New SAT – The New Essay

"I see essays in your future..."
“I see essays in your future…”

The essay section of the SAT has been controversial ever since it was added in 2005. To this day, many colleges choose not to consider it when looking at the applications of prospective students, and perhaps not without reason.

One of the chief complaints regarding the essay that critics love to lob at College Board is that the graders do not take factual accuracy into account when grading the essay. The SAT essay in its current form presents students with an open-ended question (usually of a vaguely philosophical nature) and asks them to take a position on it and use examples from the test taker’s reading, studies, experience, or observations in order to support that position. Because the graders do not consider factual accuracy when grading the essays, test takers can blatantly make up the most ridiculous tall tales in order to support their arguments without being penalized.

For instance, if an essay asked a student if risk taking is necessary for achieving happiness, the student could mention the time the famous Chinese explorer Christopher Columbus took the risk of attempting a voyage to the moon in 1973 because he had fallen in love with a moon mermaid over the course of a long epistolary romance. Because taking this risk led Columbus to true love, risk taking is thus necessary for happiness. Difficult to believe though it may be, essay graders would not bat an eye at such a farfetched piece of evidence and would award full points for such an example. Hypothetical examples, in contrast, are frowned upon and considered weaker than patently false but detailed ones.

Some critics might claim that an inarticulate beast, such as this bull, could produce material similar to that considered acceptable for the current SAT essay.
Some critics might claim that an inarticulate beast, such as this bull, could produce material similar to that considered acceptable for the current SAT essay.

There are other criticisms as well. Essentially, the essay encourages students to cherry-pick examples in order to form a one-sided argument that often ignores the complexities of the world. For instance, consider the following typical essay prompt: “Is the way something seems to be not always the same as it actually is?” The obvious answer to this question is yes. Sometimes appearances can be misleading. Sometimes they are not. For the purposes of the SAT essay, however, students must pick one side (appearances are misleading or appearances are accurate) and use examples to support only one side. Attempts to discuss the potential validity of both sides are penalized as weak arguments rather than strong, forceful ones.

Additionally, while College Board does not explicitly say this, there is a strong correlation between an essay’s length and the score it receives. Basically (with a few caveats), the longer your essay, the higher your score will be. In effect, this means that students need to spend as much time writing as possible and, consequently, as little time thinking as possible. Thus, a student who takes a glib, one-sided, superficial view of the question at hand but writes two full pages will likely receive a higher score than one who writes a shorter response but takes more time to think about the question meaningfully.

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In essence, one could argue that the current SAT essay teaches students that the truth doesn’t matter and that thinking is bad. In this light, the rejection of the essay by some colleges is entirely understandable (although it is interesting to note that all of our country’s most elite colleges expect prospective students to get top scores on the essay). To be fair, the essay does test perfectly legitimate aspects of writing such as grammar, diction, style, etc., and it is useful in college admissions because it provides admissions departments with a timed, independent writing sample that allows colleges to judge a student’s spontaneous writing ability.

College Board is also well aware of the current essay’s shortcomings, and has decided to radically revise the essay in order to address many of these concerns. First of all, in acknowledgement of the fact that some universities do not consider the essay, it has decided to make the essay section optional (highly selective colleges will still be likely to require it, though). But how can they fix the bigger factual accuracy problem? With thousands of essays to grade, the graders simply don’t have time to fact check every essay. College Board’s solution is simple and should prove effective: make the SAT essay a DBQ.

DBQ stands for “Document Based Question,” a question type common on many of College Board’s other products, namely its Advanced Placement exams. DBQs are typically found in the free response sections of AP History and English exams. Students are presented with historical documents, essays, or literary excerpts and asked to write an essay analyzing the information and opinions contained in the documents. Questions of factual accuracy are easily resolved with document based questions, since all of the relevant facts are presented in the documents.

Furthermore, the actual questions for DBQ essays can be more focused and nuanced than the broad, quasi-philosophical ones of the current essay. College Board has said that “The essay prompt will be shared in advance and remain consistent,” so we will know what exact question they will ask soon enough. In the meantime, know that typical DBQ prompts usually go something like this:

“Analyze the writer’s rhetorical strategies as she attempts to persuade the reader to accept her point of view regarding the separation of powers.”

“Discuss the logical flow of the author’s argument about the United Nation’s declaration of human rights.”

“Explain how the author views the scope of the first amendment of the constitution and analyze his use of evidence to support his view.”

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Rather than try to express their own opinions on often complex and difficult questions, students will likely be asked to analyze someone else’s opinions and ideas. This should prevent shallow, one-sided answers to deep, multifaceted questions. Lastly, the time for the essay will be greatly extended, from 25 to 50 minutes. This is partly because the student will need time to read the documents, but we can hope that there is more time for thinking and planning a response built into that 50 minutes as well.


Where are these documents going to come from? Well, the College Board is aware that these documents will be subject to immense scrutiny in the popular press, so it went with the safest bet it could: the founding documents of the United States, and other documents about liberty and democracy from around the world. College Board says:

“America’s founding documents — such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — are all rather short, but they have inspired a conversation that endures today. Every time students take the redesigned SAT, they will encounter an excerpt from one of the Founding Documents or a text from the ongoing Great Global Conversation about freedom, justice, and human dignity. In this way, we hope that the redesigned SAT will inspire deep engagement with texts that matter and reflect not only what is important for college and career, but what is important for citizenship here and around the world.”

The founding documents are a patriotic choice, and the “Great Global Conversation” documents make the test more multicultural and protect College Board from allegations of cultural imperialism (after all, the SAT is taken by students all over the world who hope to study in the US).

Will the new essay be harder? Probably, yes. It’s longer and it tests reading comprehension as well as writing ability. But it will still be coachable, and practice will definitely help you prepare for it. The fact is that the SAT is, was, and always will be a standardized test, and standardized tests must be graded in a standardized way, and if you can figure out what boxes the graders are trying to check off when they grade your essay, you can figure out what to give them. And that’s what we provide at Test Masters. We have over twenty years of experience preparing kids for the SAT, ACT, AP exams, SAT Subject Tests, and a whole slew of other exams. We know what it takes to get a top score on a DBQ essay like the new SAT essay, and if you aren’t sure how to prepare for the new SAT, we are here to help.

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