Sunday, May 16, 2010

How to ace the essay section of the SAT

Write badly.

When I was teaching at a small urban prep school, we had a faculty meeting to discuss the writing section of the SAT. The people at College Board had provided a set of sample essays with grading guidelines. We individually scored each of the papers then got together to compare our results. There were some minor disagreements -- two of the essays were close in quality and we had trouble deciding which was best -- but there was one thing which we all agreed on: the one that the College Board listed as best came in a distant third.

The College Board's choice was terrible, but it was terrible in a distinct way that any English comp teacher would immediately recognize. The writer had tried to show his or her erudition by stuffing the essay with vocabulary words that weren't apt and literary allusions that didn't advance the argument. The prose was choppy, the sentences were clumsy, and the logic was flawed.

I remember discussing how we should handle this. Should we teach students how to write sharp, readable essays or should we tell them just to use the biggest words they could think of and shoehorn in a list of inappropriate literary references?

Now I know we should have added make it as long as possible.

(with thanks to Mr. Colbert for the tip.)

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