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.