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!
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 collegeboard.com and how I might apply my examples.
- “Are snap judgments better than decisions to which people give a lot of thought?”
- 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
- 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.
- “Is it better to care deeply about something or to remain emotionally detached?”
- 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.
- 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.
- “Can people who are not famous be better role models than people who are famous?”
- 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.
- 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.
One of my life goals is to be on Jeopardy. I don’t have the encyclopedic trivia knowledge of a Ken Jennings or a Brad Rutter, but I like to think that given the right categories on the right night I could win. I stumbled across a Jeopardy fan forum online a few weeks ago and found a game that intrigued me. The game is called Think Differently. The goal is to give a correct answer that as few of the other players will give as possible.
For instance, if asked to name a U.S. President lots of people would likely name Barack Obama or George Washington, making them less than ideal choices. William Harding or John Tyler would be much better answers as they are far less likely to be chosen by many other competitors. The game asks you to do divergent rather than convergent thinking, which many would argue is a better test of intelligence.
Aside from enjoying the game, I was drawn back to thinking about SAT essays. Imagine a prompt that asks you to discuss a leader with big ambitions. Who would you talk about?
Take a minute and think about it and then scroll down.
I hope you didn’t say MLK or Hitler. Unfortunately, the chances are very good that one or both of those men popped into your head, and they certainly fit the category. However, they’re such obvious answers that they are likely to headline thousands of answers. Consciously or not, graders are likely to compare what you have to say about Hitler or MLK about what others are said, and you are very unlikely to have done the best analysis of either man in the thousands of essays that are out there. So I encourage you to think differently.
Instead of MLK and Hitler, what if I discussed Woodrow Wilson and Chip Kelly? Wilson had grand ambitions for the League of Nations in the post-WWI world as a steadying force that might prevent a global conflict. Kelly believed that a fast-paced spread attack could work just as well in the NFL as it had in college football. Both men are leaders with big ambitions and both give you a great opportunity to discuss the themes presented in the prompt. They’re also much less likely to be cited by many other test-takers. Your analysis of Woodrow Wilson or Chip Kelly is very likely to be the best analysis of those leaders that your grader reads all day. By thinking differently you can differentiate yourself, lessen the competition and improve your chances of getting a great score.
Stay tuned for the next blog in this series in which I describe how you can prepare to give unique answers.