Your SAT Essay: Some Common but Risky Advice

Taking shortcuts on the SAT doesn't pay off. Learn about how to identify misguided advice about the test.

There's plenty of strategy advice floating around out there for students taking the SATs. In today's post Brendan Mernin talks about some risky advice for the essay and how to avoid it.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how best to help my SAT students succeed on that test's essay. As the first section of the SAT, the extemporaneous essay sets the tone for the rest of the day. Students are understandably anxious to hear some powerful tips on how to ensure that the high wire act of writing an unplanned think piece will result in something other than an embarrassing pratfall.

More and more these days, though, I feel that students are coming into tutorials with a predisposition to approach the SAT essay in a way that, to my mind, carries too much risk.

Last month, a potential new student, a high school senior, asked me for some advice about the SAT essay. He had scored 9 of 12 for his essay on the November SAT, but was disappointed by the outcome. And when I read his writing, it was clear why he was dismayed; he was a very strong writer, practically a wordsmith for twelfth grade. He had incorporated all the elements of a successful SAT essay: a long piece, well crafted and literate, with a strong and clear argument responding directly to the question at hand. By the time I reached his conclusion, I thought, "That boy wuz robbed!"

Then a nagging feeling crept into my mind. Maybe he wasn't shortchanged after all. Something in his argument didn't add up. I looked back through the essay, reading a bit more closely than in my original pass through the paragraphs. Hold on a minute. His first example was a research study conducted by USC. Hmm. The study's conclusions apparently fit his argument like a not-so-bloody glove. His second example: a study by a state government. This evidence, too, seemed tailor-made for his argument.

_The disappointed student had, I think, made an increasingly common error of judgment in composing his SAT essay. He was far too cynical, believing that phony examples fashioned out of thin air would suffice to convince his readers of his point. _His cynicism had its source, I suspect, in some bad advice that's been circulating out there in test prep land for some time now.

This past fall, many of my students who attend a prestigious college prep school here in Brooklyn told me of a presentation their guidance counselors had arranged in order to help them with their SAT essays. The visiting "expert," from a local tutoring service, informed them in bold and irreverent fashion that because the SAT essay is read so quickly, and because grading standards are, in his view, not sufficiently standardized, and because you are not supposed to be marked down for factual errors, students need not concern themselves with the truth of the evidence they present. That is, made-up examples are perfectly fine. In fact, they are preferable, as they do not require so much effort, and can fit any argument you need them to fit.

There are some glaring deficiencies in this misguided counsel.

First, no matter how flawed the SAT may be, it is neither helpful nor responsible to teach students to approach the test in a cynical manner. In twenty-three years of tutoring, I have found that any method that works well on the SAT, or the ACT, is grounded in fundamental skills and/or common sense. In short, there really are no "tricks." There is efficiency. (Here is not the place to pick through all the techniques taught by skilled SAT and ACT tutors; I'll leave that for another blog entry.) Efforts to game the test end up not only backfiring, but also teaching students that they are incapable of achieving their goals through legitimate means.

Second, it is arrogant and foolish for tutors and test prep companies to believe that ETS, which writes and scores the SAT, or the College Board, which administers it, won't soon get wise to superficial shortcuts. My guess is that they noticed the trend toward phony examples and decided to train their essay readers to punish students who use patently imaginary evidence.

Third, made-up examples carry more risk than real ones. As a tutor who makes a living teaching test prep, I understand the temptation to protect students from the risk that they will come up empty in thinking of examples to support an argument in response to a question no one can predict. But it is important to remember that a copy of the essay is sent to college admissions offices. It cannot be smart for an applicant to send to colleges incontrovertible proof that he is willing to misrepresent the nature of his work for the purpose of winning a grade. Colleges tend not to like that kind of thing.

Sometimes seemingly innocuous tasks turn out, in retrospect, to have been tests of our character. The tutoring industry in general, and the test prep tutoring industry in particular, have not always been known for adherence to strict ethical scruples. Maybe the SAT essay requirement offers tutors, students, and parents an opportunity to do things the right way. My advice? I thought you'd never ask. Think of some examples ahead of time, books or events that feature a complex array of decisions and motivations. When you go in to the actual test, be flexible, knowing that a wild card question might take you by surprise. If it does, relax--you're not the only one who needs to think of examples.

Take your time to be sure that you understand what the essay question is asking. Breathe deeply. Think of two or three examples that apply to the question at hand. And then do your best to prove your point.

Need more advice? Find a tutor or test prep course for the SAT with Noodle!

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