Randall McCutcheon and James Schaffer - SAT Essay: Increase Your Score in 3 Minutes a Day
1. Your book is a very friendly way to learn the writing skills required for the SAT test. Can you give us an example of an entry we can show our readers?
The book is divided into three sections: Principles, Strategies, and Sample Essays. Once students have learned the Principles and Strategies, the different levels of sample essays will make sense to them. Without studying the thinking of the actual scorers of these essays, the examples in the book might be misleading. Context is what really matters. However, the passage below should give students an idea of the content and style of the book. This section is on the importance of having a Plan B if, unfortunately, the SAT Essay question requires that you write about something for which you are not prepared.
Suppose you were given the following essay topic.
Consider carefully the excerpt and the assignment below it. Then plan and write an essay that explains your ideas as persuasively as possible. Keep in mind that the support you provide--both reasons and examples--will help make your view convincing to the reader.
In Mark Twain's book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck becomes more than a casual rebel against responsibility. His destiny is to learn much about what it means to be a human being. On his journey down the Mississippi, Huck meets two ne'er-do-wells: the king and the duke. The duke refers to the people who live along the river with disdain.
'...these Arkansas lunkheads couldn't come up to Shakespeare; what they wanted was low comedy--and maybe something ruther worse than low comedy, he reckoned. He said he could size their style.'
Assignment: What is your view on the differences that separate people? In an essay, support your position using an example (or examples) from literature, the arts, history, current events, politics, science and technology, or your experience or observations.
Now suppose you haven't read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (if so, shame on you). You are limited, therefore, to the insights you can glean from the passage quoted. Even if you are unaware that Huck is one of the good, bad boys of American literature, you can infer from the passage that Twain favored him over the people of Arkansas. Is Twain's book titled The Adventures of the Arkansas Lunkheads? And you are told in the blurb that the king and the duke are 'ne'er-do-wells.'
So your Plan B becomes to flesh out the essay by applying what you have been studying recently. Let's say that your English class just finished discussing 'anyone lived in a pretty how town' by e.e. cummings. At first thought, you might assume Huck and 'anyone' had little in common. Don't give up so easily. Study the quoted passage again.
In cumming's poem, the 'lunkheads' are the 'someones' and 'everyones' in life who act dutifully without joy or pleasure. Not really alive, they remain unchanged while 'anyone' blossoms. The tragedy, you learn in the cumming's poem, is the fate of the children. Raised by the 'someones' and 'everyones' of the world, these children lose the capacity to grow, in all senses of the word. Huck, you could argue, is 'anyone'--a homeless waif who finds his way on his journey despite the people who surround him--the people who are 'dying,' even as we first encounter them.
The key to the success of your Plan B is that you are connecting what is recently in your mind to the question asked. Remember: works of literature speak to each other.
2. Expression is a common weak point. People aren't used to writing expressively, and even good conversationalists will seize up when writing. How do you suggest people approach expression?
The 10 Strategies we include in our book go into great detail about the ways to write expressively. Strategy #10, for example, addresses the issue of overcoming 'seizing up' with specific suggestions that will arm the student with the tools needed.
3. Lack of preparation is generally considered a great way to make a mess of the SAT test, but people seem to have trouble getting motivated. What are the best motivators for students to approach the SAT essay?
All students can get into college if they take the test and the application process seriously. The motivator for trying to raise your score is that most colleges will offer you a better financial aid package for those extra points you have earned through careful preparation for the test. So make yourself complete as many practice tests as you can---with dollar signs in your eyes. Then read a good book on strategies. I would suggest ours because we cut out the needless repetition and we make the preparation more 'fun.'
4. To add quality to writing, what role does creativity play in the SAT essay? Can people add some strength to their essay by writing from a more creative angle?
Creative approaches should be rewarded but, sadly, many of the essay scorers may not recognize or understand your effort. One of the criticisms of the SAT Essay is that it encourages formulaic writing. You are better off using creative examples in a format that is familiar to any teacher. No one is sorrier that creativity is 'high-risk' than I am.
5. It's a sort of redneck folk myth that nobody reads any more. In practice, people read all the time, and the types of reading they do are naturally an influence on their ability to write. What sort of reading improves writing skills for the SAT.
Someone said that the satisfaction of finishing War and Peace is diminished by 20 percent when read on a Kindle. But here's some good news for most students. The research shows that you don't need to read the 'Classics' to score well. BUT you do need to read. If you like sports, for example, then read Rick Reilly who writes for Sports Illustrated. The Op-Ed pages in a newspaper are a good place to hang out with writers who know how to construct arguments in ways that will help you on the SAT. Opinionsource.com has a veritable plethora of editorials to use as models and you can join this site for free.
6. Some people do have trouble with literacy for various reasons. For people with weak levels of literacy, what's a working example of a 'from scratch' approach to the SAT essay?
Although some 'prep' classes recommend writing and memorizing essays on general topics like 'freedom' or 'hope,' be careful. They say you can then apply those essays to any question. Experienced teachers/scorers can usually spot such generic approaches and it is difficult to learn the number of essays that would be necessary for such a strategy. You can, however, have a good beginning that explains a 'truth' that will set up an organizational structure for any essay.
My Truth: What people believe is more important to them than what is actually true. In other words, perception matters more than reality to most people.
So suppose I'm asked on the SAT Essay: Is war ever morally justified?
When I read the prompt about the morality of war, I couldn't help but think of my grandmother. Grandma had the misfortune of watching me portray Hamlet in a production of Shakespeare's famous play. Most of the audience agreed I should 'not to be,' but Grandma thought it would be fun to play Hamlet herself. Evidently she had never read George Bernard Shaw's skewering of Sarah Bernhardt. Shaw described the great actress as Hamlette. But in discussing war, Grandma Hamlet would have said 'Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.' In other words, perception is more important than reality. Grandma made this truth clear to me every time I would get in a fight with Tom, the neighborhood bully. Morality is in the eye of the beholder, I slowly learned. So to answer the question about whether war is ever morally justified, we must first, examine the perception of these conflicts and then second, explore the reality of the consequences involved.
7. The practice element is extremely important in essay writing. What's the best approach? Do you think practice essays are good, or should people try writing paragraphs, and focus on progressive skills development?
As Dave Pelz, renowned golf instructor teaches, 'Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.' That is why comparing your essays to the ones you can read in our book is so valuable.
To develop skills, I would suggest working at the sentence level. Concrete details, strong verb choices, and variety in sentence length are three attainable goals worth pursuing.
8. Are there degrees of difficulty in your approach to developing essay writing skills, or are you targeting specifically the SAT essay requirements?
Our book is really about learning to write effectively in all formats you might encounter for the rest of your life. Getting a higher score on the SAT Essay is just a happy coincidence. A Very Happy One, I might add.
9. The SAT essay is a significant element in the overall test. If you were advising someone about SAT preparation, and you knew the person was likely to have trouble with the essay, how much lead time should they give themselves to prepare, and what sort of study routine should they adopt?
Start six weeks ahead and complete the entire practice test each week. At the beginning of our book we have different schedules outlined for the SAT Essay: one for the serious student and the other for the procrastinator.
10. Are there any major 'Don'ts' for SAT essays in terms of things which will guarantee trouble with writing it?
Writing illegibly. Not answering the prompt. No clear organizational plan. No supporting examples. A student would be wise to study the essay examples in our book. Self-confidence and success strategies will help any student improve their chances for 'acing' the essay.