Cognitive Daily

The SAT Challenge: My essay revealed

Remember yesterday when I said that only one essay scored a six on the Blogger SAT Challenge? I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I wrote it.

I think it’s a pretty good essay, but it is a bit suspicious that the person who designed the study just happened to get the highest score (by the way, it wasn’t a perfect score: the first grader gave me a 6 but the second grader gave me a 5). I can honestly say, however, that I didn’t cheat. My plan was to write my essay as soon as I picked the question, so that I didn’t have an advantage over people who saw it for the first time when they participated in the study. I wrote it in just 20 minutes, like everyone else. The graders were unaware of my essay’s identity while they were grading; my essay was presented in the same anonymous format as all the others. My one advantage was that I rejected two questions before I settled on this one — everyone else was forced to write on the question placed before them — and that may have been a significant advantage for me.

So how did I write this essay in 20 minutes? Despite the suggestion of several Slashdot commenters that the essayists didn’t have enough time to make an outline, I did take a couple minutes to write an outline before I started (yes, this counted as part of my 20 minutes). I simply thought of the best three examples I could come up with, then used them to decide whether to argue for or against the Booker T. Washington quote.

My introduction is nothing special, but it does do a couple things that other essays do not. First, it doesn’t assume that readers know what the question is — but it also doesn’t repeat the entire question verbatim. Second, it takes a strong, clear stand on the question.

The key for the body of the essay is that it not only gives specific examples, but also explains how they support the claim. There is a moderate effort to develop transitions between the examples, but I didn’t dwell on this; again, there wasn’t time.

If I had a couple more minutes, I would have written a better conclusion, but I felt it was more important to fully develop my last, best example. The example itself would serve as the conclusion for the essay. I’m guessing the lack of a conclusion is why the second grader gave me a 5.

I think there are several essays in the group that had a more sophisticated line of reasoning or a more original argument than mine. However, I also felt that there wasn’t enough time to fully develop such a complicated argument. In short, timed essays such as this, the direct approach usually works best. Does that penalize some “better” writers? Perhaps, but overall writing skill is not what is being tested here, timed writing is. I also think there were many essays that were cleverer than mine, either in their use of satire or humor. But again, those things weren’t being tested; taking a clear position and supporting it with evidence was.

I will discuss some of these other essays in another post later this week.


  1. #1 Doug
    October 3, 2006

    you think?

  2. #2 Hypercycloid
    October 3, 2006

    Congratulations, Dave! 🙂 Perhaps it’s a glitch unique to my computer, but your badge at the top of the page says “My writing pwned the challenge”, which doesn’t make any sense to me.

  3. #3 Greta
    October 3, 2006

    I didn’t understand “pwned” either, and was sent this helpful entry…

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    October 3, 2006

    “You think?”

    Yeah, that’s probably one of my big flaws as a writer. Particular phrases get stuck in my head, and I just can’t help repeating them. The fact that I only repeat “I think” three times in this post is actually pretty good for me.


    The use is meant to be ironic 😉

  5. #5 Matt Todd
    October 4, 2006

    I submitted my entry and I’m certain I finished before 21 minutes was up, but I don’t see my entry in the list. How can we know if our essay was not included?


  6. #6 Dave Munger
    October 4, 2006

    Matt, I have your time at 24:05. You started 9/19/2006 at 7:55:55 PM, finished 9/19/2006 at 8:20:00 PM. If you’d like your essay text, email me at dave at wordmunger dot com.

  7. #7 Natalie Hudson
    October 4, 2006


    As the grader who gave the 6 (no collusion! honest!), I have to say that your analysis of your own essay is spot-on. You understood the two components of the assignment (taking a position and supporting it, as set out in the instructions) and nailed them both.

    Two things set your essay apart from many of the others. First, the organization was clear and easy to follow. You had clearly thought about what you would say and were not just writing things down as you thought of them. My students often don’t believe me when I tell them to take two or three minutes to outline before they write, but it really, really helps.

    Second, you gave actual *evidence* to back up your claims. Many essays gave hand-wavy examples about “people who work hard,” but your data provided much stronger support for your position. What’s more, you made it clear how each example tied back to your thesis. This is the stuff good (SAT) arguments are made of.

    It’s true that you didn’t have much of a conclusion, but by the time I got to the end I was impressed enough by the solid argument you’d set up so far that I was willing to overlook that.

    Nice work!

  8. #8 Ste
    October 4, 2006

    For me, the world isn’t one sided. Even when there is a point to make, it is some subtle nuance of some greater issue. For example, Evolution is, in general terms, a correct view of how life evolves. The interesting arguments are in the details, for example how much each of the selection mechanisms matter. I didn’t expect to score very highly. The one-sided SAT style essays aren’t very interesting to me. I trust my audience to self select to those that find my style interesting.

    Just being at a keyboard and having the ability to type at 50+ words a minute gives the blogger a big advantage. The blogger can also run a spell check – unavailable on most pen models. So, when i wrote, i made no attempt to use up my time.

  9. #9 Brian
    October 4, 2006

    The only advantage I can see you may have had was if you felt you could answer this question better than the two you rejected. And even that isn’t a slam-dunk, in that you still had to organize thoughts, write well, and make a good essay in a limited time.

    So I say a little advantage, but the grade’s still deserved.

  10. #10 Matt Todd
    October 5, 2006

    Damn, that’s disappointing. Not that my entry was any good (it wasn’t) but I still wanted to participate. I was so certain I was under the time limit. Ah well. Excellent challenge, really. Reading through the essays, I really was unimpressed with far more than I had originally expected. But, really, it felt right because I’m often unimpressed with the content of many blogs (most of all mine)! I imagined that many of the essays were written the same way the bloggers would blog, many in first person, often in very informal language (and a few with a great deal of careless mistakes). However, this has been a great learning experience concerning the quality of thought and production for me as it has given rise to reflection on those topics on my own blogs.

    Again, excellent challenge, I’ve enjoyed participating as best as I could.



  11. #11 Hypercycloid
    October 5, 2006

    Greta, thanks for the redirect about “pwned”!

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