Spring brings showers, flowers, and anxious high-school juniors flocking to the SAT testing hall with No. 2 pencils sharpened. Once upon a time, good grades, recommendations, and an application essay weighed equally with test scores on college applications. But today, increasing mechanization of the process has made the SAT (or ACT) the major factor in whether students are accepted by the university of their choice.
That's a heavy responsibility for a multiple-choice test, so a few years ago the College Board (sponsor and administrator of the SAT) added an essay portion. The ability to write clearly and persuasively has been a leading academic indicator since the Middle Ages; a modern-day preppie who scores high on the essay must surely be well-rounded college material, correct?
An informal experiment by Les Perelman of MIT indicates otherwise. Last fall, Perelman coached an 18-year-old college applicant in the essay portion of the SAT, and saw that student earn a score of 5-one point shy of perfect. The student's essay followed guidelines to the letter, e.g., "using appropriate vocabulary," demonstrating "variety in sentence structure," and avoiding "most errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics." Unfortunately, it was also riddled with historical errors and sloppy reasoning-claiming, for example, that the impetus behind Franklin Delanor [sic] Roosevelt's New Deal was economic competition with Russia, which had driven the U.S. economy to ruin.
In March, Perelman used the essay as Exhibit A in a presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in New York City. His point was that standardizing the essay forces student composition into a narrow range of skills that emphasize style at the cost of substance, and divorce an argument's methods from its value. Far from indicating a student's ability, they actually harm that ability. This at a time freshman composition classes nationwide are swamped with remedial writing students.
Not surprisingly, the College Board disputes Perelman's characterization of what scorers are looking for. But the "strategies for success" on the Board's website don't offer much: "Of course you need to support your ideas appropriately and show that you use language well, but remember: the essay is an opportunity for you to say what you think about an important issue that's relevant to your life. So relax, and be yourself, and you'll do fine."
There's a considerable gap between the first part of that advice and the "be yourself" part. Whatever its merits, the new SAT essay requirement does nothing to fill it.