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Dear Mitch, 

I teach in a high school in Illinois, and I am part of the team responsible for helping students prepare for college entrance exams, particularly the SAT I exam.  I gather that the writing section, although only a part of the SAT for a few years, is substantially similar to the essay on the SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test), which I understand is one of the tests you have been working with for years preparing students.  In fact, a colleague's daughter took your prep course a number of years ago, and whatever you did in those eight sessions worked like a charm.  The girl was accepted to her first choice school and from there has gone on to further successes.

My question to you is this:  I understand that you have been working with students on the writing section as well as their college essays, and a point which I am told you stress is that students not backtrack on their essays just because they've rethought their position and changed their point of view.  I believe you have been quoted as saying that 'authenticity of commitment to one's point of view is unimportant.  Now, I am sure that I misheard this, or the student relaying it misheard or misunderstood it, because I otherwise I am at a loss to understand how someone such as yourself can teach students that the beliefs they express need not be 'authentic' or true.  Can you please shed light on this for me because I would appreciate your clarifying what you said. 

Thank you, 




Dear Dottie, 

Yes, I think I know the part that was communicated to you differently from the way I believe I expressed the idea to the student(s).

First, I want to be clear about one thing:  Normally, in writing, as in all other forms of self expression, regardless of whether the goal is artistic or the unadorned communication of information or ideas, the importance of authenticity cannot be overstated.  Even in fiction, where the events depicted are imaginary, if a piece does not have a tone, idea, or subject that is of personal importance to the author, one has to wonder why the writer had bothered to compose it, or why a reader would bother to read it. 

HOWEVER, that, as I stated, is 'normally'.  Certain examination settings in which students are required to write for twenty five minutes or so about a topic they have not seen until that moment, is not 'normal' in any way.  The basic format of the essay question on the SAT exam as well as the SSAT exam is this: There is a topic presented in one or two sentences, and it is followed by the instructions to agree or disagree, backing up your position with examples taken from literature, current events, history, one's own experience, and/or the experience of others.  The 'topic' tends to be presented in either some clichéd form, such as the adage, 'Birds of a feather flock together', or it is a quote of a historical figure, literary figure, politician, or a related amalgam.  Many – if not most students – have either never heard the phrase before or have heard it but haven't used it because it's too abstract and detached from anything they would choose to express.  Therefore, several minutes are used to digest the words and consider them.  Then the students follow the instructions, which are clear in their mandate to pick a side (for or against)/agree/disagree), and then they begin to thin k of examples, scribble down a few words to help them recall which examples they hope to use, and outline some form of a short essay.  Now they are left with teen or fifteen minutes remaining.  They write.  And write.  And, more often than you might think, students report discovering that after reading the words spinning off the tip of their pencil, they have an epiphany:  OH!!  WAIT!!  On second/third/fifth consideration of the subject, they realize they see the other 'side's' perspective more clearly, and after another moment of analysis decide that, while close, it is the side not taken that their heart tells them expresses their natural feeling; the side they've been writing about is shallow or less mature than the one they suddenly know to be true for them.  One problem:  four minutes remain.  What to do?

Here is what one must do:  Ignore the new insight for the full four minutes.  You can do it, just suppress your doubts.  Why?  It is an exam that is graded.  Your writing will be given a numerical value, and that value is not a result of having chose the 'better side'.  The questions are designed so that either side is equally arguable in a way that can earn any student full credit.  Later, in interviews and in life, your new understanding of the issue is the one you must express with commitment, but anyone who tries to reverse their SAT essay in a few sweaty moments is not keeping their eye on the ball.  The appropriate approach at that point is to demonstrate your ability to complete a ridiculous task in a ridiculous amount of time for one small segment of a ridiculous test on a ridiculous morning.  Sometimes, there is value in playing a game by its rules, no matter how absurd.  This would be one of those times. 

I hope this clarifies my belief on the subject, and, of course, I hope it helps!