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Lessons from the SAT Essay
Karen Boyd, 8/13/2012

Editor's Note from Susan Richman: Karen Boyd is both our long-time friend, a past PHAA Board member, and very experienced homeschool evaluator in PA. She also now leads our online SAT Essay Preparation course, and has gained so many insights from helping students learn to prepare for the required 25-minute essay. I know you'll all find the life lessons shared here really meaningful. THANKS, Karen, for helping us all gain new perspective. There is still room in Karen's SAT Essay course to help students be ready for the early October 2012 SAT test administration-- just check our Online Store link to register.

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I learned a sad lesson over the last year from my mother in law. After Dad died, Mom lived alone in an apartment at a retirement community. About a year ago she started to have mysterious and sudden weight gains. After appropriate treatment that took care of the edema, the cardiologist told her to get herself weighed every week and then later every day. Mom did this faithfully and showed it to me and anyone else remotely connected to the medical field. Some time near the beginning of this year, I took her to the cardiologist because she was short of breath. While there I realized she had gained twenty pounds and was in very bad shape. The thing is that she had also been told to call the doctor when she gained five pounds. In fact as she tried to show her record of weights to various people I kept telling her that they didn’t care (especially if they were the eye doctor); the purpose was for her to report if she gained weight. She did extremely well at following directions and gathering information. But she missed the need to analyze the information and reach a conclusion.

As a homeschool mom and evaluator, I had the privilege of reading thousands and thousands of pages of student writing. Believe me a lot of it was deadly boring, including some written by my own kids. So often the kids gave a lot of information in excruciating detail. I started to ask the “So what?”question. It meant why is this important? What does it mean? Why does it matter? Why should anyone take the time to read it?

I am not trying to disparage the collection of information. We all need information. Today, information floods us from every direction. But unless we are going to become automatons and do whatever we are told, we need to gather the information and ask ourselves, 'So what?' If we hope our children will influence our culture in the future, they need to be able to consider information and reach and express a conclusion.

That is the first lesson of the SAT Essay. While there is controversy about the validity or effectiveness of the SAT Essay, or the entire test for that matter, it does require an essential skill. The SAT Essay asks students to express a point of view based on examples and evidence they have gathered in their lives. Unlike the AP exams or other subjects, there is not a specific body of information to consider. But those students who do well will know how to consider a matter and reach a well-reasoned conclusion based on some evidence they can recall. This is called a thesis support essay and it requires critical thinking.

It is so easy in education to get bogged down in the facts, just the facts. But, as in my mother-in-law’s case, the facts have limited usefulness without analysis, without reaching some conclusion. The SAT Essay reminds us that education is more than collecting information, but needs to include analysis, insight, and just plain thinking. This is probably the most important lesson to learn, and for us as parents to be sure to teach. Our kids need to look past the many urgent voices and claims around them and be able to reach their own conclusions based on their own evidence, rather than relying on what everyone else says or believes.

Taking the SAT also teaches that there are some very important practical skills in life. First kids must learn to follow directions exactly. It is easy for moms to succumb to the plea, “But I didn’t understand the instructions.” Even in schools, teachers can be persuaded to compromise on instructions or deadlines. In the SAT kids must follow the instructions whether or not they seem to make sense or be important. I will never forget the day in college when I realized I was docked a full letter grade for using a regular pen instead of a rapidiograph on the charts of my thirty-plus page study of the variation in tree species on North Facing Slopes compared to South Facing Slopes. A full letter grade for using the wrong pen! For many homeschool students, the SAT is the first time they are faced with firm deadlines and penalties for not following directions.

The next thing is that speed matters. A young man, whom I will call Jack to protect the innocent, was a great mathematician. His math professors wanted him to change his major to math or at least minor in math. In fact, many students told his mother, whom I will call Jane, that Jack’s tutoring got them through many math classes because his explanations were more clear than the professors’. Jack, however, got “C’s” in most of his math courses in college, and some were “C-”. Why? Jack had trouble finishing his exams on time. Now here is the tricky thing. Jack’s exams were not called timed tests. Many folks believe that timed tests are not that frequent in college. Right? Often the professor will talk awhile, perhaps review something and then hand out the test and say, “Ok you have until the end of the class to finish your test.” There was a time limit and the faster kids got better scores. In the working world, there are usually not official timed tests, but there are often deadlines. Customers will not wait forever for you to meet their needs. Bosses want reports to be finished by a certain time. Jill, Jack’s younger sister, was dismayed when her homeschool curriculum had a sudden and unwelcome upturn in timed assignments.

The speed issue is especially significant in the SAT Essay. To do well on the SAT Essay you must write fast. It is a fact that essays with more words tend to get higher scores. Studies have proven this to be true and critics claim that longer essays that are not as well written get better scores; in other words, the content doesn’t matter as much as the length. There is some validity to this claim. If you are a tired SAT Essay scorer, who spends one or two minutes on each essay and then assigns a score, you can be lulled into a false sense of content by many words that sound good as you read them. On the other hand no matter how hard you try, it is difficult to express great ideas without a lot of words. In first grade you probably read a sentence like: See Spot run. Compare that to: The brown dog galloped across the yard, almost flying as his feet left the ground between strides. Three words compared to seventeen-- which communicates more?

Taking the SAT and getting a great score on it and on the essay, will not guarantee “happily ever after.” Lots of people have satisfying lives with average SAT scores. However, its requirements do emphasize some skills that are important for success in life. The most important of these is to do more than collect information, but think about what it means and what we can learn from it. 


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