In Praise of Folly: Writing the SAT Essay

Jed Applerouth, PhD
June 1, 2009
min read

Did Barack Obama serve time in a Basque prison? Did Abraham Lincoln ever live in Ontario? Did Jack Kennedy go against his advisers and invade the country of Lilliput? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are on your way to achieving a perfect score on the SAT essay.

Perfection is an ideal rarely attained in the domain of human affairs. But if you are looking for a doorway into the realm of the perfect, the domain of standardized testing, with its crisp boundaries and clear demarcations of right and wrong, offers such an opportunity. Even the SAT essay follows a set of rules and guidelines that make perfection possible. Normally a reader would assume that any essay linking Kennedy to the Lilliputians would be an exercise in idiocy rather than in perfection. But according to the heuristics and grading rubric of the SAT, a marriage between JFK and Swift’s diminutive characters is a sound one.

Students interested in playing the game of standardized testing must first understand the system, its rules and tricks, and then abide by those rules and profit from those tricks in order to successfully navigate the intricacies of the system.

I have personally taken the “new” SAT six times between March 2005 and May 2009. I go through this ritual to stay abreast of changes to the SAT and ensure that our tutors are instructing our students according to the most recently available information. I want to see how much Algebra 2 is being worked into the Math sections, what kind of questions and vocabulary are finding their way into the Critical Reading sections, and how the graders respond to different types of essays.

When the College Board first added the essay to the SAT, many parents and educators questioned how accurately and objectively the quality of student writing could be evaluated and assessed. The College Board, to avoid accusations of subjective grading, crafted a grading rubric to be religiously followed by its essay graders. On grading day, student essays flow through the electronic queue and are generally assessed, according to the grading rubric, within 90 seconds. The vast majority of assigned grades fall within a 1-point differential, revealing that the rubric does have a high degree of reliability. If you want to write a “good” essay, you must abide by the rules which govern this system.

I had read that a well-supported essay was more important than a factually correct essay, and I wanted to test this theory. In my earliest essays I included some minor factual errors to see if the graders would penalize me. I swapped a WWII conference at Yalta for one in Tehran; I turned psychologist Albert Ellis into a nuclear physicist working on the Manhattan Project; I invented a Greek orator. But these were fairly subtle mistakes that few readers would discern within their allotted 90 seconds. Perfect scores on my essays enforced that subtle content errors were of no consequence to the overall grade.

Some of my students and tutors questioned just how far you could push the facts before content would become an issue. There must be a point where you cross the line and get penalized for content errors. In January of this year, I was feeling particularly playful and decided to alter more commonly known facts: Pierro Picasso’s Guernica depicted the 1847 Belgian Civil War; Sam Coltrane was a legendary Bluesman from Seattle; Stanford Gehry, famed architect, crafted the legendary Reina Sophia museum in Bilbao, Mexico in the late 1960s. Many readers would recognize these cultural gaffes as errors, but again I was awarded a perfect score on the essay (reproduced in its entirety below).

Emboldened by the reader’s lack of deductions for my increasingly glaring factual errors, I went all out in May. With clear intention, I decided to make obnoxious factual errors that could not be ignored, no matter how cursorily my essay was read: nothing subtle or nuanced here. This was going to be so heavy-handed that I would have no remaining doubt how to advise my students and tutors.

In my May essay (reproduced in its entirety below), I stuck John Fitzgerald Kennedy in a Saxon war council during the middle ages, grappling with whether to invade the neighboring kingdom of Lilliput. Barrack Husein Obama shared a Basque prison cell with Winston Churchill, and the two inmates plotted to overthrow General Franco. Cincinnati’s own, Martin Luther King Jr. sought out a political apprenticeship with his mentor, Abraham James Lincoln, famed Ontario prosecutor.

As I was reading over my creation in the testing room, I was laughing to myself. If this gets through, anything can get through. Two weeks later, the scores were posted: again, the readers rewarded me with a perfect 12 on the essay, and I received a 2400 on the May test.

I finally had adequate evidence that the SAT essay has nothing whatsoever to do with factual content. Veracity is not being assessed to the slightest degree. What is being assessed is structure, argumentation, vocabulary strength, variation in sentence structure. And these are important elements of a writing assessment. But the facts have nothing to do with how this essay is being graded.

I have always advised our students that it is better to invent details then leave a thesis unsupported. It doesn’t take too much imagination to fudge a date or an event, but I personally found it harder to make the entire thing up than to simply draw upon actual events. Being creative takes more time and energy. I would generally not advise my students to invent the entire essay as this can take up the cognitive resources that are required to focus on structure, vocabulary and the things that really count. If you have actual evidence at your disposal, use it, but if you cannot remember a name or a date or a figure, it’s fine to fudge.

Some people, primarily parents and administrators, have been upset when they heard my counsel to bend the truth to craft a superior essay. But I argue that as there is no expectation or reward for veracity, why fixate upon it? When I read a work of fiction, I am not upset that the content is not factual as there is no expectation of that. For the SAT essay, what is being assessed is how well you write, not how accurate is your factual base. On the AP exam, we are in a different system with different rules, and content accuracy is paramount. On the college admission essay or personal statement, integrity is of the utmost importance and bending the truth is tantamount to academic dishonesty and deception. However, there are no expectations for veracity on the SAT essay, and you are neither rewarded nor penalized for truthful statements. The name of the game is following the grading rubric.

Because length counts, fill in the 2 pages. Because vocabulary matters, work in some advanced verbiage. Because sentence structure matters, throw in introductory participles and phrases. Because structure matters, make sure you introduce, support and close with your thesis. You will notice that in all my essays I continually reinforce my thesis with every paragraph. No matter where the readers jump to, they will see that I’m forever on topic and on task. I know they will read my intro and my closing, so I make sure to keep them succinct and to the point. It is incredibly formulaic, but it works.

In teaching this profoundly formulaic writing style to my students, am I helping them become better writers? In some cases yes but most of the time no. I am giving them a formula, and when they follow it, my students consistently score 10s, 11s and 12s on the essay, helping them to achieve strong scores on the writing section of the SAT. The conversation about becoming a better writer comes to the fore when we are looking, not at the SAT essay, but at the college admissions essay. When it comes to writing a strong college admissions essay, formula is thrown to the wind and creativity and risk-taking become the new paradigm. Students need to have a number of tricks at their disposal; they must be able to succeed in the desiccated world of the SAT essay and the rich and juicy world of the college admissions essay.

I will leave you with 4 “perfect” SAT essays, which received scores of 12, essays that vary according to their level of factual accuracy. These essays may help illustrate what the College Board is looking for. And you may get a laugh out of my most recent essay. Factual errors are in bold, and I have made no corrections or modifications to the essays.

My most recent essay, pushing the envelope to the limit:

Should we look to our elders for wisdom?

With age comes experience. As we navigate the vicissitudes of life, embracing its challenges of quotidian living, our naivete is replaced with sagacity, our illusions replaced with truth. One who is younger and less experienced would be wise to learn from the older and more experienced.

Throughout history young leaders have taken their cues from older, more experienced mentors. For wisdom does not magically appear; it is transferred from one generation to the next. In the 17th century a young man by the name of Martin Luther King Jr., a young pastor from Cincinnati, took his cues from the venerable Abraham James Lincoln, a seasoned lawyer from Ontario. Young King learned from Lincoln's personal trials and tribulations, absorbing gems of wisdom from his enlightened teacher. The young acolyte molded his style after that of his mentor and eventually went on to embrace the mantle of civic leadership, typifying the qualities of his older, more experienced teacher.

At our peril do we ignore the lessons of our elders. Who can forget the tragic case of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, failed leader of the Saxons of New Brittany? In the height of the Ostrogoth revolution, young Kennedy rejected the advice of his elder council and impetuously invaded the fortified stronghold of the neighboring Lilliputians. The elder council convened and vehemently protested the ill-designed strategy, but Kennedy was obstinate and would not be moved. The elders were powerless to influence the young Saxon leader. Kennedy invaded Lilliput and the whole of the Ostrogoth army was annihilated, leaving the nation vulnerable to the waves of marauding invaders from the east. This clearly illustrates that we ignore the counsel of the older and more experienced at our peril.

One example of a man who embraced the wisdom of his elders was Barack Hussein Obama, famed revolutionary of the Basque region. Young Obama unified the Basque populous, seeking to overthrow the tyranny of Franco, nationalist, totalitarian demagogue. Obama, during his 6 months he spent in jail after this first failed coup attempt, came in contact with a seasoned revolutionary, Winston Churchill. Churchill had seen decades of failed revolutionary attempts and offered his insights to Obama, his willing disciple. With Churchill's support young Obama was able to unify the masses, instigate a popular revolution and liberate the Basque nation from Franco's control.

The clearest path to success lies in following the well-laid tracks of our wiser, more experienced elders. We must learn from our elders, embracing their insights and teachings if we are to achieve the greatest successes in life.

My previous essay, where I began to get more daring:

Does planning contribute to or interfere with creativity?

Planning is the cornerstone of the creative process. Effective planning establishes the parameters, the confines, in which true creativity emerges. Those who fail to effectively plan will rarely achieve the heights of creativity reached by those who carefully and meticulously plan.

In our collective mythology, creativity is something of a mysterious, divine act. Creators travel close to the center of vast, collective energies, steal the fire of Prometheus, and bring it down to the level of the mere mortals. Creativity seems to break all the rules and structures of quotidian behavior. It scares us, even. How did she come up with that? What on earth inspired him? The truth, however, is much more mundane. The scaffolding of planning always underlies the works of the greatest and most majestic creativity.

When one stands before the majesty of the Guernica, Pierro Picasso's breathtaking 1847 masterpiece depicting the horrors of the Belgian civil war, one can only be moved by its raw power and urgency. The brushwork seems energized, the action frenzied. Surely this must have been an act of raw, spontaneous creative effort. The truth, however, is far from this. Behind the frenzied energy of the Guernica, lies hundreds, nay thousands of hours of preparation. The mother holding her dying child seems like a fresh, first effort. In fact, the final visage was Picasso's 83rd attempt. Deep planning underlies the heart of the Guernica, as it does all truly creative acts.

When one hears the seductive, trance-like frenetic compositions of Seattle's own Sam Coltrane, one cannot help but envision this man in a state of frenzied bliss. But Coltrane's seemingly spontaneous Blues progressions are steeped in decades of meticulous planning, mastery of harmonics, scales and tonics. What seems invented on the spot is the product of thousands of hours of preparation and planning.

The great architect, Stanford Ghery, the genius behind the colossal Rene de Sophia museum in Bilbao, Mexico, gives us the illusion that his buildings are erupting spontaneously from the earth, but again, this appearance of transience, spontaneity is illusory. The Bilbao project, completed in 1963, was the result of decades of precise planning and preparation. True art manifests the appearance of spontaneous creativity, but is always undergirded by robust planning.

The genius of creativity lies in manifesting the illusion of unfettered, spontaneity. But beneath the veneer of free, raw creative expression lies deep planning; for planning is the heart of creativity.

An essay with a few errors, but nothing too outlandish:

Is it easier to achieve success through cooperation or through competition?

Though Western Civilization celebrates the efforts of the solitary individual, professing determination and rugged individualism as the keys to success, the collaborative efforts of great teams have yielded some of the greatest results in history. If we can find a way to unite behind a cause, putting our differences aside, we can achieve more than if we work in isolation and competition.

One of the greatest collaborative efforts of the 20th century was the remarkable Manhattan Project. Led by the brilliant nuclear physicist, Robert J. Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project brought together the greatest minds in America to achieve a common goal: create a weapon that would end the second world war and save hundreds of thousands of American Lives. Dozens of scientists, previously working in competition at their respective universities, were called together to join efforts to serve their country. Brilliant minds, the likes of Enrico Fermi and Albert Ellis, joined forces, putting their egos aside to collaborate and achieve a greater success than they could in isolation or competition. For three years this team of scientists toiled in the New Mexico desert, testing their theories of atomic energy and nuclear fusion. By 1943, this collaborative effort produced the first atomic bomb, which allowed the United States to save the lives of 500,000 of its own soldiers, avoiding a direct invasion of Japan.

Collaboration, rather than competition, was the key to success in the second world war. Faced with the specter of the rise of the Third Reich, the United States, Britain, and Russia joined ranks to defeat the German military force. The Russians had initially resisted collaboration with the allies, but after Hitler invaded Russia, Stalin quickly saw the advantage of a unified effort against Hitler. At Yalta, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt settled in on a collaborative strategy and chose to work together to achieve the end of the war. Again this illustrates that collaboration is a more effective means of achieving success.

In the 21st century, collaboration is the genius of the age. You cannot compete alone and survive in this world of partnerships, joint ventures, and shared interests. Companies are leading the way, working together to survive and thrive, rather than working alone.

Though it’s tempting to work alone and gratify your own desires and needs, if we can collaborate with others we will achieve greater and more durable successes.

An essay essentially void of factual errors, though many would argue against my logical position:

Has our society become excessively materialistic?

Though it cannot be denied that modern society is profoundly materialistic, there is nothing inherently wrong with a society that values the production and consumption of material goods. Ample historical evidence suggests that societies that devalue capital wealth and material gain will be unstable and short-lived. Materialism - whatever value we place upon it - creates a stable societal structure.

Just turn on the television, peruse the magazine covers in a supermarket, listen to any one of the top forty radio hits and you will be immediately faced with the rampant materialism of modern society. What do we value? Material wealth and celebrity. Why do we worship Paris Hilton, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos. Steve Jobs? Because they have tremendous buying power and perceived power. What shows do we watch? American Idol, Cribs, Pimp My Ride, My Sweet 16 to name a few. All these shows lift conspicuous consumption and flagrant displays of wealth and hedonism to elevated levels. Our society is very much like the ancient materialistic society of Rome- in which wealth and power were paramount. Thus it cannot be denied that a materialist spirit pervades modern society.

But who's to say that materialism is wrong? Our philosophers praise the virtues of materialism. Our prophets include the venerable John Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Keynes and all the myriad materialistic philosophers. And how the anti-materialist philosophers have waned in influence and been discarded to the waste bin of history: Karl Marx, Lenin, Charles Fourrier all have been relegated to the trash heap. Capitalism is the ethos of the day- the driving force of our world. Just ask the Chinese, the Russians, who have discarded their antiquated philosophies in exchange for a more durable, albeit potentially cynical materialism. Materialism acknowledges our innate desire to have more than our neighbors, to do better than the Jones. Because it caters to an inborn human need, materialism will always provide a more stable structure for a society.

Modern society is deeply materialistic. That's because materialism works. It validates human needs and desires and works with man's actual structure rather than the same lofty ideal or fantasy. Let us then celebrate our pervasive materialism and acknowledge its efficacy and virtue.

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