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Prep for the SAT Essay

Is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the biggest star of the SAT essay?

Summary: You should always use examples that will help you write the best essay possible. Don’t be afraid to use personal examples in your SAT essays; a historical or literary example is not necessarily better than a personal example. You should craft the best writing you can with what you know and what you are passionate about. Finally, be careful with cookie-cutter essays, as they may backfire and result in a lower score.

A few years ago, I had a very bright student who would write every single assigned SAT essay (during the mock tests the students take during the TestMagic SAT-prep course) on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Literally every single one—one body paragraph would star Dr. King, the other Gandhi. The student, whom I’ll call Cecilia, did a fairly good job of adapting what she knew about these two men to the SAT essay prompts. (Cecilia scored 10/12 on her official SAT and was accepted to UCLA, one of the top campuses of the University of California.) An essay prompt about hardship and adversity? That was easy—both Dr. King and Gandhi endured great hardship to reach their goals. Autonomy vs. conformity? Again, easy—both leaders eschewed convention to promote peace in a way that their society at the time frowned upon. In fact, as the course progressed, her predictable choices became a bit of a running joke in class, and she defended her strategy by saying that she’d taken another SAT-prep course that told its students just to use Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi for every essay. She even showed me her book, which said something like, “Write about Martin Luther King, Jr. After all, who would score an essay written about the great MLK lower?” (While I don’t doubt the veracity of the sentiment, I doubt that any teacher would ever make a blanket statement advising students to use these two people for every single SAT essay prompt.) On a related point, another student told me about yet another SAT course that she’d taken that gave her the opposite advice: NEVER use Martin Luther King, Jr. for SAT essays, since the SAT essay scorers are tired of reading essays about him and will think you’re writing from an essay template. So what to do? Whom to believe? I will give you sensible advice: Use your own judgment. Write the best essays that you can.

Cecilia’s essays worked very well for many of the TestMagic essay prompts, and I as noted above, she did well on her official SAT, which in a sense is all that matters. In fact, I jokingly asked her after her SAT whether she used Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi again, and she excitedly said, “Yes! I did! It worked! Tell your students to do it, too.”

So, what’s wrong with this approach? And why am I writing about this today? I have several comments and bits of advice that I’d like to offer. First, and this applies not just to the SAT test, but to your studies and life in general as well: Don’t write without thinking critically. Evaluate what you’re going to write before you write it. Trust yourself and try to come up with your own ideas. If you do so, you’ll be a better, smarter, more interesting person and writer, and well, chances are, you’ll do better on the SAT as well. Why? Well, this is my second point. It’s quite simple. The SAT is a sophisticated test. The people at College Board are not just smart, they’re also diligent about keeping their beloved SAT up-to-date (and keeping it the #1 university admissions test in the United States). The College Board knows that SAT-prep courses like those at TestMagic exist. They know that if we test-prep teachers find a weakness in the SAT, we’ll tell our students about it. College Board will then react, either by removing the weakness (if it’s possible to do so) or slowly modifying the test to remove the weakness.

Now back to the situation with Cecilia. A few years ago, we used to give a practice prompt about fun and whether it was undervalued in modern society. (We retired that prompt because a similar one showed up in October of 2009.) In in her essay for this prompt, Cecilia predictably used her two standbys for her essay, which contained sentences such as (and again, this is not the actual writing) “For MLK, fun was vital. MLK had fun in his life, which ultimately led to his “I Have a Dream Speech.” And with Gandhi, she wrote something akin to “Gandhi had a great amount of fun in his life. It was fun that propelled him to the forefront of politics in India and enabled him to lead India to independence.” Her writing was fairly good, but the ideas were not convincing because they simply did not make sense in context, nor were they really plausible. For one, how would anybody outside of the immediate circle of family and friends of these historical figures know what role fun played in their lives? The role of fun in one’s life is not generally covered in history books or high school history classes, so if a student wanted to write about this, then she’d be well advised to mention the source of her information.

To be fair, Cecilia was not the only student who wrote like this. She, and many others before and after her, wrote, have written, and will continue to write using illogical or inapt examples. While I’ve read countless intensely interesting essays (one about being taunted on the kindergarten playground comes to mind), I’ve also read my share of essays that weren’t quite up to snuff. I have yet to read that Gandhi had great fun during one of his famed hunger strikes, but I have read numerous essays in which the writers claimed that certain unnamed war criminals were models of success. I’ve even read an essay in which the student confidently proclaimed that scientists will soon be able to predict the future, a prediction that has yet to come to pass. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that students generally write like this simply because they’re not sure of what to say, because they don’t quite “get” the prompt (there’s usually a “big idea” that the SAT is going for in the prompt), or quite commonly at the beginning of the SAT-essay learning curve, simply because they’re not accustomed to writing an entire essay from brainstorming to conclusion in 25 minutes flat.

In the particular case of too-general essay themes, College Board has been trending towards prompts for which Dr. King and Gandhi cannot, or at the very least, should not, be used. In other words, many recent prompts are too specific to mold boilerplate examples to. For example, the June 2007 prompt about whether enduring hardship helps people become stronger is a very general prompt, and it would be a relatively trivial matter to adapt innumerable historical, literary, or personal examples to that prompt. But what about the March 2011 prompt that essentially asked whether reality TV is bad for society? (This prompt, by the way, caused a minor scandal in test-prep circles since many people thought the prompt was too culture-centric. But more on that in another article.) No, it wouldn’t work to write “MLK was a great fan of reality TV, and family-oriented reality television programs inspired him to fight for civil rights.” Or the prompt that TestMagic students received during that same administration of the SAT, the one that essentially asked whether photography accurately captures reality. Students would be hard-pressed to adapt many of the figures we learn about in history classes to discussions of reality. So what to do? What to write about?

The answer is obvious: Don’t be afraid to use personal examples in your SAT essays. There is nothing inherently wrong with using a personal example on the SAT, and in fact, training materials for the SAT essay scorers specifically tell the essay readers not to lower the score of an essay that uses a personal example. More importantly, some SAT essay prompts verily beg for a personal example. Take a look at this example written on the “fun” prompt:

“Fun is typically less esteemed in society because of our false perceptions of material success. We often judge a person by how wealthy she is, by the size of the house she owns, by the car she drives, where she went to college, where she works, and the like. Too rarely do we deem a person successful because she is happy or enjoys her life, which is unfortunate. In tenth grade, I was determined to succeed at all costs. I decided that I would conform to the expectations of others by achieving no less than a 4.0 (unweighted) GPA by whatever means necessary, whether doing so involved currying favor with my instructors or pulling all-nighters before exams. I was initially thrilled to discover that I did raise my GPA to an impressive number, but in retrospect, I now realize that my life was simply devoid of fun. In other words, I was not happy.”

(Standard disclaimers: I am not the typical SAT student—I am a college-educated adult who teaches SAT prep.)

How does this sound? Does the fact that I used a personal example hurt the essay, the writing, or the ideas? I don’t think so. In fact, this writing hits all the spots that many writing teachers are looking for—good ideas, decent sentence variety, accurate vocabulary, etc. But the best part for the SAT essay writer is that writing like this should be relatively easy. Who among us does not have the experience of sacrificing fun for some sort of success, academic or otherwise?

To sum up: Don’t be afraid to write using the the most apposite examples that you can. If a story from the third-grade spelling bee seems relevant, use it. Don’t contort your stock Dr. King or Rosa Parks stories to fit a prompt that are only tangentially related. The SAT essays are read by real English teachers who also happen to be real humans, and they won’t be tricked by impressive literary or historical figures. They, like you, will be moved by clear, persuasive writing.

By Erin Billy

Founder of TestMagic, Inc. in San Francisco, USA.

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