One of the questions we get asked a lot as teachers and tutors is “What’s the deal with the essay, anyway?” Interestingly, this question is asked by both SAT students and ACT students. Let me break it down for ya, fellas…
First the ACT and SAT prompts are very different. The ACT presents topics that students can easily relate to and have some familiarity with. The ACT topics are often about school or education. The SAT, on the other hand, presents prompts that are a bit more esoteric, obscure and arcane (see what I did there? ). Here are samples of each:
One of the best ways to prepare for the SAT essay is to read and write SAT essays. After every SAT, many of our students give us permission to use their actual essays to help others learn from what they did. We’ve posted and discussed this essay to hopefully help you prepare.
A few quick points about the SAT essay for those of you a bit newer to the test:
- The essay is the very first section of the test.
- The essay is handwritten in 25 minutes with a pencil on 2 sides of 8.5″x 11″ paper.
- The essay is worth up to 180 points of the total SAT Writing score.
- Your full essay will be available on collegeboard.com about 4 weeks after your test date.
- Each SAT essay consists of a Prompt, which gives some background discussion and context, and an Assignment, which gives the specific assignment they have to complete.
Without further ado, here is a January 2011 SAT essay transcribed for your reading pleasure:
If you thought grading SAT essays was easy, in part 3 of our report on the October 1, 2011 SAT, (part 1 is here and part 2 here) we’re asking you to grade an actual essay submitted on the October 1, 2011 SAT. This essay was written by me and was mostly done to test a theory and have some fun..
I wrote this essay to test what happens if you got a few (ok every fact) facts wrong during the essay. So in case you were wondering I’ll post the score the essay actually got after we get some votes in! So leave a comment below!
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?”
Many parents I speak to ask me about the SAT essay, its weight in the total scoring, its role in admissions decisions and more importantly how to improve scores. Parents and students often are confused by the requirements of the SAT essay and how it differs from those most common to High School English classes. Many of you might have even heard test prep “experts” speak to strategies for improving SAT essay scores that seemed off the wall and far-fetched. I thought I’d shed some light on the issue.
First, here is what the College Board says: