March 2011 SAT: You Be the Reality (Essay) Judge


Editor’s note: After hearing of the topic for the March 2011 SAT essay we at Bell Curves decided to have our intern, a recent SAT test taker, write his thoughts about it. We love you to share your thoughts in the comments!

The essay was introduced as part of the writing section of the SAT in March 2005. It was in response to the increasing demand of college admissions personnel for more proof of a student’s writing and critical thinking abilities. These essays usually ask about general themes (e.g. responsibility, dreams, heroism, or rationality), so that the average student could produce a relatively well-thought out response in 30 minutes.

Typical essay questions (and most of the ones in the preparation material released by the College Board) include:

  • “Is it better for people to learn from others than to learn on their own?”
  • “Is an idealistic approach less valuable than a practical approach?”
  • “Do people put too much importance on getting every detail right on a project or task?”
  • “Do we benefit from learning about the flaws of people we admire and respect?”

These questions are pretty predictable and require some intellectual contemplation on the part of the student. When I was preparing for the kinds of essay questions posed in the Writing section, I decided to always write 5 paragraphs (filling up both pages if possible) and to use three supporting examples that demonstrated that I paid attention in high school. I employed my knowledge of historical events; novels (The Great Gatsby, for example); memorable articles from The New York Times, The Economist, etc; personal anecdotes, which I made up to fit the prompt; and statistics from recognizable sources. Following this method requires the common knowledge, more or less, of a high school junior. Therefore, I would say that most test-takers approach the essay question in roughly this manner.

However students were definitely caught off guard by the essay questions from the exam this past weekend:

  • “Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”
  • “Is photography a representation of real life or a depiction of a photographer’s point of view?”

I gawked when I was told the questions. These are both poor questions! Okay, the second one is just slightly problematic. It is perfect for the passionate photography or art student. Even the average student, who has never reflected on the significance of a photograph for a second of her life but has okay writing skills, can crank out a decent response to this topic. The reality show topic, on the other hand, utterly stinks.

This question assumes that each student owns a TV and avidly watches reality TV shows. These assumptions may well be correct for the majority of students. But why reward them for it? I mean, some reality TV shows can be very informative; however, most just waste the viewer’s time and glorify things that students shouldn’t be doing. These meaningless reality TV shows appeal much more to student viewers than the normal ones do. This question rewards students for watching a lot of these shows, while punishing those who decide to do more productive things with their time.

Joanna Molloy, of the NY Daily News, put it correctly when she said that this question dumb[s] down the venerable 110-year-old exam. The primary way for many students to do well on this question is to have knowledge about reality TV shows, such as Jersey Shore, The Real World, or The Apprentice, etc. This question tells students that it is more important to know about who’s hooking up with whom on the Jersey Shore than to understand the plot of some classic novel or the significance of a historical event. Thus, it gives the slacker who watches shows like these a huge advantage over the diligent student who doesn’t.

College Board, in the Washington Post, responded to the outrage over this question by saying that it is not only appropriate, but potentially even more engaging for students.” That has some truth to it, but should not be how we engage students. We don’t need to give students an incentive to devote their time to watching meaningless reality TV. Knowing what a “fist pump” is should not be a benefit on an exam like the SAT.

- J. Lawrence

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Mr. Lawrence is a freshmen at Yale University and is interning at Bell Curves during spring break while working to develop a pro-bono SAT tutoring program.

  • Carol Neiditch

    I am an English teacher. While I would much prefer that the College Board use scholarly prompts and questions for the essay portion of the writing section and despite never having watch a full reality television program myself, I do not find the March, 2011, question entirely objectionable. The stated purpose of the essay section is to assess a student’s writing, not his taste nor habits.

    I do think most students would (unfortunately) find this question quite approachable. Regrettably, the typical high school student has more opinions about television than about literature and thus more to say. The point of the essay is to determine how well he makes (writes) his argument, not the merits of the argument.

  • http://www.bellcurves.com Akil Bello

    Hey Carol,

    Thanks for the comments. I agree its not entirely objectionable, but it is somewhat unfair and unnecessarily so to publish all your practice material with scholarly prompts and then suddenly spring this on kids.

    One could make the argument that it separates the dynamic adaptable thinkers from the others but that would seem to fly in the face of releasing any practice questions. I just question the point and reasoning of the topic when there are so many more that would not cause any consternation or questions.

  • http://www.preppedandpolished.com Alexis Avila

    While the reality tv SAT essay topic may appear at first glance biased only to those who habitually watch reality television, it is still a broad enough topic where virtually any high school can properly answer the question.

    I’ve had students who don’t watch much reality tv getting higher scores than my students who watch reality tv 24-7. You don’t have to own a tv to own this question-you just have to know about it-and we all do.

    http://preppedandpolished.com/reality-television-sat-essay-topic-good-or-bad/

    Alexis Avila, Founder of Prepped & Polished, LLC

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