16 November 2011

Sometimes it’s ok just to tell a story

So much gets made out of the “right” way to write the SAT essay: plug in a couple of examples about The Great Gatsby or the Civil Rights movement, throw in a bunch of big SAT words whether or not you really know their definitions, stick in some transitions, and presto….! You’ve just written pretty much the same essay as a hundred thousand other people. So don’t be shocked when you get an 8.

Even though I frequently remind my students that if they write a paint-by-numbers essay, they’re likely to end up with average score, I’m still a little surprised by just how risk-averse they are. On one hand, I of course understand why: it’s the SAT, for crying out loud! One false step and you’ve ruined your chances at the school you’ve dreamed about going to since you were five and, by extension, the entire rest of your life. But on the other hand, you’re not particularly likely to get a stellar store on the essay if you don’t step out of your comfort zone and do something a little more interesting. Something that actually holds your reader’s interest and gives them a break from the tedium of reading hundreds if not thousands of essays about MLK and Hitler. This does not, however, mean trying to sound like a 50 year-old and overloading your writing with ten dollar words. Simple does not necessarily equal unsophisticated.

One of the things I want to emphasize, though, is that the best essays often don’t feel forced. They don’t even always feel as if they were written for the SAT. They don’t scream, “Please give me a high score because see, look how much big vocabulary I used and how sophisticated I tried to sound even though I don’t really know what half of these words mean.” They just tell a story, albeit one that has a lot of detail and whose relationship to the prompt is absolutely clear. Incidentally, that’s the danger in making up examples: they tend to be bland and vague. If you’re a strong writer and know how to use detail effectively, however, essays that focus on a single (personal) incident can really work.

I’m not saying that this will always work; 25 minutes is not a long time, and if you get thrown a question you just don’t have great examples for, it’s easy to flounder. But in general, if you approach the essay from the standpoint of trying to engage your reader, to interest them, not just to impress them, you might do a lot better than you expected.

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