Category Archives: SAT essay

Should you write the SAT essay?

Will you or your child be taking the SAT  in December?  Here are some facts to keep in mind as you make your decision about writing the essay.

None of the Ivy League universities (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale) requires the SAT essay any more.

Stanford strongly recommends writing the essay as does Georgia Tech.  West Point requires it.

About 10% of US colleges and universities require the essay.  The less prestigious the college, the more likely it does not require the essay.

Unlike the multiple choice math and writing sections of the SAT, the essay score is subjective based on the judgment of two readers (possibly two machine readers).  A perfect score is 8 based on each of the two readers giving a score of from 1 to 4.

The score on the essay is based on one written response to one essay prompt, unlike the scores on the math and writing portions which are based on dozens of questions, each with just one correct answer.

Factors that could influence your score include your reaction to the subject matter of the prompt, your familiarity with the culture and writing style of the prompt writer, and who grades your essay.

The likelihood that you will achieve a perfect 8 on the essay is one percent, according to an analysis of College Board data by Compass Education Group.

The essay you need to write is judged on three criteria:  how well you summarize the main points of the essay; how well you identify and analyze why the prompt persuades; and how well you write your essay in English).  The hardest of these three criteria to score well on is the analysis of the prompt’s persuasive techniques.

More than 80% of test takers receive a score of 4, 5, or 6 on the summary and writing aspects of the essay but receive a 3, 4, or 5 on the analysis, according to Compass Education Group.  Readers/scorers of the essays seem reluctant to give the highest or the lowest scores.  So like a bell curve, most scores cluster in the middle range of possible scores.

You can think of the essay scoring as like the scoring of competitive gymnasts, with each athlete’s score decided somewhat subjectively by the judges.  If you score a 6 on your essay and your friend scores a 5, does that mean your essay is  better than hers?  No.  What if you score a 6 and your friend scores a 4?  Yes, in that case, you probably did write a better essay.

If your college choices don’t require an SAT essay, then you should probably skip writing the essay and lose no sleep over that decision.  But if you are an excellent writer, then you should probably write the essay.  If you do well under test conditions—50 minutes to read, understand, and analyze a prompt, and to respond in essay format in near perfect English—the advantage is yours.

How to write literary criticism

Many high school students will start off the school year needing to write literary criticism of a book they read over the summer.  And many of those students don’t know what is expected of them.  Here is a quick explanation.

Literary criticism is a written analysis, evaluation or interpretation of a piece of literature.  Usually students focus on one small aspect of the book, play, poem or speech, such as the use of metaphor in a particular dialog or how repetition of phrases strengthens an argument.

Usually literary criticism is presented in persuasive essays.

What must the writer do?

  • Break the subject down into smaller elements.
  • Choose one element to analyze.
  • Focus on that single idea, and from it, develop a thesis.
  • Break that idea into several subtopics all of which support the thesis. Back up those subtopics with evidence.
  • Organize before writing sentences. Eliminate any subtopic or any evidence which does not support the thesis.
  • Explain to readers why your evidence—and therefore your thesis—is convincing.

Where do you begin?

  • Write your thesis first. Every other word in the essay depends on the thesis.  If you start with your introduction, you are wasting time.  It might have nothing to do with the thesis you decide on.
  • Find supporting evidence for your thesis in the literature you are analyzing. Explicitly explain why each bit of evidence supports your thesis.  Write subtopic sentences which group various examples of evidence.
  • Write the body of your essay. Make sure every subtopic sentence supports the thesis and every bit of evidence supports its subtopic sentence.  Make sure everything taken from the original source is cited, using one of the standard citation methods.
  • Now think of a hook or opening for your essay which leads to your thesis. The hook might be part of the introduction or it might precede it, but there must be a connection between the hook and the thesis topic.  Good hooks might include quotations, anecdotes, a riddle, questions requiring a thoughtful response, or humor.
  • If your hook is separate from your introduction, write your introduction next. If you have a separate hook, make sure you transition to your introduction.  Many introductions start with general information about a topic and then funnel toward the thesis.  Usually the thesis is the last sentence of the introductory paragraph.
  • Lastly, write a conclusion. You can repeat your thesis or not, but you must show that your essay is ending.  Good conclusions might look to the future of your topic or pick up an idea from the hook.  Humorous endings are good.  Make sure you do not introduce a new topic in your conclusion.

By the way, if this kind of essay sounds like the kind students need to write for the SAT, you are right.  And it’s a lot like the kind of essay students will need to write in college, too.

Use a diagram to “see” the structure of the new SAT essay

When working with students learning how to write an essay for the new SAT exam, I draw diagrams of an essay pattern they can follow. The diagram acts as a prewriting organizer.  It shows students an overall perspective of what they must write.  Here is a diagram that is easy to follow yet leads to an effective SAT essay.

diagram-of-sat-essayThis diagram separates the persuasive techniques from the summary.  In the SAT workbooks, the best essay samples entwine the summary and the persuasive techniques, a more sophisticated pattern to follow.

What is important is to cover all three of the criteria which will be judged:  1) clearly showing that you understand what the essay prompt is all about (the summary), 2) recognizing and analyzing persuasive techniques, and 3) doing all this using excellent English (perfect  grammar, a variety of sentence patterns, advanced vocabulary and–most difficult of all–your own voice).

The new SAT writing essay is an improvement

Big changes have come to the SAT essay.

  • It’s optional, not required any more.
  • You have 50 minutes, not 25, to complete it.
  • It’s based on a reading passage, not an out-of-the-blue idea.
  • It will be judged on three criteria: your understanding of the reading passage, your ability to analyze the reading passage, and your writing skills.

It’s still not easy, but it’s certainly more like the writing students do in college.  Often college students need to read a book or a journal article and write a response to it.  Students need to show that they understand what the reading is about, that they can analyze the thinking that went into the passage, and that they can do so in clear, sophisticated English.  Rarely are college students ever offered a philosophical problem with no warning and no preparation, and rarely too are they asked to respond with an essay in one sitting.

The old, 25-minute limit was ridiculous.  Planning a response was reduced to three minutes; writing was limited to 20 minutes; and checking for errors lasted about two minutes, or more often, not at all.  When I work with students on writing anything we spend significant time on planning, developing details and ordering the paragraphs.  You can’t do that in three minutes.  And for most of the writing college students do they have overnight or longer to provide a response.  Good writers put their writing down, take a walk or a hot shower, and then return to the writing inspired.  At least with the new SAT there is breathing room.

Even though the reading selection might contain highfalutin vocabulary, you don’t need to understand every single word to get the gist of a reading selection and to analyze it.  The reading passage is long enough and contains enough persuasive arguments that the student can readily understand it with a strong high school vocabulary.

And the essay is optional.  For students who can write, this is their chance to prove it, adding another way to impress college admission officers.  For students who can’t write well, their lack of skill will show in the multiple choice section of the writing test.

Google the new SAT writing test to find websites offering greater perspective on the change.  See if you agree that the change has improved the test.