How to Score Big on the Writing Portion of the New SAT

By Sam Rosensohn

I rushed to Boston in a downpour before dawn to spend the day with a man from the College Board, who’s working to launch the writing section on the new SAT.
Starting next March, for the first time, students will be asked to write an essay on a portion of the new SAT. A perfect score on the new test will be 2400 points compared to the current 1600 points. My aim was to learn how students should write the essay.

For starters, scorers are looking for essays that go beyond the rigid organization of a spool paper, a CMT or CAPT essay.
The writing portion, like the entire SAT, attempts to measure how much students know about the subject at hand and how well they think. The scorers look for original, sincere, complex, authoritative, and innovative thought.

Formulaic essays are generally repetitive, derivative and predictable. Imagine being a scorer and having to read 100 essays and hour, which they do, and seeing yet another mechanical essay that doesn’t surprise or inform. Light bulb after light bulb should click on in a scorer’s head as he reads a paper. The essay should engage and enlighten.

The 25-minute essay should be “a pleasure to read,” which means it should be interesting and offer insight into the subject, Brian Bremen, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told the 22 of us at the College Board’s Regional Office. Each of us shelled out $175 to hear Bremen.

Bremen said SAT scorers are much like judges at a chili contest in Texas, who are looking at a long line of chili dishes. A taste is all the judges take and based on that taste they get a sense of what’s there.

The essays, which the scorers read all the way through, often get stronger, and the scores are instructed to look for that. But a top score starts strong and grows stronger.

Starting next March, the SAT II writing test will be discontinued. The new writing component while based on the old SAT II writing test, is quite different. Bremen likened the old prompts to something out of a fortune cookie.

The new prompts are meatier. They consist of either a pair of quotations or a paragraph up to 80 words. “These prompts will outline a wide range of viewpoints within a single issue and are designed to stimulate critical reflection,” it was noted in the manual we received.

So what to do and how to score big, I asked Bremen during the breaks and after the workshop came to a close. “Take the reader on a ride,” he said. Translation: Readers reward writers who entertain them. If the paper makes important points, but it’s as dull and mechanical as waiting on line at Sears, the score will suffer.

Engaging papers that hold together academically and take the reader to interesting places generally demonstrate high-order thinking, and that’s what drives up a score.        The content, according to the new rubric, should “effectively and insightfully develop a point of view that demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position.”

Bremen suggested that students put themselves in the “middle of it (the prompt), locate yourself, find the big idea within the passage and outline a variety of positions.” Brainy, entertaining and perceptive, Bremen, whose behavior reflected what a good essay should embody, bent over backward to say that any approach to writing an essay would work, if students demonstrated insightful thinking, stayed on topic, built their position and wrote well.

He said it might be better to start with an anecdote from a student’s experience than quoting T. S. Elliot, since the reader might have a different interpretation than the writer. He noted that a personal anecdote, while not only being sincere and authoritative, might prove to be more interesting than a shopworn literary reference, or the ‘here’s what you’re going to read about introduction.’

As for the conclusion, students should not summarize what they spent the entire paper stating. That’s repetitive. There’s lots they can do. They can draw on what they wrote and conclude on a new idea based on the position they took. The paper shouldn’t stop growing until the last word. Any style or approach is fine here, if it effectively demonstrates fresh perception.

The College Board provided this prompt as an example of what will appear on the new SAT: Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below. (Adapted from Allison Kornet, The Truth About Lying)

Relationships depend on honesty. When interacting with friends, family members, loved ones, and strangers, we expect that people will speak truthfully. If people don’t say what they mean, then we cannot build strong, cooperative relationships.

Deception can actually make it easier for people to get along. In a recent study, for example, one out of every four of the lies told by participants was told solely for the benefit of another person. In fact, most lies are harmless social untruths in which people pretend to like someone or something more than they actually do (“Your muffins are the best!”).

Assignment: Do relationships require honesty? Are there situations in which deception can be justified? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience and observations.

So you see what Bremen means by “putting yourself in the middle of it.” He suggests that students think about what is important to them about relationships and honesty and to begin there.

Imagine now you’re a reader for the College Board. Bremen says some readers are scoring 200 papers an hour. Readers for the most part like to read. Think of the eighth grade band director and all the sour notes the players hit. Same for the writing section. A compelling personal anecdote might well bring some relief to the beleaguered reader.

As Bremen said, take the reader on a great ride. Take the reader to places that only you the writer know. That’ll help to raise his spirits and your score.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com