Reading 142 high-school essays a week (my summer job) is like overhearing one end of a phone conversation: You can tell what's being said on the other end by what's filtering through on yours. I haven't set foot in the classroom of this SAT preparation school except to pick up and drop off on Tuesdays and Fridays, but it took only the first few bluebooks to discern the test-busting formulas dispensed in Ms. G's room.
The Educational Testing Service in its redoubtable wisdom (and perhaps in capitulation to California higher learning institutions, which threatened in 2001 to drop the admissions criteria as culturally outmoded) added in 2005 a 25-minute writing section to the already-dreaded College Board bugbear. Lucky for me I took the thing in 1968 because I would score 0 on a possible 6 today, turning in a blank page save for neurotic scribbles of horses.
Do you have any idea how long it takes me to write an essay? First I have to have all the dishes done and the beds made, I need to have a glass of water, to pace, and to check all my email. Anne Lamott has a chapter in Bird by Bird devoted solely to "Lousy First Drafts," except she doesn't use the word "lousy."
Therefore one cannot be too self-righteous toward an SAT prep school when one realizes it is devoted to ways of beating the system rather than to teaching good writing. (I am reminded of the question posed by a lackey in Cruella DeVil's fashion design emporium in 101 Dalmatians: "Do we like stripes this year?")
Evidently, the "stripes" that the College Board judges like this year are as follows: statement of opinion and quick mentions of two supporting examples in paragraph 1, elaboration on said examples in subsequent paragraphs. This could conceivably work, I suppose. But a technique, like a gun, in the hands of someone not properly trained will misfire. Edmond Rostand undoubtedly had the SAT writing section in mind when in 1897 he penned the scene in Cyrano de Bergerac where the handsome but uninspired Christian woos Roxane in her balcony with poetry whispered to him by the homely but talented Cyrano behind the bushes. The delivery is laughably wooden. All of this will have to be deprogrammed in college or journalism school.
Here are two typical samples in answer to the topic question, "Do people achieve more by cooperation than by competition?":
Sample 1: "People should always cooperate to get what they want. In American history, America became independent due to its cooperation with the French. In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, the main characters Gene and Finny exemplify the dark side of competition. Thus, cooperation should be preferred over competition."
Sample 2: "I agree that people can achieve more by cooperation rather than competition. From the democracy formed by kids in Lord of the Flies to the sailor Edmund Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, people achieve more through cooperation." (Lord of the Flies comes up a lot in this stack I'm grading; the book must be having a renaissance.)
"Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools?"
Answer to the Professor: The College Board reader will spend one minute on each essay, so other qualities of writing are more imperative-notably length. Les Perelman of M.I.T. studied the new test and got good at guessing a student's score by how long the essay was, even from across the room! Perelman concluded about the exercise, "It does harm," and exclaimed, "Chase the money changers from the temple!" of academia. (Well, he's assuming the rest of academia isn't neck deep in the same mire.)
Perelman's Bible quote is my segue into the most disheartening observation of all: I don't know these kids but I know their parents. They're Christians, or at least they go to doctrinally sound churches. But there is nary a trace of a Christian perspective in any of the 142 essays I read. This is either another deliberately inculcated SAT-taking strategy to pander to the Princeton reader or it is evidence of a thought compartmentalization that divorces critical thinking from biblical thinking. I don't know which is worse.
Next suggested essay writing topic: "Is it better to gain the world and to lose your soul?"