Today’s New York Times has a story on the new SAT, particularly the writing test. The print version has images of the opening lines of three essays that received a perfect score, while the on-line version includes images of the full text of three perfect-score essays.
The essays themselves are kind of interesting to look at. The question was one of those hideous, vague college application things: “Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?” The three answers presented in full take different approaches. Essay #2 (there is no #1 on the site) offers two different examples, one literary and one political, of people failing to learn from experience. Essay #3 chooses the time-honored approach of a short introductory paragraph changin the question around to something the student is more comfortable answering, followed by a bunch of material about a vaguely related book. Essay #4 offers a personal story about learning from experience.
What does this really demonstrate? It’s hard to say. Probably, that students who do well on the SAT writing test will also do well writing college application essays. Also, I’ll bet that the tactic of Essay #2 (and to a lesser extent #3) will serve as the template for all future test-prep classes, and SAT graders of the future will come to cherish the increasingly rare students following the lead of #4.
The actual article in the Times takes the fairly uncharitable approach of highlighting the, shall we say, infelicities of the students’ prose. This strikes me as pretty unfair, as the students have 25 minutes to write whatever they’re going to write, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for multiple drafts and self-editing. As someone whose first draft of a statement for a faculty review included the sentence “Science is one of the top journals in all of science,” I have considerable sympathy for the students in this matter.
This blog post has taken me almost 20 minutes to write, after all, and I’d rather not know what grade the SAT people would give it…