The Essay is the scariest part of the SAT for me (which is surprising, as I'm rarely at a loss for words). I've dealt with my anxiety about the not dealing with it, at all; complete and utter denial.

Somehow I managed to walk through the fear 4 times in 2011 on SAT day.  I scored 3 9's and a 10 (out of a possible 12).

After the June test, I decided it was time to turn the 9's into 12's.

I spoke to friends, asked advice of tutors; I read books -- and generally, I procrastinated (until someone finally made a novel suggestion: Why don't you try writing one. Ugh. How practical.)

The next day without giving it too much thought, I wrote an essay over morning coffee (timed, using College Board essay prompt). It was embarrassingly bad and I cringed to even read it myself, no less share it with someone else.

But I did (because I said I would). I emailed it over to PWNtheSAT (if only because not following through on my word seemed even more embarrassing than the essay itself.)

I covered my eyes, hit send, and a few minutes later received a reply back:

Hi Debbie,

This is MUCH better than I expected given your email. :) I'd say it gets a 9 or a 10.

STRENGTH: Solid example in the Tiger Mom book, and explained in such a way that I, as a reader, don't feel like I'm reading a book-report plot summary. You told me the relevant details, and explained why they mattered given the prompt. That's good.

WEAKNESS: You basically wrote two intro paragraphs, and that cost you valuable time and space where you could have been making other points. I liked the mention of Madoff in your notes, I think that would have been a strong inclusion if you had time/room.

The feedback kind of egged me on (I'll do anything for a little praise).

I tried again the next day. Same thing, coffee, essay, cringe, hit send, reply:

Hey Debbie,

I'm pumped that you're keeping up with this. You'll get faster as you practice...I wouldn't worry too much about speed.

This essay would probably get an 8.

STRENGTHS: Examples. Once you get into your examples, it's clear that you're thinking critically about the question and your examples are strong and varied. One is historical, one is modern-day. Both are appropriate to the prompt. Nice.

WEAKNESSES: You really undercut your own argument in your intro. Your first 8 lines are basically saying that order and authority are important and that without them chaos would ensue. That's true, but doesn't really strengthen your argument if you're going to be writing about the importance of questioning authority. Delete those 8 lines and you have a better essay, and more space for things that forward your argument.

Ok, not as good, but I can be determined too.

Day 3, over coffee, wrote another one:

This would get a 10 or an 11.

Yes, this is very personal, but that's fine. I tell kids to shy away from personal examples unless they've got really heavy stuff to talk about. Readers don't give a damn about high school drama, like so and so's boyfriend cheated on her. But if you've got real, actual, adults-would-agree-is-a-big-deal stuff, it's open season. I'd say this qualifies.

STRENGTHS: Strong, focused example that answers the question in a novel but powerful way. Passion rings throughout the piece.

WEAKNESSES: The sentence in your intro that begins "I see my family..." has an awkward singular/plural dynamic. I'd try to reword that one, but not a very big deal. Also, the paragraph about the dangers of the internet seems to be leading somewhere, but then doesn't get there. Have your children heeded your advice, or not? The rest of the essay suggests not, but you don't actually say so, so the reader is left hanging there a bit.

It took a few weeks of writing an essay a day before I was regularly scoring 11-11.5s.  At one point, PWNtheSAT said to me, "Just so you know, I've never given a 12." 

.....That is, until the morning of July 22, 2011:

Wow. This is your best yet. 12.

STRENGTHS: everything. You did such a wonderful job building your case for identity being a result of action, and you wrapped it up in the final line like that was your plan the whole time. Great use of vocabulary, too.

WEAKNESSES: hard to find one.

I believe I may have cultivated a positive addiction: Coffee, Toast, Kumon, Essay (start my day)

Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis

Copyright Debbie Stier

About the Authors

Catherine Johnson Ph.D.
Catherine Johnson, Ph.D. is an "afterschooling" parent and co-author of Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.

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