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Score at the Top Blog

The SAT Essay

Thursday, June 04, 2009

One of the greatest nightmares in a young student’s life is writing an essay that some adult is going to read with a critical eye. No matter how much pumping up a teacher or tutor may do, the high schooler fidgets and stares, eyes glazed over at the thought of committing ideas to paper. It’s as though, upon the student’s completion of the writing task, the hand of Adult-dom will descend from above, index finger menacingly pointing to the poor writer, and from deep inside the cloud of knowledge will come the booming “You FOOL! That’s so immature!”

Alas, mitigating the student’s fear of writing (presented above albeit in extremis) is no easy task. And when it comes to the SAT essay, always the very first, twenty-five minute exam section, anxiety may cause havoc. Filling the two lined pages provided seems daunting. So whadaya do? First, get rid of some myths surrounding this exercise.

Perhaps it’s mis-named; rather than an essay, Section 1 of the SAT might best be called a “writing sample.” The College Board essay readers scan for a writer’s ability to use the English language well. They do not ‘grade’ an essay; they score it on a 1 to 6 scale. These numbers from two readers are added for the score reported to the student. Readers look for clarity and flow, for a few, well applied 25¢ words. Adjectives, lots of good adjectives! Why do students eschew adjectives when they write?

If you get your facts wrong, or even make up facts in order to make a point, readers don’t mind at all. When World War Two ended in 1814…, Hemingway’s Great Gatsby…, One in every two U.S. households now speaks Spanish at home…. It’s not what you write about, but rather how you write that makes the difference.

I’m so cheeky about this fact of form over content that I tell students that they can prepare an essay even before they sit for the exam! Yes, it can be done—you’ll have to call me to find out how! Having read and scored SAT essays for the College Board from 2005 to 2008, I have some insights into what works and what doesn’t. Five paragraph essays, so touted in our school curricula, hold no special place for a reader. In theory, a writer could present a single paragraph and get a top score of 6. Readers are told quite explicitly, after all, that the student is writing a first draft under duress in the space of less than half an hour.

After years and years of guided writing of one sort or another, kids today find it difficult to let their imaginations go in support of their writing. But that’s exactly the key to success on the SAT essay.