SAT For Dummies
Getting the “Write” Answers: The Writing Sections
In This Chapter
Looking at examples to see what’s good, bad, and just so-so
Trying your hand at some sample essay prompts
Lock the dog in the rumpus room. Put your little brother down for a nap. Turn off the phone. Set a kitchen timer for 25 minutes and tear out two sheets of lined paper from a notebook. (Loose-leaf is also acceptable.) Sharpen a No. 2 pencil. (The SAT doesn’t allow you to write with a pen.) It’s time to practice essay writing so you aren’t bowled over on SAT day. This chapter contains eight SAT-style essay prompts. Some contain quotations from famous writers; a few contain quotations from my very own, semi-sane mind. (Asterisks — * — mark the semi-sane ones. Don’t look for these authors in your local bookstore.)
I suggest you write essays for three prompts. If you have the energy and drive to write all eight essays, don’t write them all at one sitting. To give you a peek into an SAT grader’s mind, this chapter starts with three sample essays (scored 5, 3, and 1) and explains why each earned its score.
Spying Some Samples: SAT Essays and Evaluations
You can’t hit a target if you’re blindfolded, so to give you a general idea of what to shoot for, here are three SAT essays (written, I must confess, not by real test takers but by yours truly). The first earns a score of 5, almost but not quite the top score. The second hits the middle — a 3. The last, in more ways than one, is a 1 — a subpar essay that you won’t write on SAT day because you’ve had the foresight to practice with the prompts in this chapter.
“But if success I never find, / Then come misfortune, I bid thee welcome.” —Robert Burns, “Fickle Fortune”
“Success is not the only goal in life, but it is the most important.” —Angelo Eliott*
Consider the consequences of success and failure. Can success ever be a disadvantage? May failure be a benefit? Referring to history, literature, or your own experiences and observations, discuss the possible consequences of success and failure.
The good: Looking at a “5” essay
Here’s a fine essay, one that merits a 5 from an SAT grader:
It’s only human to desire success, but it’s also human to fail. Columbus set off to find a route to the “Indies,” and he stumbled upon the Americas. His “failure” led to immense benefits for the European powers, though of course his actions brought many disadvantages to Native Americans. But that’s the point. Success and failure are interrelated. Neither is totally good or totally bad. The way a person deals with success or failure is much more important than the result itself.
In Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, the main character, Pip, wants to become a gentleman. He isn’t content to work as a blacksmith, his original goal in life, after he meets a “gentlewoman,” Estella, who treats him badly. Through a series of complicated plot twists, Pip does become a gentleman. He benefits from increased finances and education, but his “success” also alienates Pip from his loving stepfather, Joe, and from his friend Biddy. It’s only when Pip loses all his money — when he fails — that Pip recovers his common sense and reconnects with his family and true friends. Dickens even rewards Pip with a romantic connection to Estella, all after Pip has picked himself up from his failure.
Similarly, failure and success are entwined in my own life. In my physics class, I worked with a team to set up an experiment to measure the momentum of an object of a fixed weight on various slopes. My goal was to figure out the formula without consulting a textbook. Day after day, lunch hour after lunch hour, my teammates and I sent a little cart rolling down a track. We timed and measured, counted and calculated. At the end of the week, we had still not found the answer. Technically we had failed. However, we had learned many things, such as how hard it is to measure a short time span with limited equipment, how good it is to share ideas with each other, and how sticking with a project can be very rewarding. If that’s failure, give me more of it, because failure looks surprisingly similar to success.
This essay receives a 5 for several reasons:
It answers the question and takes a stand: Success and failure are two sides of the same coin, and attitude is more important than result. The reader doesn’t have to search for these ideas; they are communicated immediately in the first paragraph.
The writer provides evidence for the assertions in the essay. The writer gives three examples to support her stance — Columbus, Dickens, and physics. They convey the complicated nature of success and failure very well, though the Columbus example is not described in depth. Had the writer devoted more attention to Columbus — similar to the amount of space given to Dickens and physics, the essay may have approached a score of six.
The essay is well organized. The first paragraph explains the writer’s thesis, or main idea. Next come two paragraphs devoted to supporting examples. The last example concludes with a short but appropriate statement: “If that’s failure, give me more of it, because failure looks surprisingly similar to success.” That sentence serves as a conclusion.
The use of language is sophisticated (alienated, reconnect, and so on). The sentences show variety, and the grammar and spelling are good. Slightly more sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure would have raised this essay to the top score.
The not-too-bad: Examining a “3” essay
Check out the middle of the pack, an essay that earns a score of 3:
Angelo Eliot said that, “Success is not the only goal in life, but it is the most important. I agree with Mr. Eliot because success is everyone’s goal. Who starts out in the morning trying for something else? Yes, people fail, but not one really wants that. Instead, we all try for success, probably sucess is hard-wired into human nature as a goal.
When imigrants leave their native land, they are almost always looking for a more successful life. In New York City, where I live, I see people from every place in the world. They come here for success. They want more than they had before. They want their children to be successful too. Even if they have some disadvantages, such as they miss their home country and their families if left behind, imigrants mostly feel that it is worth it to be more successful. This is the American Dream. Everyone wants to have a good house, a good job, and to earn more money than they did before. I have talked with many imigrants, and they agree that success is the most important goal.
In conclusion, Mr. Eliot is right. You can fail and still pick yourself up, but that doesn’t make failure good. It makes you try harder to reach success, which is what Mr. Eliot talked about.
Why is this essay a 3? Read on:
The writer takes a clear stand on success and failure, and that stand is easy to discern (recognize, detect) in Paragraph 1. The question, “Who starts out in the morning trying for something else?” draws the reader’s attention nicely. The statement that a desire for success may behard-wired shows some sophistication.
The example of immigrants (which, by the way, is spelled with two m’s) is a good one. However, the statements in Paragraph 2 are somewhat general. Also, the writer repeats the same ideas several times. Cutting repetition and adding more specifics would improve this paragraph a lot.
The essay is organized, but a little too simply. The first paragraph explains the writer’s stance on the success/failure issue. So far so good! The middle paragraph provides evidence to support the writer’s view — also good. The last paragraph is meant to be a conclusion, but really it’s just a restatement of ideas from the introduction. That sort of ending places this essay firmly in the middle range because more mature writers stretch a bit at the end of an essay. (Compare the last paragraph of this essay to the “5” essay earlier in this chapter to see what I mean.)
The language isn’t terrible, but the vocabulary is fairly simple. The sentences vary somewhat in their patterns — a good feature of this essay. The writer made some spelling and grammar mistakes (Eliott is the name, not Eliot, and sucess needs an extra c in Paragraph 1). A good proofreading would have moved this essay up a notch.
The not-so-good: Checking out a “1” essay
Here’s the bottom of the barrel, except for blank or off-topic essays, which receive no points at all:
You can’t find success, Robert Burns says you should welcome bad fortune. But “Success is not the only goal in life, but it is the most important says Angelo Eliott. You should try to succeed, but if you fail you should never give up and try again. I think that bad fortune isn’t what any body wants. Nobody likes to fail. Success is a goal too.
Once when a general went to war, he lost. He didn’t give up though. He tried the next battle. Everyone must have a goal in life so you should not try for bad fortune, ever, no matter how disscourageing it is for you.
Oh boy. Big trouble here. Let me count the ways:
This essay makes reference to both quotations in the prompt, but there’s no clear statement of what this writer believes about success and failure, just a bunch of disconnected sentences. The closest the writer comes to a thesis is “Nobody likes to fail.”
The only example (the general) doesn’t say much about the relative benefits of success and failure. This example should have been much more specific (which general? what happened in the next battle?). Also, with a little work, the example could have made a point — that failure sometimes motivates people or that early success makes people complacent (a little too satisfied and comfortable).
The essay doesn’t have a clear, recognizable structure, mostly because it doesn’t have enough material to organize. The reader should move from thesis to evidence to conclusion, but this essay has only a lame attempt at a thesis (see the first bullet point) and a vague, general statement at the end of the second paragraph.
The language is clumsy, and the writer has several run-on sentences and spelling mistakes.
Practicing What I Preach: Your Turn to Write
In the previous sections, you see examples of essays ranging from pretty darn good to pretty darn bad, so now’s the time for you to get some practice writing them yourself. Unfortunately, the SAT writers don’t give you a choice of essay topics on SAT day, so don’t read all eight of the following prompts and go for the one that immediately appeals to you. Pick a number from one to eight at random — your birthday month (unless you were born after August), how often you had ice cream yesterday, the number of people in your family — and settle in with that question. When the 25 minutes are up, put your pencil down, shake the cramp out of your hand, and put the essay away. Later, when your brain has recovered from its fried state, look at the essay objectively. Score it according to the grading criteria in Chapter 7.
If your essay refers to literature, remember this rule: Underline the titles of full-length works (books or plays). Place the titles of shorter works (articles or poems) inside quotation marks.
Essay Prompt 1
“‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,’ wrote Jane Austen in her masterful work, Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s characters act on assumptions about human behavior, and frequently these assumptions are proved wrong.” —Ray Bann, “Mr. Darcy’s Error”*
“‘Assume that their goals are the same as ours; they want peace, security, and reasonable happiness.’ That’s the advice the president offered to his negotiating team just hours before the cease-fire talks. With his statement in mind, we approached the enemy.” —Dolvin Eddlesworth,Negotiating for Fun and Profit*
What effect do assumptions have on human behavior? Draw upon your own experience or upon your knowledge of literature or world affairs in discussing whether assumptions are a positive, negative, or mixed factor.
Essay Prompt 2
“Nineteenth-century author Sydney Smith wrote that truth is justice’s handmaid. The Freedom of Information Act has opened the workings of the American government to public scrutiny, and justice has been served accordingly.” —Predieu Orant, American Democracy in the Age of Instant Messaging*
“Justice is truth in action.” —Benjamin Disraeli, 19th-century British Prime Minister
Comment on the relationship between truth and justice, supporting your ideas with evidence from literary works, current affairs, history, or your own experience.
Essay Prompt 3
“American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of ‘the divine Insanity of noble minds’ that creates ‘what it cannot find.’ Three centuries earlier, William Shakespeare related ‘the lunatic’ to the poet because both create new realities.” —Gerbel Hamstar, “The Relation Between Craziness and Creativity”*
Is realism the enemy of creativity? Must an artist or scientist ignore what is already known in order to move beyond established boundaries? Refer to your knowledge of art, literature, science, or personal experience to discuss the relationship between reality and creativity.
Essay Prompt 4
“Where silence once reigned, the cellphone now interrupts. ‘Computer error’ is blamed for almost every glitch in modern life, from erroneous weather forecasts to ridiculous tax bills. Modern life has become enslaved to technology.” —Lobelia Closper, Free Yourself from Machines*
Technology has not made our lives easier. Agree or disagree with this statement, supporting your position with references to your life or your reading.
Essay Prompt 5
“Dionysius the Elder, being asked whether he was at leisure, replied, ‘God forbid that it should ever befall me!’” —Plutarch, Roman historian
“Cultivated leisure is the aim of man.” —Oscar Wilde, British writer
Is leisure time a blessing or a curse? Take a position on this issue and support your view with evidence from literature, history, current events, or your own observations and experiences.
Essay Prompt 6
“Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil.” —Attributed to Plato, Greek philosopher
“Ignorance is bliss.” —Thomas Gray, British poet
Should ignorance ever be preferred to knowledge? Discuss your views, supporting your ideas with reference to your life or reading.
Essay Prompt 7
“As a young man, Lyndon B. Johnson wrote about how uncomfortable it is to have ambition. The ambitious person, said Johnson, is discontented and restless. However, according to Johnson, ambition is what makes us strive for ‘better things in the future.’” —Woefield Cowbus,Life with LBJ*
How much ambition is too much? Discuss your answer to this question with evidence from your observation, your life experience, or your reading.
Essay Prompt 8
“Science is fast outrunning ethics. Almost as soon as society decides whether a new medical technique may be justified, the procedure is outmoded. Cloning, the artificial prolongation of life, the ability to alter one’s appearance or design one’s offspring — what used to be the stuff of science fiction is fast becoming science fact. And science has implemented its discoveries without undergoing the necessary examination of its rights and obligations.” —Crewly Kind, “The Scientists’ Dilemma”*
Who should decide how and when, if ever, a scientific discovery should be implemented? Support your position with evidence from your knowledge of science, literature, history, current events, or from your firsthand experience of life.