16 March 2011

The writing, not the examples, makes the essay

A lot of students preparing to take the SAT spend a fair amount of time trying to think up examples that will guarantee them a high score. While it is a very good idea to walk into the test with a handful of examples that fit a wide range of prompts, examples – even stellar ones – will only get you so far. I’ve seen kids massacre fantastic examples with sloppy, ungrammatical writing. On the other hand an essay that uses Martin Luther King and Hitler, by far the two most overused examples, can score a 12 if it is exceptionally well done.

I realize that people often say that writing a good SAT essay is completely different from writing a good English class essay. That is true in terms of organization (good SAT essays come in many forms, not just the standard five-paragraphs) but pretty much everything else still holds — assuming, of course, your teachers hold your writing to genuinely high standards and don’t wildly inflate your grades. You need to explain yourself fully, have logical connections between your ideas, have a clear introduction and conclusion, and follow standard English usage. It doesn’t need to be brilliant, but it should be competent. Aside from that, there’s no magic formula.

If you’ve already mastered these things and are good at thinking on your feet and writing quickly, it’s a waste of time to prepare beyond having a few pre-set examples. If you’re still struggling with the basics, you can spend time thinking up examples, but they shouldn’t be your main concern. The best examples in the world won’t get you a 12 if the writing and structure aren’t quite there. And if there are serious issues, it’s unlikely that you’ll top an 8.

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