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An Interview with Tom Clements: Writing a Good SAT Essay

Feb 7, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Tom, in your mind, why is it important to write a good SAT essay?

It’s important to write a good SAT for two reasons. First, the essay score is folded into a student’s overall Writing score on the SAT and thus contributes to the final overall score, which in turn is used by college admissions officers for undergrad acceptance. But over and above the numeric contribution of the essay to SAT scores, there’s a psychological component that’s equally important.

It turns out that the very first section of the SAT is the essay section. Students are faced with two pages of terrifying white space with only 25 minutes to write a narratively robust, logically cohesive, and coherent essay from scratch. Nerve-wracking, to say the least. Kids who get off to a shaky start on the essay have a hard time regrouping during the rest of the test. Conversely, students who handle the essay with confidence and conviction find that the rest of the test falls into place more easily.

I use a sports metaphor with my students to emphasis this: athletes like basketball players who hit their first couple of three-point shots, or swimmers who get quickly off the blocks, or football players that get in their first solid hits, all of these players do better overall in the game. The trick is to get into the Zone from the outset. And dominating the essay helps students focus and perform efficiently on the remainder of the test.

2) How well prepared do you think the average high school student is to write that essay?

Unfortunately, high school students are woefully unprepared to turn out a 25 minute essay from scratch. 25 minutes is a miserly amount of time to fill up two pages of white space with wisdom and insight. Moreover, students are not given a chance to edit their essays. The essay is strictly a one-shot deal, where kids have 25 minutes to make it or break it. This is much different than classroom writing assignments outside the typical classroom where students have time to consider their thesis and supporting examples and, most importantly, time to edit their final paper. No such luck on the SAT essay.

 3) How much writing is going on in the schools to prepare students to write a robust, cogent, coherent essay?

From my perspective, not enough. For one thing, grammar is a lost art so kids come to see me who are deficient in syntax and need remedial help, which I provide in a paper with “8” main grammar rules. In addition, students don’t really know how to compose an impressive introduction that provides context for their thesis. I teach students to start their intros with broad, sweeping statements and to fold in quotes and anecdotes to establish context before stating their thesis. This gives the writing so much more depth and sophistication.

4) In your opinion, when should writing begin?

Writing should begin as early as fourth grade. In fact, I recall vividly how Sister Germainus, my fourth grade teacher, had the class write an essay on “anything they held dear”. Well, when I was ten, comic books and science fiction were dear to me so I wrote an imaginary essay on space visitors from Arcturus. The good sister was kind enough to hold my essay up as a model for the class. After that, I thought writing was fun. Teachers need to let school children use their imagination as a creative means for expressing thoughts in writing.

 5) When should schools be teaching writing, and how much homework should be devoted to writing?

As soon as students can compose paragraphs, they are ready to start writing on their own. Quantity is more important in the early stages of writing than quality. The important thing is to make the writing process smooth and easy by letting kids write about what interests them. It’s not necessary to “over correct” kids in middle school. Simply assigning essays every week on whatever topic interests a student is a good way to initiate interest. The most important part for the development of any young writer is just to “keep the pencil moving”. Later, in high school, qualitative assessments and editing fundamentals can be introduced.

 6)  I know that correct grammar, syntax, spelling, sentence structure and the like is time consuming and labor intensive. How can you turn this chore around?

Earlier, I mentioned the 8 main grammar rules I teach my students. These involve simple but powerful syntactic elements like subject-verb agreement, use of subordination to make the writing more fluid, emphasis on concrete details, emphasis on parallel structure and elimination of things like misplaced modifiers and vague or indefinite pronouns. I avoid academic jargon like “introductory participial phrases and clauses” and instead  couch my rules in easy to remember, street-smart phrases like “Leaking Oil” (for misplaced modifiers), “Apples and Oranges” (for parallel structure) and “Mix and Match” for subject-verb agreement. I also provide lots of examples of both the right AND the wrong way to construct sentences. I think it’s important for students to understand what’s wrong with various sentence structures in order for them to self-edit and improve their own writing styles.

 7) It takes time to be a good mathematician, a good musician, and a good writer. How can you assist high school students in a very brief period of time?

Well, I wrote my book called “How to Write a Killer SAT Essay in 25 Minutes or Less” in order to address this very problem. A brief time period — 25 minutes or less — is what I teach my students to handle in my SAT program.

My SAT course runs 14 weeks with one two-hour class per week. In the very first class, I use my book as a springboard to teach all the fundamentals kids need to incorporate into their essays. These include structure, subordination, transitions (both within and between paragraphs), flash vocabulary, and extensive use of concrete detail. But it’s not just me talking. The really valuable part of my book are the dozens of real-world examples sprinkled throughout the text.

I firmly believe that “learning by modeling” is the best method for teaching writing. In my book and in my class, I discuss and analyze real top-scoring essays from my previous students in order that my current students can see how the game is played in order to better play it themselves. I then have them write four or five essays for me over the course of the program. I comment on the kids’ work and give them writing pointers. Learning by listening, learning by modeling, and learning by doing — these are the components I use to turn out top-scoring SAT writers.

Finally, I have my students pre-fabricate their essay content. The key to beating the SAT clock is to be well armed on the day of battle. My book describes how to structure an essay ahead of time and provides students with prefabricated content examples that allow them to move quickly from one paragraph to the next. By preparing their content ahead of the actual test, kids are able to fill two pages of white space with a minimum of fear and loathing. Students arrive at the test ready to rock and roll with over 80% of their essay prepared ahead of time.

 8) Let’s talk mistakes—taking the test too early or too late- what are the pros and cons?

First of all, junior year is a year of exponential academic growth. High school kids spend their first two years adjusting to the stress of academic life, learning not only the study skills they need to stay on top of math, science, English, and history courses, but also learning to deal with peer pressure, social networking (on and off line), activities, sports and, most importantly, time management. For the vast majority of students, it’s only junior year when things — academic and otherwise — start to gel and the learning curve begins to spike.

To take the best advantage of this exponential spike in learning, it’s important for kids to take the SAT toward the end of their junior year, when math, reading and writing skills are optimized. This is the time of peak performance. Consequently, I have all my students take the test twice, both in March AND in May.

And it’s not just academics that receive a junior year boost; it’s also psychological attributes like focus and maturity, two qualities essential to success on a standardized test like the SAT. The SAT is a marathon, roughly four hours long, and test takers need not only focus to deal with the 10 different sections of the test but also the maturity to pace themselves and not give in to distractions, frustrations, and ennui.

In my opinion, there really are no benefits to taking the test too early.

9) What do you mean by a “killer essay“?

In high-school speak, Killer means “cool” or “awesome”. A Killer SAT essay is a top-scoring essay that students compose in 25 minutes or less to impress SAT readers with their composition skills and to get off on the right track with their SAT test. A Killer SAT receives a score of 10 or above with 12 being a perfect score. The national average for SAT essays is 7.3. Students in my program average double digit scores, with many receiving 11s and 12s.

10 ) How much responsibility should teachers have for teaching writing, and who makes sure that they actually provide feedback on student writing?

Think I covered this in #6 above.

11)    What have I neglected to ask — (here’s one) — The essay topics change from one SAT test to another. How do you prepare your students to handle a variety of different topics.

SAT prompts are broad based and general. The College Board intentionally makes these prompts open-ended so that students from across the nation can write a coherent essay around a topic not unduly esoteric. Although the  prompts differ from test to test, there are some underlying themes can be anticipated. Here are some sample prompts from SAT tests over the past few years that demonstrate this:

Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today? Does progress depend on people with new ideas rather than on people whose ideas are based on the traditional way of doing things? Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority

I teach my students that in some sense, all SAT prompts boil down to a fairly simple premise: show how some obstacle was met or struggle resolved. Show how some progress, either individual, social or both was achieved. Because my students pre-fabricated content examples all involve DRAMA to some degree or other, students come to understand how to massage and mold their writing to whatever prompt the SAT throws at them.

Thanks for your time. Tom Clements

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