How to hook your reader blog - SAT
Part I - The SAT and literary analysis.
There is no way to be absolutely sure of pleasing your essay reader. Whoever reads your essay, of course, will be guided by an extensive rubric, but there is no way around the fact that good writing is largely a subjective judgement.
Just read a few “great” authors talking about other “great” authors. Mark Twain said that it seemed “a great pity that they let Jane Austen die a natural death.” He also said that reading Pride and Prejudice made him want to dig up Austen and “hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.”
Michael Crichton said that he became suspicious of a English professor’s skills - or maybe motives - when he received C’s on every one of his papers. So he tested his theory by putting his own name on a George Orwell essay on Gulliver’s Travels and turning it in. Orwell got a B-, and Crichton switched to anthropology.
Now, there is a question to be answered first before you spend a minute prepping for your essay: Should you even sign up for the essay?
A recent op-ed in the LA Times said that only 27 colleges even require an essay score. Harvard and Dartmouth have both dropped the requirement, and that seems to be the way the trend is going. So if you’re sure that none of the colleges you’re applying to will ask for an essay score, why bother?
The other side of the coin, though, is that you never know when things might change. You might find yourself interested in one of those 27 schools after you’ve taken your test, and you’d hate to have to go back to the drawing board if that happened.
OK, so back to hooking your reader. If you do decide to write an essay, there is a sort of best bet when it comes to writing it: Don’t be a slave to the rules.
In general, high school English classes will teach the skills required to write a literary analysis that will satisfy the SAT standards. But it will help you decide the tone of your work if you think of who will be reading your essay, and what they’re going through. These people have to read hundreds of these things, and most of the entries will not be sparkling with interesting prose; It’s very likely that they’ll be worn out by the time they see your work. So help yourself and your score by making things interesting and bending the rules a bit.
We have a friend who teaches six periods of English classes. He dreads the days when all of the essays come in. Forget the bad writing. That’s relatively simple to grade. The ones that give him a headache are the ones that are technically correct, but lifeless.
This doesn’t mean you need to put on a clown suit and become a full blown entertainer. But it sure can’t hurt to be sure that your writing is interesting.
In other words, hook your reader. Give them a great first impression of you before they have a chance to start heading for the aisles.
In your classes, you might be lucky, and have a really vivacious teacher who spends time weeding out the dull, and pushing students toward verve and panache. But probably not. Most of them, even the good ones, have their hands full just covering the basics of good writing in the course of a 55 minute class for five days a week.
So if you don’t feel well schooled in hooking your reader, then there is a really great way to learn if for yourself: Find the kind of writing that always hooks you.
Here’s how Gabriel Garcia Marquez made his reader feel like his Chronicle of a Death Foretold would be worth reading past the first page:
“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.”
How’s that for getting hooked?
Or how about Chuck Palahniuk’s opening line in fight club?
“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”
And here’s his opener from Choke:
“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.”
Or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, not straying far from the title, but still catching your attention.
“I am an invisible man."
Don’t these lines make you want to find out what happens next, rather than making you feel you’re in for a chore? It doesn’t matter who your reader is, no one wants to spend time reading something that won’t feel worth the time.
Here are a couple of college essay openers we culled from a few Internet lists:
"Who else’s identity can really be constructed by the calculus of fragmented memories? Not mine!
“I change my name each time I place an order at Starbuck’s.”
Or try the opening paragraph from an essay by Mary Ruefle, a poet:
“I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility. Part of what I mean—what I think I mean—by “imbecility” is something intrinsically unnecessary and superfluous and thereby unintentionally cruel. It was a Master who advised that we speak little, better still say nothing, unless we are quite sure that what we wish to say is true, kind, and helpful. But how can a poet, whose role is to speak, adhere to this advice? How can anyone whose role is to facilitate language speak little or say nothing?”
Of course you are writing for academic readers, so there will be rules to follow. But they’re also human, and like other humans they want to be interested, to have their curiosity aroused.
And go into this knowing that you can both hook your reader brilliantly, and still follow the rules. Loosely. If you’re a little shy about putting your reader off by making your writing too spicy, then find your comfort zone by dialing it down a bit, and adhering a little more closely to the rules. But remember, if your reader is bored - even by the most technically perfect essay - they probably won’t be in a great mood when deciding what score to give you.
Next time we’ll talk about the differences - the huge differences - between the SAT and ACT essays. They’re large enough, in fact, that the type of essay you prefer to write could help you decide which of the tests you would prefer to take.
The last thing any student wants is to have to start any standardized test at a disadvantage. These tests are normed, which means that scores are judged by comparison with other students’ scores.
Students with any physical or learning issues, or who are still learning English, might be eligible for special accommodations on a test, and must take advantage of the opportunity.
Both the SAT and ACT have clearly defined rules to determine who will be granted accommodations. So what do you need to do to determine your student’s eligibility?
First, get an early start. Both the SAT and ACT will require solid documentation before they allow any accommodation. This usually requires diagnosis and testing by a certified professional, and a record of the history of accommodations allowed by the student’s school. To be sure that your case is well supported, it’s best that students complete an evaluation by 10th grade. Then stay on top of things: Be sure to find out if the diagnosis will need to be updated before the test date.
The College Board, who produces the SAT exam, warns that the application process can take up to seven weeks. So it’s crucial to start things going long before the test date. Not only will this help ensure that your notification will be received in time, but, just as importantly, it will help determine how you should prepare for the exam, since anyone who is granted an accommodation should practice for the test under exactly those conditions.
One nice thing about College Board’s policy is that that anyone approved for accommodations on one College Board exam is automatically approved for any other, such as AP, or SAT subject exams.
And schools are usually prepared to work with parents when it comes time to apply for accommodations, so you might save a lot of legwork by talking to your school’s administration first.
Students taking the SAT may request an extra 50%, 100%, or in some cases an extra 150% time allotment.
The College Board also recommends considering a request for extra breaks, rather than extended time, as an accommodation for students with conditions such as diabetes, which will not specifically slow performance.
And if you have requested an accommodation for extended time, be ready to spend the entire time in the testing site. No one will be allowed to leave early, and those with extended time accommodations will not be allowed to move on to the next section until the entire time allotment of time for each section has passed.
And if you believe that your student requires any accommodation beyond extended time, include that request when you submit your application.
The ACT has two forms of accommodation for extended time: National extended time, and specialized testing.
National extended time is commonly granted when qualifying students are able to take the exam in a standard test center. This status allows an extra 50% of the allotted time to complete each section, or a total of five hours to complete the multiple choice sections, and one hour to complete the writing section.
If a student cannot take the exam in a standard testing center, or requires more than 50% extended time, special testing should be requested.
Here are some examples of the accommodations available from the ACT and SAT:
Students with issues that may cause them to perform slowly on a test may be granted extended time.
Hearing or visual issues
Visually impaired students may apply to receive braille, or enlarged print testing materials, or may request audio aids, such as a reader, or a DVD or MP3 audio test format.
Students who see well enough to read, but who read slowly, should also look into requesting extended time.
Most of the instruction before and during the exam will be given orally, so hearing impaired students should request written instructions, or preferential seating to allow lip reading.
A Few Other Examples
As competition for admission to college heats up, it becomes even more important for students to insure they don’t begin the process a step behind.