Monday, February 23, 2004
167 is a bigger number than 159
To receive a high score a student should write a long essay of three or more paragraphs, with each paragraph containing topic and concluding sentences and at least one sentence that includes the words 'for example.' Whenever possible the student should use polysyllabic words where shorter, clearer words would suffice. The SAT essay will not be a place to take rhetorical chances. Flair will win no points; the highest-scoring essays will be earnest, long-winded, and predictable.
Unless The Princeton Review's work has gone into the toilet in the five years since they bought me 150 points on the GRE, this advice is probably pretty good.
But the point of the article isn't to help readers (or their children) get into selective colleges. No, they're making fun of the standard. They trot out passages from several famous authors -- Hemingway, Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Unabomber -- and evaluate each using the College Board's criteria. Predictably, the Unabomber gets the best score.
It took me awhile to get the joke. They started out with Hemingway, and I thought it was supposed to be an example of really bad writing that nevertheless received a high score.
Frankly, the authors could learn a thing or two about signposting.
Here's the evaluation of Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage" bit:
Reader's evaluation: This essay is poorly organized, with only one paragraph (though, to Mr. Shakespeare's credit, the topic sentence does speak to what the rest of the sentences in his one paragraph are about). It is riddled with errors in syntax, incomplete sentences being the most noticeable problem. Although his supporting sentences are vivid in their description, they are vague and general, not true examples. And he unfortunately spells "honor" with the extraneous "u." Grade: 2 out of 6
I'd venture to say that any student who writes in Elizabethan English on a standardized test doesn't have room to complain. Speaking as someone who occasionally wades through trackless swamps of undergraduate prose, 'earnest, long-winded, and predictable' sounds like something to strive for.
But I'm biased. The College Board is going to hire thousands of part-time readers to grade the essays, and I'm hoping to sop up some of that gravy.