- Test day comes, I sit down to start the essay, and my mind goes blank. I can’t think of a single good example. Halp.
- I can think of examples, but I’m worried they’re not good enough to get me the score I want.
The former is basically a nightmare scenario. The latter speaks to your apprehension about whether the essay graders will appreciate or respect (and subsequently reward) the examples you choose.
Both are valid concerns, but they can be addressed if you know a little about what the graders are looking for and how your essay is going to be scored. Let’s look at a few recent real SAT Essay Topics:
- Do rules and limitations contribute to a person’s happiness?
- If people worked less, would they be more creative and active during their free time?
- Is real success achieved only by people who accomplish goals and solve problems on their own?
- Do the demands of others tend to make people more productive than they would be without such pressure?
- Do people make the greatest discoveries by exploring what is unfamiliar to them or by paying close attention to what seems familiar?
Superficially, it looks like they all have very little in common. However, these questions share an important characteristic: they’re all stupid.
Just kidding. The truth is they’re all really ambiguous. Words such as rules, happiness, work, creative, success, goals, problems, productive, and greatest are all incredibly subjective. They mean different things in different contexts.
This is great news! Why? Because you get to decide what context you would like to use. This really opens up the realm of which examples you can use. Pretty much any example you can think of will have something to do with some definition of success, or happiness, or whatever. In fact, let’s take a quick look at the official SAT essay scoring rubric.
An essay that earns a score of 6 (a perfect score)…
- Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position
- Is well organized and clearly focused, demonstrating clear coherence and smooth progression of ideas
- Exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary
- Demonstrates meaningful variety in sentence structure
- Is free of most errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
The very first bullet point is what we’re talking about. Recognizing and defining ambiguous terms reflects a high level of critical thinking. Starting your essay by providing your own concrete interpretation of the question will automatically set the stage for a thoughtful discussion. Take a look:
Happiness is a complex idea. For some, it can be the result of accomplishing a goal. For others, happiness springs from living in an environment with minimal stress and maximum free time. For this discussion, happiness will refer to the state resulting from creating work that is satisfying and of artistic merit. To illustrate, we will compare the limitations imposed upon George Lucas while he made the original Star Wars trilogy and his experience during the much-derided prequel trilogy.
So do some legwork now. Think about some topics that you know a lot about. Think about books, movies, periods of history, current events, TV shows. That’s right; it’s totally OK to use movies and television shows. Just try to stick to ones that aren't obviously terrible (reality shows, anything to do with Twilight, etc.). Identify topics that you’re an expert on, something that you know more about than the average person. Practice writing a three-sentence summary. Think about themes that can be explored. Write those down, too.
Come test day, you’ll see that some definition of a term in the question will align with at least one of the themes that you identify.
Boom. You have a good example.
Lastly, you can see above that we only referenced only the essay questions, not the text that precedes them. You know the quotes that come before the questions that seems like they could be helpful? They’re not. They’re going to force you to interpret the questions in a particular way, which is bad. Ignore them. Focus on the question.
Questions? Let me have ‘em.
Til next time,