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Question

Dear Mitch,

I respect and appreciate the fact that you've been addressing the holiday concerns of teachers, parents, and other educators by posting Christmas and Hanukkah questions every time you've recently posted, but I think you should also try to post some things to give hope and help to the thousands of kids who are in the process of preparing for the SAT exam, as well as the SSAT test, and give advice for students in the process of filling out applications, both for college and boarding school.

 

Sincerely,

Ms. Barack

New York, NY

Answer

Dear Ms. Barack,

I agree!

So here are a few things I believe students should consider for the essay portion of both the SAT exam and the SSAT test:

1.  It is better to have a mediocre skeleton than it is to have a brilliant skull when they announce that it is time to put your pencil down.

(In other words, don't lose track of time and the fact that you have to divide that allottment up yourself; otherwise, you could get carried away writing a brilliant introduction at the expense of having enough time left to write the body of the essay and your conclusion.  It is better to get each part done imperfectly than it is to just get through one or two parts masterfully at the expense of having an incomplete argument.)

2. Since the instructions are always the same (i.e., ". . . based upon your experience, the experience of others, or your knowledge of history, current events, or literature. . . ", you would be foolish not to have these instructions memorized beforehand so that you are not wasting valuable seconds "learning" what they want you to do.

3. UNLESS you are TRULY an expert in history and/or current events and/or literature, it is wise to avoid these choices.  Why?  Because the people who are reading the essays (both the ones scoring them on the SAT and the folks on the admissions committees for the SSAT candidates) tend to fancy themselves TRUE experts with decades more experience than any prospective student.  It is a risk to get involved writing on these topics, because while these choices produce the most impressive essays, mixing up a character such as Huck Finn with Tom Sawyer, or taking a political position that is 'common sense' to you but anathema to the reader of your essay presents an additional and unnecessary challenge.  Writing about your own experience has the added ability to interest a reader in something he/she has never heard from a person he doesn't know.  However, beware of the fact that this approach is limited; if you write about your experience growing up in the seventeenth century, for example, when you show up for the interview and appear younger than you would have to have been, the person interviewing you is likely to be confused...

However, with that said, if you keep it withn the bounds of credulity, you are wide open with opportunity for dramatizing an otherwise simple experience.  The fact that you really didn't find your grandfather on his deathbed clutching a pocketwatch with his last utterance of "Don't let time slip away," will not become a material fact; there is no lie detector test on any campus I know of.  But the widest opening is clearly "the experience of others", as when you saw a starving child get fed a frog sandwich before you lept in and offered your finger for dessert but were too late. . . due to his death, is the kind of nonsense that can be shaped and sculpted to fit the essay perfectly and prove your position while fascinating readers across the globe.

4. Probably the most important thing of all to remember is that even though you must choose a side and stick to it (even if your mind/heart switches sides halfway through) you will not come off as a serious thinker if you declare your side 100% right and the other side completely moronic. Instead, the technique to use is this:  Once you pick a side you begin by 'throwing the other side a bone', and then quickly pull that bone away and crush it before moving on.  EXAMPLE:

"While it is true that people often do not stand up for what they believe, the fortunate reality is that enough individuals have taken a public stance and made a difference with their beliefs, despite how unpopular their ideas were at the time.  For example, . . . "

(TO BE CONTINUED, AS I THINK THERE ARE MORE THAN ENOUGH POINTS OUTLINED HERE FOR ANY YOUNG READER TO DIGEST IN ONE SITTING.)

Hope this helps,

Mitch