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The SAT Essay: Basic Principles

The Instructions You'll Probably See
The new SAT Writing Test hasn't settled into a predictable pattern just yet (and the test writers will probably tinker with the precise format over the next few years). Even so, the essay instructions you'll see on the actual test will probably be very close to the following (with a different topic, of course):

    Directions: Consider carefully the following statement and the assignment below it. Then plan and write an essay that explains your ideas as persuasively as possible. Keep in mind that the support you provide—both reasons and examples—will help make your view convincing to the reader.

    In his poem, "To a Mouse," the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote these immortal lines: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley." To paraphrase Burns's archaic dialect in modern English: No matter how carefully we plan our projects, something can still go wrong with them.

    Assignment: Are even our best plans always at the mercy of unexpected, chance events? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this idea. Support your position with reasoning and examples from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

First things first: you must respond to the assigned topic! I'm serious. Two is the lowest total score someone can get on the essay if it bears some relevance, however slight, to the topic. But excerpts from the Gettysburg Address, Hamlet's soliloquy, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, or any other selection of surpassingly beautiful, but irrelevant-to-the-topic writing would earn the absolute minimum possible score on the essay: a zero, zilch, nada. (On the other hand, any one of these works would make an outstanding supporting example, regardless of the topic. But more about this point shortly).

As you can see, however, you are given a great deal of latitude regarding how you respond to the topic. Take a moment now and review the sample essay prompts I mentioned in Introduction to the SAT Writing Test to reassure yourself of just how broad the topics you may face will be.

The SAT Essay Grading Process Is Far Less Subjective Than You Might Imagine
Before they ever score a student's paper, the SAT essay graders are rigorously trained to be consistent. That is, they are trained to agree with each other more or less reliably. It's worth knowing a bit about the training process so you'll understand why the RocketReview formula for high essay marks is so effective.

Initially, all the graders are given the same practice essay to score. Let's pretend that you and I are sitting in on the training process and that we grade the same essay. The average mark, say, was a 4, but you gave the practice essay a 5 (because you were impressed by the subtle metaphors) and I gave it a 2 (because I thought there were too many spelling errors).

All the graders discuss why they scored the essay the way they did. But you and I learn something. You learn that the other graders don't always notice subtle metaphors, and I learn that other graders don't penalize spelling errors as much as I do.

Then we grade a second paper and go through the discussion process again. And again. And again.

Here's the key point: unlike what you might think, the goal of all the graders is not to try to give an essay the score they believe it deserves. Instead, their goal is to give each essay the score they think all the other graders would give it.

And sooner or later, subconsciously if not consciously, all the graders learn to look for the same features and ignore the others. Here are the essay features that most influence the graders:

  • Essay length (evidence that you have something to say): the longer the better.
  • Number of "SAT words" (evidence that you're smart and articulate—and yet another benefit of the vocabulary building you were doing for the sentence completion questions): the more the better.
  • Number of paragraphs (evidence of organization): the more the better.
  • Number of literary, historical, or other scholarly examples (evidence that you've learned something in high school): at least one academic example is good, but two are better, and three are great.
  • Number of "personal words": I, I'd, I'm, I've, I'll, me, myself, mine (evidence of informality and of failing to provide "hard" evidence): the fewer the better.
Again, this grading process is largely subconscious. It's not as if the graders actually count the number of paragraphs you use or tally the number of SAT words they spot.

Next: Page 3 >>
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From The RocketReview Revolution: The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT and the PSAT by Adam Robinson. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here.


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