A response to the infamous “reality television” SAT essay prompt

For anyone not familiar with the controversy, the full question, which was given to about a third of test-takers on Saturday 3/12, is as follows (from the website of the Washington Post):

“Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

“Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful? 

If you just glance at the question, it’s pretty easy to understand why people are so outraged. But it’s not actually that simple.

Part of the problem is that many people unfamiliar with the SAT are unaware of the difference in importance between the background to the prompt and the prompt itself (in bold). The background is designed to explain the question, to put it in some context; it is not intended to limit the kind of responses that test-takers can provide. In fact, it can be ignored completely with no ill consequences. If the background consists of a quote by a famous physicist, for example, students are not expected to know anything about physics to answer the question. The same holds true here.

The question alone, when read separately from the prompt, is actually a “serious” question about the relationship between art and life, truth and fiction, and the moral role of entertainment in a society. It of course lends itself quite well to examples about reality TV, but not to the exclusion of other examples, even literary or historical ones. If you look closely at the wording of the question, it asks about “forms of entertainment that show,” not television shows. Someone  could easily write about  Michael Moore’s documentaries, or Norman Rockwell’s idealized images of American society, or Jenny Fields’ autobiography in John Irving’s The World According to Garp (one of my all-time favorite books, and one that works for just about every imaginable SAT essay). It takes a little more thought than usual to come with examples (no, you can’t just stick MLK or Hitler into this one), but it can certainly be done.

For the record, the College Board has asked questions that can only be answered with contemporary examples before: “Should people make more of an effort to be involved in their communities?” is one. “Is creativity needed more in the world today?” is another. No one ever harangued the SAT for pandering to kids who do a lot of community service on the one hand or a lot of art on the other. Though I’ll readily admit that this isn’t quite the same thing, when you consider only the question itself, it’s not all that far off either.

I’m not quite letting the College Board off the hook here, though; even if the question alone was acceptable, the construction of the overall prompt is just a bit too narrow for comfort. It is, after all, phrased in such a way that people unfamiliar with what the College Board expects of them might feel obligated to write about reality TV, even if that’s not the case at all. It’s one thing to include a quote by a physicist; it’s something very different to explicitly refer to popular culture, which most teenagers are in fact familiar with. Someone who doesn’t know much about reality TV or the SAT might therefore be inclined to panic, even if he or she is perfectly capable of coming up with one or two decent examples under different, less stressful circumstances.

So yes, obviously someone who spends a lot of time watching reality TV is going to have more examples immediately spring to mind than someone who barely watches television. That said, however, the former does not necessarily have an advantage; test-takers who spend most of their time watching reality television are probably going to have far weaker writing skills than those who spend most of their time reading, say, Dickens. And competent writing and an organized structure with decent examples will always win out over great examples combined with a chaotic structure and sloppy writing.

But I still think that the College Board screwed up on this one. By attempting to be relevant, however misguidedly so, the College Board has, incredibly enough, made itself an even larger object of scorn. The next time it dips its toe into the arena of the culture wars, it needs to do so a little more carefully. Or better yet, play it safe and keep asking about the nature of heroism and the existence of free will.

How to read passages faster

If you have timing issues on reading, you may want to try the following:

1. Read the introduction slowly until you figure out the basic point of the passage. Underline it.

2. Read the first and last sentence of each of the body paragraphs; if you can skim through the rest, do; if you’re too afraid you’ll run out of time, don’t bother. The goal is to establish a mental outline of the argument being presented. 1 Paragraph = 1 Idea, and the first (topic) sentence will give you the point of the paragraph, which the remainder of the information in it will most likely support.

3. Read the conclusion slowly and underline the last sentence, which usually restates the main point.

As long as you can keep in mind the important shifts (for example, the places where an author switches from criticizing one idea to proposing her own explanation), you’ll have plenty of context when you go back and answer the questions. In fact, working this way can actually make it easier to answer them because you won’t be so caught up in the details.

Same idea, different words

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If the wording in an answer choice is too close to the wording in the passage, the answer is probably wrong. This is a bit more true on the SAT than the ACT, but in general, it applies to both tests. It’s so easy to fall for these answers choices… After all, they’re actually right there in the passage.

But wait… are they?

Normally, these are the answers that fall into the category of “half-right, half-wrong.”

Knowing that many readers will be unsure of the meaning of a particular phrase, the test-writers will often quote it directly in the answer choice; relieved, the unsuspecting test-taker will simply pick it without thinking twice. But usually there’s a word in the answer that makes it incorrect.

For example, if the passage uses the phrase enigmatic figure to describe an author, the answer might indicate that the phrase actually refers to a character in one of his novels. Don’t fall for the trick. Your job is to identify the answer that expresses the same general idea discussed in the passage, but one that does so in different words.

So when you go to the answer choices, look for ones that contain synonyms for words in the passage. And the fact that those words are ones that you would might not come up with on your own is entirely irrelevant. So repeat after me: Same idea, different words!

Skim the passage, not the questions

While it’s ok to skim through a passage just to get the gist, at least during an initial read-through, you need to read the questions very, very carefully. If even one word of an answer choice is incorrect, the whole answer is automatically incorrect. It doesn’t matter how much the rest of the answer works; it’s just wrong.

A huge mistake that test-takers make is to read both questions and answer choices too quickly. This essentially creates two problems for them:

1) They don’t really understand what questions are asking

2) They don’t think carefully about what the answer choices are actually saying

Then they get the question wrong and blame the test for being “tricky.”

One of the things that initially surprises and then rapidly bores my students is the sheer amount of time I spend re-defining questions for myself. (And by “sheer amount of time,” I mean 10 or 15 seconds). I’ll often rephrase questions two or three times, “stripping them down” progressively into simpler and simpler wording to make sure that I’m totally, 100% clear about what they’re actually asking.

My students almost never do this. They just want to plow through the question and the answer choices, leaping at the first thing that seems like it could work. And when I try to make them slow down and actually think about what they’re doing, I can practically see the impatience steaming out of their ears.

Sometimes they even beg me to just let them have one more go at it. At which point they proceed to reject any semblance of methodical thinking, simply stare at the answer choices without working anything out, and then ask me hesitantly, is it (C)?

Usually I just shrug and tell them I haven’t finished working out the answer yet. As I remind them, no one gets bonus points for speed. I’m doing what I do to make sure I get the question right, speed be damned. It’s not that I can’t answer the question quickly – it’s that I’m deliberately choosing not to because I know that I would leave myself open to making careless errors that way, or to overlooking crucial pieces of information staring me right in the face.

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that comes with experience; sometimes it takes a while to sink in.

When to take the SAT or the ACT

One of the biggest mistakes juniors make is to take the SAT or ACT in the winter or the early spring –when they’re not truly prepared — just because they (or their parents) have decided they should be done by a certain time. While this certainly does work for some people, the reality is that many others will need to complete most of their junior year in order to really be ready. The skills that the SAT tests cannot be acquired overnight, or even in a month or two for most people, and if you need some extra time to really feel like you know what you’re doing, take it and don’t look back.

My general rule is that you shouldn’t take the test for real until you have already scored in your target range on a full-length, timed practice test. Your score will probably not just magically shoot up on the actual test, and even with score choice, you may still be required to submit it to certain schools. Every one of my students that decided to take the test earlier than planned “just to get a score” was unhappy with the results. The ones that waited, on the other hand, never regretted doing so.

Furthermore, taking the test before you’re ready and ending up with a score you don’t want can create a dangerous cycle of anxiety. I’ve had a number of students who took either the ACT or the SAT repeatedly before coming to me, and they spent so much time psyching themselves out that my biggest challenge was simply to persuade them that they could actually do well!

So if you originally intended to take the test and January or March but don’t end up feeling that you’re ready by then, do not take the test “just to get it over with.” If you are signed up for the May test but feel like you need an extra month to study, wait and take the test in June. I know you have finals and AP/IB exams and it sucks to still be studying that late when all of your friends have their scores already, but trust me, it pays to take the time, work on the areas you need to work on, and then take the test when you feel you’re finally in control.