How to summarize the prompt in the SAT essay writing section

How to summarize the prompt in the SAT essay writing section

If you write the SAT essay, you need to do three things well:

  • summarize the essay prompt to prove you understand it;
  • analyze how the author persuades readers; and
  • write your response in excellent, stylish English.

I recommend that you summarize the essay prompt in one sentence to open your essay response.  After that you need to summarize the rest of the essay.  How?

The SAT prompt is usually five or six paragraphs long.  One of those paragraphs might be a hook; if so, the hook needn’t be mentioned unless the hook highlights the author’s style.  If so, include it in your summary.

The thesis is given to you in the paragraph following the SAT essay prompt, in the paragraph which gives you directions.  You need to know the thesis to know what the author’s point is, what he or she is trying to persuade you, the reader.  When you know what the thesis means, look for information in the prompt which backs up the thesis—not the tiny details, but the big ideas.

Sometimes the organization of the essay itself can help you summarize it.  In Dr. Martin Luther King’s essay, “Three Ways of Meeting Oppression,” King has one introductory sentence.  The next sentence, in the same paragraph, names the first way of meeting oppression, acquiescence.  Several sentences later, King says acquiescence is not a good way.  In another paragraph, King names the second way of meeting oppression, violence.  A few sentences later he explains why this is also not a good way.  Near the end of his essay, he names the third way of meeting oppression, nonviolent resistance, which he supports.  Summarizing the main ideas of this essay prompt is easy.

Unfortunately, most SAT prompts are not written with the organization so clear.  But the prompts are organized.  You need to figure out how.  Once you understand the organization, you can spot the main supports for the essay thesis.  Not always, but most of the time, each body paragraph contains a main support.  And most of the time, those supports are near the beginning of each paragraph.

If we look at The Declaration of Independence, it is clearly broken down into four distinct parts.  The first section introduces the idea that the colonies are breaking away from Great Britain and that the world deserves to know why.  The second section identifies the philosophical legitimacy of such a break. The third section names grievances the colonial people have against King George III.  The last section declares the independence of the 13 colonies.  Naming the four parts, as I just did, is sufficient to show that you understand the main ideas of the document.

How can you become quick and accurate in identifying the main ideas of an essay prompt?  Practice.  Read an essay a day from your newspaper.  If you don’t subscribe, go to your media center daily and read a column or editorial.  Analyze its contents for structure.  What is the thesis?  What are the main points backing up the thesis?  Practice writing them down quickly, in five to seven minutes.

If you go into the essay portion of the SAT without practice, you likely will do poorly.  But if you practice, knowing what is expected of you, your chances go way up.



Start your SAT essay with a one-sentence summary

If you write the SAT essay, you need to do three things well:

  • summarize the essay prompt to prove you understand it;
  • analyze how the author persuades readers; and
  • write your response in excellent, stylish English.

When you write a summary for the SAT essay response, I recommend you start with a one-sentence summary of the whole essay prompt.  Why?  Doing so proves you know what the essay is all about, what the gist of the essay is.  In the few sentences which follow, you can elaborate by stating the supporting main ideas.

For example, suppose you were to write a one-sentence summary of the US Declaration of Independence.  The first section of that document introduces the idea that the colonies are breaking away from Great Britain and that the world deserves to know why.  The second section identifies the legitimacy of such a break by any people who think their government is not supporting their rights.  The third section names the many grievances the colonial people have against King George III and his government.  The last section declares the independence of the 13 colonies.

How to put that all in one sentence?  How about this:

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to tell the world why the colonies were breaking away from their long established relationship with Great Britain and were declaring their independence, and why they had the right to separate.

All the important information is in this one sentence:  the author, the name of the piece of writing, and the major ideas of the document.

Let’s try another.  How about summarizing Romeo and Juliet in one sentence?   In Italy hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare has two teenagers meet, fall in love, and marry despite a feud between their families, leading to a tragic ending for the young lovers.

Or how about To Kill a Mockingbird?  Author Harper Lee has a precocious white girl, her brother, and their friend taunt a reclusive neighbor while the children’s father defends an innocent black man on trial for his life in 1930’s rural, bigoted Alabama.

In each of these one-sentence summaries, almost all details are left out.  Leaving out major details can be hard for some children.  Even teenagers sometimes can’t figure out what is most important.  That is why writing one-sentence summaries takes practice.

You will have one major help:  the thesis is given to you.  In the paragraph following the essay prompt, the thesis is named.  Many times you can wrap your summary around its ideas.

Scoring higher on the SAT essay

Let’s look at the SAT essay and how you can score higher on it.

Your response to the prompt (a persuasive essay provided in your testing packet) is an essay.  It is judged based on three criteria:

  • Naming the author and title of the prompt; identifying the thesis of the prompt, and summarizing the main ideas in the prompt plus important details.
  • Identifying what persuasive techniques the author of the prompt uses, pointing out examples of those persuasive techniques in the prompt, and explaining why those persuasive techniques work.
  • Writing your response in standard essay format (an introduction, body, and conclusion) while using excellent, stylish English.

Today let’s look at the first of the three criteria, the summary.

Before you read the essay prompt, I would go straight to the paragraph after the prompt ends.  That paragraph directs you to write an essay, but more importantly, it identifies the thesis of the prompt.  You don’t need to figure out what the thesis is because the test information identifies it.  Underline the thesis and in the margin write “thesis.”

(Yes, you can write in your test booklet.  It will be shredded after the test, so no one but you will see it.  Write any notes that help you.)

Now that you know what the essay prompt is all about, you can read the prompt aware of what you are looking for, that is, the main ideas backing up that thesis.  Underline the main ideas as you read and in the margin next to the ideas write “MI1” or “MI2.”  Why?  You need to be able to find the main ideas quickly later on.  Underlining them and annotating them in the margins makes finding them easier

Usually the prompt is five or six paragraphs, so you might wind up with four or five main ideas, one per body paragraph.  But sometimes an author begins the first main idea in the first paragraph and offers the last main idea in the last paragraph.  So read carefully.

Now that you know what the prompt is all about you can write your summary paragraph.  I would make that summary the first paragraph of your essay.  No need for a separate introduction–and no time.  In your first sentence, write an overall summary of the essay, and in the next few sentences, identify the main ideas.  That’s right.  Write a one sentence summary of the article to start your essay.

Remember, the SAT is a test designed to see if you are ready for college.  In writing the summary of the essay prompt, the test is asking you to prove you can read and understand college level material, and to prove that by summarizing the material.

How can you become proficient at this kind of writing without working with a tutor like me?  Go online to a well-written newspaper and read an op-ed article (an opinion essay on the page opposite the editorial page).  Do this several times a week.  Download one copy and mark it for its thesis and main ideas.  Write a five or six sentence summary.  Choose different authors with different writing styles and topics.

Or from your library, take out a book of essays and do the same thing.  Or find a book of essays from a resale book store or Goodwill which you can mark.  Choose persuasive essays because that is the kind you will be tested on.


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 show students how to incorporate backstory into action

I would find a well-known story—fairy tales are perfect—which begin with backstory.  Either give each student in the class a copy or show a copy on the overhead projector.  For example, here is a version of a famous fairy tale:

Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were very unhappy because they had no children. But at last a little daughter was born, and their sorrow was turned to joy. All the bells in the land were rung to tell the glad tidings.

The king gave a feast so grand that the likes of it had never been known. He invited all the fairies he could find in the kingdom—there were seven of them—to come as godmothers. He hoped that each would give the princess a good gift.

But there came into the hall a mean old fairy who had not been invited. She had fled the kingdom in anger fifty years before and had not been seen since.

The evil fairy’s turn came to give a gift to the baby. Shaking her head spitefully, she said, “When the princess is seventeen years old, she shall prick her finger with a spindle, and-she-shall-die!”

Ask the students to read the fairy tale opening several times, and then identify what you mean by backstory–the king and queen being sad they had no children, the bells ringing, the feast, the fairies invited, the old fairy not invited.  Explain that together you are going to rewrite this beginning in such a way that these events are written into the action.  Suggest that the place to begin the action is where the mean fairy is about to cast a spell on the infant.  Ask the class for ideas how to begin.

If this is the first time you have done this with a group of students, you might not get a response.  Or you might get a response that is more backstory.  So you might need to model how to approach this problem.  You might think aloud how you would write this story opener, accepting some of your own ideas and rejecting others.  Let the students hear how you would go about writing a more interesting beginning.

You could say and write,

Once upon a time, a mean fairy strode into a king’s and queen’s ballroom, glaring at the invited guests until the royal court, the king, the queen, and the tiny baby princess grew still.  Even the castle bells stopped ringing.

Ask students if they recognize that his story is a fairy tale.  Ask how they know.  These questions keep them involved.  Now continue thinking and writing aloud.

“Since you have waited 17 years for a daughter,” the mean fairy said, staring at the king and queen, “I will protect the princess for 17 years.”  The king and queen rose to their feet and clapped, as did the other fairies and guests.  Even the baby kicked her tiny feet in approval.

Explain to the students that you have just set up the king, queen and royal court–as well as the readers–for what will happen next.

But the mean fairy was not finished.  “On your 17th birthday,” she said, leaning over the baby’s cradle, and touching a finger of the infant, “you shall prick this finger on a spinning wheel.”  She turned around to look at the king and queen before she turned back to the baby.  “And you shall die!”

Next, ask the students to compare the two fairy tale openings, side by side if you can.  Point out that some of the backstory was not told in the second version, but the important parts were.  More importantly, the second version starts with action, with someone doing something. We learn so much from the dialog of the mean fairy:  that there is a king and queen who have wanted a child for a long time, that their longed-for baby is a girl, and that on her 17th birthday she will prick her finger and die because of a spell by the evil fairy.  Aren’t those the essential parts of the backstory in the original version?  And isn’t the longer quote of the mean fairy in the second version more scary and exciting than telling the information as backstory, as in the first version?

When you have worked through this process with one fairy tale, choose another, and another, and another.  Each time rewrite the fairy tale aloud with the students, asking for their input as they grow more capable of writing this way.  Then, divide the class into small groups, and let each group attempt to rewrite a fairy tale opening.  Meanwhile, you circulate to offer help, suggestions or praise.  Ask students to volunteer to read their openings aloud and to talk about how they wrote, explaining their problems and solutions.

Finally, ask students to write their own fairy tale opening, incorporating background information into the action.  Let students read their works aloud.

For all of these exercises, students needn’t write the whole fairy tale.  What you are teaching is how to write better narrative openings, so writing the opening is enough.


How to incorporate backstory into narratives

When I help children write narratives, I see one common mistake:  a desire to tell the backstory first.  Students don’t know that what worked hundreds of years ago for the Cinderella story is not the way people tell stories today.

For example, most Cinderella stories begin with an explanation of how Cinderella’s mother died, of how her father remarried an apparently nice woman, of how her father died and the stepmother turned on Cinderella, of how Cinderella came to be the maid in her stepmother’s house, of how her stepmother and stepsisters are mean to her, and of how the king has invited all the young women to a ball so his single son, the prince, can choose a wife.

How much of that is really necessary to begin the story?  Is there another way?  What if the story started on the evening of the ball with a mother and her two daughters frantically preparing for the dance and the maid helping?

“Eh!  My stocking has a hole in it.  Cinderella, find me another.  And fast,” said a young woman with large feet, snapping her fingers.

“Stop, Cinderella.  Finish curling my hair,” said another young woman, drying her painted fingernails.  “Find your own stocking, sister.”  She stuck out her tongue to her sisiter.

“Girls!  Girls!” cried an older woman, handing Cinderella a diamond necklace, and turning so Cinderella could fasten it around her neck.  “We must hurry.  The ball begins in a half hour and we must be on time to the king’s palace.”

“Oh, mother, do you think the prince will choose me for his wife?” asked the sister with the torn stocking, looking dreamy-eyed at her mother.

“Not if you trample him with those gigantic feet of yours,” said the other sister, shaking her tiny feet at her sister.

Do you see how the necessary parts of the backstory are all there without a separate paragraph to explain them?  We know Cinderella is the maid because the others are ordering her around. We know that her sisters and mother are selfish because of how they talk to Cinderella and to each other.  We know they are preparing for a ball at the king’s palace because the mother says so while Cinderella is fastening her necklace.  And we know the prince is looking for a wife because one of the girls says so.  No backstory is necessary because the details are woven into the action happening right now.

Hundreds of years ago, stories weren’t written this way.  They began with the author telling backstory.  But today readers want authors to start with action.  Readers are used to jumping right into the story and catching the backstory details as they read, not in a section set off by itself.

To meet reader expectations, you the writer, want to keep the story moving.  Stopping to give backstory interrupts the flow of the action. What will happen next is what readers want to know, not what happened before.

Students can learn to write this way if their teachers know that this is the preferred way to begin narratives and if they teach students how.  But unfortunately, few elementary or middle grades teachers write narratives themselves.  No time.  And few were trained in how to teach this kind of writing.  For my masters of education degree in 1995, I didn’t take a single course on how to teach writing because no such course was offered.

How can you show (not tell) students how to write narratives this preferred way?  More about that in our next blog.

Writing “keyboards” of the near future

I learned to print capital letters in kindergarten and lower case letters in first grade.  I learned to write cursive in third grade.  In high school I learned to type—QWERTY—on a manual typewriter and on an electric, reaching 55 wpm.  Later I learned to use a keyboard, then an ergonomically curved keyboard, then a touch pad, a stylus, and most recently, an iPhone touch screen.

But soon I might be writing the great American novel on one of these:

A thin, almost see-through key pad to which a device (about the size of a pack of cigarettes) sends lasers which pick up the movement of fingers and sends signals to an electronic device, such as an iPad.  It’s available now for $119.99 from Brookstone.

If you find keying into phone’s tiny keyboards hard, you could attach a strap over each hand and type on any surface you want, with or without a keyboard.  Air Type detects the movements of your fingers and turns them into electronic signals to your phone or other device.

Then there is the roll up keyboard called the Qii which rolls to the size of a roll of coins.  Via Bluetooth it connects to your electronic device.

The Celluon Magic Cube projects a laser onto a flat surface creating a virtual full-size keyboard which connects to electronic devices via Bluetooth.

All of these keyboards use the QWERTY arrangement of letters.  But what if you want a different arrangement?  Then you can use the Puzzle Keyboard which enables you to connect letters in almost any arrangement you like.

For people with physical disabilities there is the one-handed keyboard, a roundish mouse-like device with several buttons.  Pressing various combinations of buttons creates various letters and punctuation.

If you like the look and feel of an old-fashioned typewriter, you could get Qwerkywriter, a keyboard which looks like a 1950’s era typewriter.  It uses Bluetooth to connect to electronic devices.

One odd-looking innovation already available is a one-handed wearable keyboard called Tap made by Tap Systems.  While wearing rubbery finger bracelets, tap your index finger and get an “E.”  Tap two fingers together and get other letters.  Tapping the middle finger and the pinky produces a “Z.”

Another innovation is Leap Motion’s digital menu which can attach to the palm of one hand, allowing you to tap on it with your other hand.  The signals are picked up by an electronic device.

On the horizon are vision controlled devices which would allow you to stare at particular letters, inputting those letters into an electronic device.

Perhaps most futuristic is the technology of Openwater, which is figuring out how to track your thought waves.  Think “water” and w-a-t-e-r appears on your electronic device.

Cursive has been eliminated, and from what I see, so has keyboard instruction. Maybe in a few years we will need no pens, keyboards or smart phones.  Instead maybe we’ll send messages one brain to the next with no intermediary technology?

But will the writing be any better?