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Reality TV & The SAT’s Essay – Is there a new trend?

by Karen Miller on March 17th, 2011

In light of the New York Time’s article “SAT Reality TV Essay Stumpts Some,” I wanted to provide some input and feedback on the possible trends and future of the SAT essay.  In order to provide this insight, I think that it is important to understand the history of the SAT essay and the style of questions that have been commonplace.

In 2005, the College Board added a writing section to the SAT, which is worth another 800 points, making the total possible score for the new SAT 2400 points.  The breakdown of the writing section since its inception has always been 30% for the essay score and 70% for the grammar questions.  The essay’s rubric, or grading guideline, focuses on four categories: Focus (picking one topic and staying on topic), Details (providing solid examples with analysis in the body paragraph to prove a point), Organization (an introductory paragraph with thesis statement, two body paragraphs with topic and concluding sentences, and a concluding paragraph), and Language (sentence structure and variety, grammar, usage, and vocabulary).

In general, the essay questions have been about relatively general topics, such as heroism, truth, overcoming adversity, success, failure, etc.  Since these past topics were so general and usually common topics for high school essays in English class, students were often able to use literature, history, or movies as details for the body paragraphs.  In fact, I always encourage students to create a list of books that they have read, time periods in history that they have studied, and movies, with dynamic characters, that have have recently watched to help them prepare for the essay.  My hope was that this list would help the students come up with great details for their body paragraphs in order to best prove their point.  In addition, I was hoping that by having a list of ideas memorized, the students would be able to quickly think of examples and finish the 25 minute essay on time.  However, I always have told the students that they can use personal experiences and examples, if they could not think of anything else.  While there is nothing wrong with a personal example, most students have difficulty generating enough details with a personal experience, often times making the body paragraphs weaker.

While the College Board’s question about reality television shows was a huge surprise to many, this question is not the first shift in question style of the essay.  This past fall (2010), another one of the college board’s essay question asked about the importance of art education.  This question was, to my knowledge, the first time that the College Board asked a question that dealt directly with something relevant a high school student’s life.  So, I’m not ready to say that the SAT’s essay is definitely going to be focusing more on the life of a teenager; however, I do think that the college board is trying to shake things up a bit by not being so predictable with its essay questions.  My guess is that some essays will be about general topics and some  will directly relate to the teenager’s world.  Either way, the core of what it is looking for is the same:  can you prove a point in a well-organized way while showing strong use of sentence structure?  If you can, then you will be fine.

As for how to prepare for the essay, continue to make lists of what you know well and feel comfortable using, but also be prepared to have an opinion on the world in which you live!

Good luck!

Karen Miller  ~  SAT/ACT/College Application Specialist

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