exist."
I have studied French for a long time, and last summer as part of an exchange program, I went to France and lived there for a week with a host family. I want to write about the experience in a college essay but am afraid that it will be too cliche. How should I approach writing about this topic? Or should I scrap this idea entirely?
It is true that many students participate in foreign exchange programs, but admissions officers don't in any way expect high school students to each have unique and novel experiences! What is more important than the topic you write about is your reflection on how it contributed to your love of learning, preferably in a way that is not yet demonstrated in the rest of the application. If the exchange trip held no personal significance to you, it's better to write about something more relevant to a subject that you are passionate about. However, there are so many ways to make this topic work. For example, if you are planning to study languages in college, talk about how your trip to France helped connect your classroom knowledge to real world applications. If you want to highlight your dedication to community service, elaborate on your respectful observations of local conditions, and express the desire to return and help fulfill local needs.