When I score an essay, it often looks like someone killed a chicken on it. It’s covered with question marks, slashed phrases, circled errors, and marginal comments – all in bright red ink. I usually line out a quarter to a third of the verbiage. One student looked at her graded paper, and burst out crying. “I try so hard, but I can’t write the way they want me to.” I felt guilty and sympathetic, but resisted the urge to merely console. I handed her a tissue and asked her to tell me what it is that they want her to do. She sniffed, thought for a moment, then cried “I don’t knoooow.” Therein lies the problem.
Though the SAT (or the ACT) is a rite of passage for millions of students, many teachers refuse to teach how to write an SAT essay. They claim it’s too formulaic. It stifles creativity. Uh…, yeah? I think these teachers may never have strayed into the real world of corporations, government agencies, non-profits, law firms, or the military. Of course it’s formulaic. Every sales pitch, proposal, journal article, legal brief, or operation order follows the same formula.
We should thank the SAT and the ACT for testing exactly what colleges and businesses and governments want – a clear, concise essay that has a point and makes it. Leave creativity for dark and stormy nights. Help students write essays that are focused, organized, and short. Forget complex sentences, transitional phrases, Latinate expressions, colorful metaphors, and multisyllabic words. Teach students how to gather their thoughts and how to convey those thoughts to a reader.
The SAT requires every college hopeful to write a forensic essay. (Forensic, pertaining to argumentation and formal debate; from the Latin forensis, of a forum.) Think “Law and Order.” The essay must begin with a thesis and a list of supporting evidence: “I will prove the defendant guilty because he was there, he had a gun, and he used it.” The essay must then devote a paragraph to each piece of evidence: “This cancelled stub, exhibit A, proves that the defendant was at…” The essay should end with a brief restatement of the thesis: “I have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt…” That’s it, four or five paragraphs, no more than four sentences per paragraph.
Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em. Tell ‘em. Tell ‘em what you told ‘em. Who can’t do that? Even weepy teens can – if given proper instruction.
The instruction should emphasize the following:
• Understand the assignment.
• Develop a thesis statement.
• Brainstorm supporting examples.
• Write quickly, concisely, and correctly.
• Review and revise.
Here is a sample essay question from an old SAT. It contains the shortest prompt I’ve seen to date: If you rest, you rust. – Helen Hayes. It is followed by the Assignment: “Do you agree that success requires unremitting effort?” Next is a set of boiler plate instructions: “Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.”
Follow a Formula
The SAT allows only 25 minutes for the essay, so time must be metered. The student should follow a specific (guess what?) formula:
Spend three to five minutes planning an approach. Read the “Prompt” and the “Assignment” carefully. Do not get lost in the Prompt’s subject matter, but glean its point and its counterpoint (the two sides of the issue implied by the quoted celebrity). Choose a side and answer the question in a good English sentence: “Success requires unremitting effort.”
This is the thesis statement. Write it on the test booklet (not on the answer sheet). Now comes the hard part – brainstorming examples. One is not enough, two might suffice, three is the magic number, four would take too much time. Start with a personal observation.
It is easy to write what you know. Think of an acquaintance who worked hard and succeeded or one who didn’t work hard and failed. If necessary, make it up. (Who’s going to check?) Next, try history: Washington, Lincoln, Marie Curie, and Steve Jobs all worked long hours to gain success. Finally, look to literature. Hemingway’s Santiago (The Old Man and the Sea) found hard work to be its own reward. Write the examples in bullet form in the test booklet.
Now start writing. On the answer sheet write the introductory paragraph (including the thesis statement, perhaps a sentence defining terms, and one to three sentences listing the examples). Write a paragraph for each supporting argument, then a concluding paragraph which mirrors the introduction. Tell brief stories rich with detail. Spend no more than 15 to 18 minutes writing. Save three to five for the most important work.
Review and revise. Economize, economize, economize. Remove unnecessary words. Slash qualifiers (just simply, really, very, truly), superlatives (greatest, always, never, totally), indefinites (there is, is when), clichés (a new you, the next big thing), gerunds (was doing, is trying), and most transitions (for example, first, on the other hand, in conclusion). Times up. Pencils down.
If a kid knows what’s expected, and was taught how to plan and organize a brief essay, she can do a creditable job. She may need to learn more about spelling, punctuation, grammar, and rhetoric, but she can put her thoughts on paper. That is all the SAT asks.