Narrowing the Topic

A well-focused essay on a limited topic is always better than an essay that tries to cover too much ground in just a few paragraphs. That”s why narrowing the topic is one of the crucial steps in planning your SAT essay. The sharper your focus, the better.

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Narrow your topic by thinking small.

If you are a fast writer, you might scribble 350 well-chosen words onto the page in twenty-five minutes. (That”s about the number of words on a double-spaced typed page using 12-point type.) If the topic is too broad, you are likely to state a few obvious generalities, resort to hackneyed ideas, and maybe even throw the bull a little bit. In short, your essay would be vague, superficial, too empty of substance to show how deeply you can think. On the other hand, if you”ve narrowed the topic sufficiently, you stand a far better chance of saying something sensible, scintillating, meaningful, provocative, and interesting. And never doubt that an interesting essay won”t work on your behalf.

It”s impossible to predict the topic you”ll be asked to write on. Because a multiethnic, multicultural, and multitalented cohort of students takes the SAT, the topic is bound to be extremely broad. Your first task, therefore, is to think small—to reduce the topic to a size snug enough to fit into a short essay.

Megan”s Story

Megan, an eleventh grader, recently took the SAT and recounted the experience of writing her essay. Here is what she said about narrowing her topic:

I was a little nervous at the beginning when I opened my test booklet to find an essay topic on conformity in groups of people. At first, I wasn”t exactly sure what that meant. But the prompt cleared it up for me. It said that the degree of conformity in a group influences how decisions are made. It also determines who the group leader is going to be and the amount of freedom that members will have. Then the prompt pointed out that dissent and disagreement are sometimes a good thing because they can help a group make better decisions.

The instructions told me to answer the following question in my essay: “Do groups that encourage nonconformity and disagreement function better than those that discourage it?”

Luckily, during the previous few weeks I”d written a few SAT essays for practice and knew that I needed to back up my opinion with evidence from my studies, reading, observation, or experience.

At the outset, I was sort of inclined to agree that dissent in a group leads to better decision making. So, off the top of my head I began to jot down the names of groups in the margin of my test booklet—names like Chinese-Americans, airline employees, Netflix subscribers, and graduates of Penn State University.

Whoa! I suddenly said to myself, these groups are way too big. Besides, I realized that in each group there would be many people who probably had little in common with each other and wouldn”t share a unanimous view on the need for group conformity.

So, I X”ed out my first list and wrote a new one:

A. debate club

B. the President”s advisers

C. platoon of U.S. Marines

D. basketball team

E. school faculty

F. community school board

That”s better, I thought, but my list is too long. There was no way could I cover all these groups in a short essay. I had only twenty-five minutes total and already used up a couple of minutes getting my thoughts together. So, I pruned my list after thinking for a few more seconds about each group.

I decided that A and B probably thrived on controversy. A debate club wouldn”t be a debate club if its members always agreed. Likewise, a circle of White House advisers needed to offer conflicting views on every issue to help a president make sound decisions.

Suddenly I felt confident that my initial idea was correct. I”d have no trouble answering yes to the essay question.

But after appraising C and D, I wasn”t so sure. Neither of those groups would be able to tolerate dissent if it expected to function. On battlefields and basketball courts, I asked myself, wouldn”t success depend on strict adherence to the group”s values and goals? I realized, that a yes answer might not work after all.

Then I turned to group E and decided that a school ought to encourage dissent and nonconformity among its faculty. It would be so depressing to go to a school where every teacher was the same and every class was run in exactly the same way. But I also realized that total anarchy in a school would be even worse. The ideal would probably be a faculty that embraced a set of guiding principles but also valued a school climate that promoted reasonable dissent and individuality.

As for group F, I assumed that a school board would function best when its members united behind quality education but would listen to dissenting voices and weigh several alternatives before making a policy.

…All these thoughts sped through my mind in a fraction of the time it takes to read them. In the end, I decided that my essay couldn”t contain an either-or answer to the question. Instead, my main idea would take a middle-of-the-road position, like: A group”s purpose and goals determine whether dissent is a help or a hindrance.

Because I couldn”t discuss all six groups in my essay I picked just two—the basketball team and the president”s advisers—to support my main idea. As I began to write, I reminded myself that somewhere in my essay I ought to talk briefly about groups with other types of goals, such as the faculty and the school board where they had to let circumstances determine when dissent is helpful and when it”s not. I thought that by including that idea I”d be showing the SAT readers that I could think deeply about an issue and maybe even get extra credit.

I came to the end of the essay with about three minutes to spare and used the time to proofread my essay and change a few words to make it sound more mature.

…I”m hoping for at least a 4 or 5 on my essay, but a 6 would be awesome.

While planning what to say in your essay, take Megan”s story to heart. Let it help you resist the temptation to incorporate too much material into your SAT essay. Don”t let yourself be deluged with ideas. Remember that you can write only so much in twenty-five minutes.

P.S. One reader gave Megan”s SAT essay a 5, the other a 6, for a total score of 11.

Some writers find that a more efficient way to narrow a topic is to begin writing. If the essay strikes them as dull or disappointing after a few sentences, they may realize that their approach is too vague, too broad, too boring (and if the writer is bored, imagine what the essay will do to prospective readers). Because they”ve written themselves into a cul-de-sac, they must grit their teeth and start again. Time restraints on the SAT won”t give you more than one chance to start over. That minute you devote to narrowing the topic, therefore, may prove to be the most important sixty seconds of the exam.