Think Differently: Part III


Thank you for those of you who have patiently waited for the third installment of this series. As promised, today I’ll give you the rundown on the best sources for example topics so that you can start gathering them before your test day. Without further ado, here are the top three sources!

1. Literature- Many of your essay graders are going to have a strong background with literature, so using examples from that category are going to be well-received when done well. The warning that comes with this category is that the best literature tends to make the best examples. I have read examples from graphic novels (let’s just call them comic books) and books like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”. Any lessons we can glean from these sources isn’t going to be afforded the same weight as Shakespeare and Dickens. If you aren’t currently reading anything that can be categorized as good literature, think about picking up a new book and challenging yourself. It’ll do you good far beyond the SAT essay.

2. History- The benefit of historical examples is that your graders are going to have a good idea of the background facts needed to set the scene for the situation you present. That means that you can spend less time setting up your example and more time doing the analysis of how your example fits the prompt. As I mentioned in my earlier post, as long as you avoid the cliche and overused example you have a wide selection to choose from, as nearly all historical examples are useful and powerful when tied well to the prompt.

3. Current events- This is a category that’s often overlooked as a source of examples. I think that may be because high school students are so busy in their own world that they aren’t as aware of the world events happening around them. If you can take the time to read the news for a few weeks before your test you are very likely to come across current examples that are relevant to your prompt. Current event examples are especially useful when used with historical examples because it shows that your position has a broad applicability through time.

Keep these sources in mind as you start thinking about potential essay topics!

 Think Differently: Part II


In my last blog I described how you might use the technique of thinking differently to different your essay examples from other test-takers in order to raise your scores. In this blog I’ll discuss how you can prepare to do that successfully.


Let’s face it. Woodrow Wilson and Chip Kelly may not be the first names that come to mind when you think of leaders. That’s part of what makes them good choices. The names that come to mind quickly are likely to come to the minds of others quickly as well. But if the answers we want are hard to come up with, how do we get to them within the constraints of a timed test?


The answer is to come up with a series of possible examples before the test. Without knowing what prompt you will be given, that seems impossible. However, most topics and stories have wide applicability. Having a set of things I know well and can discuss easily gives me some choices when the prompt is revealed rather than forcing me to go with the obvious choices.


For example, here are three non-traditional essay topics I know a good deal about and can discuss easily:


-          The Presidency of Andrew Johnson

-          Marbury v. Madison

-          The US Men’s National Team in the 2014 World Cup


Not every example will fit every prompt, but here are three sample prompts I’ve pulled from and how I might apply my examples.


  1. “Are snap judgments better than decisions to which people give a lot of thought?”
  1. Snap judgments are not better because John Marshall’s careful thoughtful decision was able to create a system of judicial review without upsetting the executive branch
  2. Snap judgments are better because as the US Men’s National Team showed, teams that can make decisions on instinct are able to move forward before their opponents can adapt.
  1. “Is it better to care deeply about something or to remain emotionally detached?”
  1. It is better to remain emotionally detached as shown by Andrew Johnson’s struggles as president, because he followed his personal feelings about how African-Americans should be treated after the Civil War rather than considering how the nation could best move forward.
  2. It is better to care deeply about something because as the USMNT showed in the World Cup, even when there is disappointment in the end, the ride is much sweeter.
  1. “Can people who are not famous be better role models than people who are famous?”
    1. People who are not famous can be better role models because they are subject to less scrutiny. For instance, Andrew Johnson the tailor may have been a great role model for young boys in Tennessee, but as President intense scrutiny revealed his dislike for federal recognition of former slaves as citizens.
    2. People who are famous can be better role models because they can bring visibility to a cause. Tim Howard’s advocacy for Tourette Syndrome has brought about much more understanding about the disease than if Tim were not famous.


Those are just a few examples, but I hope they’re a good start to get you thinking about this topic.


Next time, I’ll help you think about how to start building up your own list of potential essay topics.

 It’s Not All About You—Avoid First Person

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Do you enjoy hearing people talk all about themselves? “Me this and me that. I went here. I’ve been there. I know what we should do. Look what I just bought. Well, I think that…” On and on and on they go completely unaware that a conversation involves listening—oblivious to the eye rolls and disinterested sighs of their cornered interlocutors.

Writing is no different. Your reader doesn’t want to constantly hear you talking about yourself, making reference to yourself, or driving home your opinion. Readers want balance and honesty. They want a compelling style and a humble narrator.

Take this paragraph as an example:

I find it hard to focus when I know that there are so many problems in the world. Sometimes I can’t even get through my day when I think about the disease and war and starvation that plagues our world that we see constantly because of our instantaneous consumptive media world. But should I be worried? Should I try to push these ideas from my mind to focus on my life? Theses issues are so vast and huge and complex, I don’t think there is anything I can do. But maybe there is something I can do, however small and insignificant it may seem.

Notice how the paragraph changes when first person is removed. No longer is the focus on the writer; the focus is on the larger picture. The points are more concise and compelling freed from a subjective experience.

The world is full of problems. Disease and war and starvation plague the world and are more visible in our instantaneous consumptive media world. Should people react with concern? Should they try to push these ideas from their mind to focus on their lives? Theses issues are so vast and huge and complex, some may think there is nothing to be done. But there is always something that can be done, however small and insignificant it may seem.


Now this doesn’t mean you can’t use first person and reference yourself, but this should be done occasionally and thoughtfully, and it should generally not be in the form of “I think,” or “I believe,” or “I feel.” Good authors don’t do this because they take the time to craft sentences and paragraphs that make it clear how they feel. And the really good writers make it subtle, couching their opinion in structure and adjectives, letting the reader decipher their opinion. And the reason for doing this? To let the reader make their own decision. No one wants to be told what to believe. Readers are people and want to decide for themselves. Aim to empower your reader—not pontificate at them.

For example, this sentence is too much:

I believe that chocolate ice cream is the best type of ice cream ever created.

The whole thing is one big opinion. When a writer uses words like “the best” or “ever created,” objectivity has been subsumed in subjectivity. Assume that your reader is smart enough to realize this and remove “I believe” from your sentence because ultimately it’s redundant.

Chocolate ice cream is the best type of ice cream ever created.


The acceptable times to use “I” are when you want to remind your reader that you are like them, that you too are human, are passionate and compassionate, or are trying to commiserate with the reader. Notice the subtle use of “I” to allow the writer to connect with the reader.

The recent discovery of U.S. spying, and especially with the cooperation of large tech companies like Facebook and Google, has reignited questions of privacy on the Internet. This is an important conversation to have, and one that I am glad to engage in, since it involves not only protection of privacy, but also the trade off between rights and security. A fundamental question that we all must grapple with. How much do I want to give up in order to be safe? The answer to this question will be different for each person, but after 9/11, and more recently Boston, everyone agrees that some of our privacy should be sacrificed for protection—we just need to decide how much.


If you are writing a letter to a friend, a personal email, a note to your mom, or a love poem, feel free to use first person. These are the appropriate times to use “I” in your writing. But do so sparingly. It will improve your style. Ultimately, the recommendations in this post are for more formal settings, like papers for school, work emails, and timed essays for tests.



 @DanaGoats: You’re right! 30 Minutes is not Enough Time



I couldn’t agree with you more, @DanaGoats. Thirty minutes is an egregious amount of time for writing an essay. Some of the topics are so broad, expansive, and complex that you could write a whole book on the issue. Here is a great example: “As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.” This issue is so difficult to understand and grasp and that to really know, and to really provide a strong reasoned essay, you would need time, like a few months, maybe years. I mean, this issue is discussed in this article, this article, this abstract, this book, and this book. And that is only a small sampling.

So how do we deal with only thirty minutes for an essay?

First the graders understand the pressure that you are under. According to ETS, “Although the GRE readers who score your essays understand the time constraints under which you write and will consider your response a first draft, you still want it to be the best possible example of your writing that you can produce under the testing conditions.” They consider your writing a first draft. As such, an essay could contain a misspelled word or an errant comma and still receive a perfect score. That being said, you should save time to revise and correct your essay. If they see errors repeated throughout the essay, they will knock down your score.

Second, they are not really testing your essay writing skill. According to them, “The Analytical Writing measure tests your critical thinking and analytical writing skills. It assesses your ability to articulate and support complex ideas, construct and evaluate arguments, and sustain a focused and coherent discussion.” Not to say that this makes it easier, but they are more interested in your ideas than your grammar (this is not a license to neglect grammar). They want to see coherence and development—not a fabricated essay format or a research paper. They want to see analytical skills and critical thought.So in thirty minutes, ETS can make some assumptions about what kind of thinker and writer you are.

Third, imagine that you are crafting a business email for a prospective client. You want to come off clear and precise. You don’t want to be too formal, but you don’t want slang and idioms to crowd the email. Also, you know that the client will appreciate a stylistically clear and grammatically correct email. ETS is no different, so trying approaching the essay as an email for a potential client, not an essay for school.

Finally, you have opportunities to prepare for this essay so that you can really focus your time on test day. The preparation you do now will only benefit you when you have the thirty minute pressure weighing down on you. Here is a collection of articles that can help you prepare for the essays on the GRE.

  1. Outlines for Timed Essays: Establish outlines for potential essays before test day so that you don’t have to think about it during the test. Just use an outline you have already mapped out and fill it with the specifics of the prompt in front of you.
  2. Coming up with Examples for Timed Essays: Start generating examples now. ETS publishes example prompts for the Issue essay and Argument essay that will be very similar to what you will see on the test. Come up with examples and organize them based on topic. That way, you won’t have to spend a lot of time thinking of good examples on test day.
  3. Perfection through Revision: Save time to revise. This may be the difference between a 3 or a 4 on the test. Nothing comes out perfect the first time, so make sure you pace yourself  and spend time to edit and revise your writing.
  4. Identifying Common Flaws and Part II: For the argument analysis essay, make sure that you are aware of the common argument flaws and fallacies that pop up on the test.

In the end Dana, your essay skills are not being tested. ETS is testing you on a very particular type of writing that you really are only going to do once. But the skills for success on the writing measure, like preparation, planning, and revision, are skills that you will use again in the future. So don’t approach it like an essay for school. This is something unique, but requires a similar skill set.

Good luck!