How the SAT essay could really test “career-readiness”

How the SAT essay could really test “career-readiness”

I’ve been saying half-jokingly for a while that the AP English Language test should take a cue from the AP language tests and include an essay that requires students to compose a formal email.

Granted, this type of assignment might seem a tad simplistic for the AP exam; however, given the redesigned SAT’s purported emphasis on “the skills that matter most,” why not test one of the skills that does incontrovertibly matter most in the hyper-competitive knowledge-based twenty first century economy?

As I wrote about the other day, in light of some of the emails I’ve received, I actually think that this would be a rather challenging assignment for many high school students. Among other things, it would not only require correct grammar and diction (points off for all lower-case!) but also use of a formal register.

And come on, how often in the real world do people really get asked to write an essay analyzing how an author builds an argument? Not very often, I should think — especially if they’re busy inventing the next great app for something that will truly benefit society, like faster pizza delivery.

And since liberal arts education is being dismantled anyway, why not simply do away with the pretense that it matters and test students on a skill that might actually help them land a job?

The assignment would go something like this (adapted from the French AP):

You will reply to an email message. You have 15 minutes to read the prompt and write your response.

Your response should include a greeting and a closing and should respond to all the questions and requests in the message. In your reply, you should also ask for more details about something mentioned in the message. Also, you should use a formal form of address. (Apparently, the people who write the directions for the AP exams never learned that you’re not supposed to start a sentence with “also.”)


This is a message from Jane Smith, who directs a program that places high school students in internships with local businesses. You are receiving this message because you have indicated your interest in this program. The message is being sent to find out more about your interests and qualifications.

From: Jane Smith

To: Internship applicants

Dear Applicants,

We are excited to learn of your interest in participating in our program! For the last 10 years, we have offered high school students the chance to hone their career readiness skills for success in the twenty-first century economy. In order to determine whether you are a good fit for our program, we ask you to provide some additional information.

What attracts you to our program, how do you believe you will benefit from it, and what sorts of skills could you bring to a twenty-first century workplace?

What is your schedule: are you available on weekdays and/or weekends? How many hours can you work each day, and do you have any flexibility?

Which sectors appeal to you most, and why do they appeal to you?

We eagerly await your response.

Jane Smith

The essay paradox (maybe facts aren’t so bad after all!)

Here’s something I find puzzling: the SAT essay consistently comes under fire for allowing kids to make up information without being penalized for it. Presumably, then, the people doing the criticizing believe that knowing facts, and citing them appropriately in one’s writing, is a good thing. But at the same time, those people turn around and criticize schools for promoting “drill and kill” and “rote learning.”

If students were truly exposed to endless “drill and kill,” they would presumably at least know facts. There’s almost no way *not* to remember things after hearing them repeated a certain number of times. But from what I’ve observed, most of my students have difficulty discussing their Essay examples in anything resembling an in-depth manner because they don’t know enough concrete facts — about academic subjects, at least — to be able to discuss history, literature, or current events in detail. As a result, their writing inevitably becomes vague, repetitive, and confused.

Does anyone else see the irony here?

You can’t insist that schools stop teaching facts and then be surprised when students don’t know facts!

To be clear, I understand perfectly well that students learn facts best in the context. But the idea that kids are simply sitting and chanting “one times one is one, two times two is four…” is profoundly detached from the reality of American schools in 2014. (Yes, there are plenty of schools that drill kids endlessly in test-taking strategies, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) More likely they’re clustered in groups so they can “learn from each other,” with one or two diligent kids sitting and doing the work while the others talk about what they did last weekend.

If an administrator happens to poke her head in, they’ll all look like wonderfully active and engaged learners, but the chances that they’ll retain any of what they discussed tomorrow or the next day are pretty slim. Then the  ones who can afford it hire tutors to do the drilling they didn’t get in class.

The reality is that even if teachers do present fascinating, engaging, stimulating lessons, kids still need to be held responsible for mastering basic pieces of factual knowledge — the two are not mutually exclusive, and it’s a gross oversimplification to claim that they are. But learning usually involves repetition, sometimes lots of repetition. That’s just how it works. In other domains (sports, music, etc.), that’s still accepted as common sense, but when it comes to academics, all that flies out the window.

Incidentally, I now encourage my students who are big sports fans to just write about sports: a kid who can’t write a coherent argument about the The Great Gatsby to save his life suddenly turns into a clear, flowing, and eloquent writer, complete with names, dates, facts, and statistics, when discussing Magic Johnson’s career. And it works: those essays are (by SAT essay standards) interesting to read, relatively painless for the kids to write, and they consistently receive scores of 10+.

Funny that I don’t see anyone complaining about “rote learning” there — if a kid wants to spend hours memorizing batting or shooting statistics, no one seems to have the least problem with it.

You can’t write 12 essay in 25 minutes if you can’t write a 12 essay period

A while back, I happened to be chatting with PWN the SAT (aka Mike McClenathan), and inevitably, the topic turned to the infamous SAT essay and how (I think) that the time factor has a tendency to get blown out of proportion.

Mike made the exceedingly astute comment that since most test-prep advice gets doled out by adults, it occasionally has a tendency to focus on the things that *adults* find difficult about the SAT. And let’s face it: if you haven’t sat in an English class since sometime around 1983 and are no longer required to churn out in-class essays about The Great Gatsby on a regular basis, popping out a coherent, specific piece of writing on, say, the nature of heroism, in a mere 25 minutes might seem like a pretty big challenge. That’s just not a lot of time, and consequently the rush/panic factors loom large.

Here are some things, however, that are not typically problematic for most college-educated adults who attempt to write an essay in 25 minutes:

-Using clear, coherent standard written English

-Using correct grammar, punctuation, and syntax

-Formulating a clear thesis statement

-Staying on topic

-Using examples that clearly support the thesis

-Making clear the relationship between the examples and the thesis

-Providing specific details when discussing examples

-Separating ideas into paragraphs

-Using tenses correctly and consistently

-Varying sentence structure

-Using logical transitions to connect ideas

-Throwing in a couple of correctly used “big” words

If you can take all of that for granted, of course the biggest challenge is the time limit! But that’s really an awful lot to take for granted.

All of these things — I repeat, ALL of these things — have serious potential to cause problems for most teenage writers. And they do. Often the problem isn’t just one or two of the above factors but five or six. Unfortunately, having real trouble with even just one or two of them is enough to prevent someone from ever attaining a 12 without going back and shoring up the fundamentals. A kid who just cannot maintain focus on a thesis throughout an essay will have an exceedingly difficult time scoring above an 9, no matter how good their ideas are.

Likewise, a kid who truly does not yet understand how to make examples specific by providing concrete detail and offers vague and repetitive assertions instead is also unlikely to ever score above an 8, maybe even a 7. It doesn’t matter how many timed essays they write; the score just won’t go above a certain level.

I’m not trying to deny that time is an important factor, just to suggest that it isn’t the factor par excellence that it often gets made out to be. A clear, well-argued essay whose author runs out of time to stick on a conclusion still does have the potential to receive a 10+ score. Conversely, a finished essay with intro, conclusion, and body paragraphs may score several points lower if it exhibits serious technical errors. As with many things on the SAT, there’s no quick fix if the basic skills aren’t already in place.

One of the things I try to look at in conjunction with my students’ SAT essays is a school essay that they haven’t written under timed conditions. It’s the only way to tell what their actual level of writing is. If there’s a significant gap, then yes, timing (or just not knowing what to write) may be the problem. But if I see the same technical errors — sentence fragments, tense switching, lack of a clear thesis, unsupported statements — that’s a pretty big red flag that we have to take a couple of steps back and talk about how to write an essay period.

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.

The importance of transitions

In many ways, I think that the Verbal portion of the SAT is fundamentally about transitions. Or at least the Critical Reading and Essay portions of it. Let me explain what I mean by this: the SAT is essentially designed to test your ability to perceive relationships between ideas and arguments.

Do two piece of information discuss the same idea or different ideas? Does one idea build on or support the previous one, or does it contradict it and move the argument in a new direction? Does it emphasize a point? Refute a point? Explain a point?

Transitions are the signposts, so to speak, that make clear (or elucidate) these relationships. Without words such as “and,” “for example,” and “however,” it becomes much more difficult to tease out just what two words (or sentences or paragraphs or passages) have to do with one another. Transitions are thus where Critical Reading and Writing meet — just aspaying attention to transitions can help you follow an author’s argument in a reading passage, so can including transitions in your own writing help your reader follow your argument.

Remember: your reader should have to exert as little effort as possible to follow your argument. The harder your reader has to work, the lower your score is likely to be. You need to make the relationships among your ideas explicit, whether you’re talking about your championship soccer team from last season or War and Peace.

Here’s an experiment: below are two version of the same passage. I’ve rewritten the first version in order to remove all the transitions. Read it and try to get the gist.

No Transitions

The Panama Canal illustrates the principle that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand. People begin many enterprises. They don’t realize how difficult they are. They respond with ingenuity that lets them overcome the unexpected. The Apollo program’s engineers and astronauts did this. The testimony in [the documentary] Panama Canal shows the power of the heroic image of technology in the early twentieth century. It was felt by the exploited laborers, who shared the nineteenth century’s stoic approach to industrial risk. Three percent of white American workers died. Nearly 14 percent of West Indians died. There were improvements in sanitation. It was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares. He recalls the pride of his grandfather in participating in one of the world’s great wonders. Many returnees were inspired by their achievement to join movements for greater economic and political equality in the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of the decolonization movement.

You probably got the basic point, but you also probably noticed that that there were places where sentences sat side by side with no obvious logical connection to one another (“There were improvements in sanitation. It was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares.”)

While I’ve exaggerated here for effect, I do often see students omit transitions between their thoughts in their essays — particularly between paragraphs — thereby forcing the reader to scramble to re-situate him/herself in the argument. It’s subtler, but there’s always a moment of, “Wait, what is this person actually trying to say here?” Don’t make your reader go through the equivalent of what you just read.

Now try it with transitions:

The Panama Canal illustrates the principle that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand. People begin many enterprises becausethey don’t realize how difficult they actually are, yet respond with ingenuity that lets them overcome the unexpected, as the Apollo program’s engineers and astronauts were later to do. The testimony in [the documentary] Panama Canal also shows the power of the heroic image of technology in the early twentieth century. It was felt even by the exploited laborers, who still shared the nineteenth century’s stoic approach to industrial risk. Three percent of white American workers and nearly 14 percent of West Indians died. Despiteimprovements in sanitation, it was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares, but he also recalls the pride of his grandfather in participating in one of the world’s great wonders. In fact, many returnees were inspired by their achievement to join movements for greater economic and political equality in the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of the decolonization movement.

A lot easier to understand, right?

Be nice to your reader, and your reader will be nice to you

You have to feel kind of sorry for the people who read SAT and ACT essays. They have to sit in a room for hours reading essay after essay after essay (after essay after essay) on Hitler, Martin Luther King, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher in the Rye, with the occasional Frankenstein or ancient Chinese proverb reference thrown in for variety. Or, in the case of ACT readers, “Why a fifth year of high school is *not* a good idea.” Not really anyone’s idea of a fun afternoon, I’m guessing. Hey, they’re people too.

Just think: if you were stuck reading all those essays for hours on end, how generous a mood would you be in by the end of the day? I don’t think anyone’s ever done a study, but I suspect that many readers are somewhat more inclined to be generous with their score for essay #7 than they are for, say, essay #157.

So given that you have no idea whether your essay will in fact be #7 or #157, it would strongly behoove you to be as nice to your reader as you can manage. Or at least try not to annoy him or her too badly. As I always tell my students, if you take pity on your reader, your reader will be more likely to take pity on you. Here are three ways you can do that:

1) Write neatly

You can manage it just this once. Readers have about two minutes at most to read and score essays. If they’re tearing their hair out just trying to decipher what you wrote, which way do you think they’re more likely to go (subconsciously, of course) if you’re on the border between a 4 and a 5?

2) Make your argument easy to follow

You are writing a persuasive essay, not trying to win a poetry award. Some big words are good, but not to the point that they obscure what you’re trying to say. If your readers can’t get the gist of your argument almost instantaneously, they will not go to go back over your essay, parsing the details the way your English teacher might and trying to figure out what you meant to say. Instead, they’ll just give you a lower score.

Using transitions such as “in addition,” “however,” and “likewise” can go a long way toward reducing the amount of work a reader has to do to figure out your argument.

3) Use an example they haven’t already seen 150 times

That means no Hitler or MLK if you can manage to avoid them. That’s not to say that a stupendously written essay that uses one of these examples won’t get a 12, but try not to push your luck. If your readers are even mildly engaged by your writing, they’ll be much more favorably disposed toward you.