The Essay
Who Creates the Essay Prompts?
A cackling cabal of chain-smoking, middle-aged failed writers who have long marinated in the bile of their own bitterness get together to make your innocent lives a living hell.
Well, not really. The essay prompts are actually written by a combination of experienced English teachers, writing experts, and college professors, as well as psychometricians, who work together for a long, long time to create prompts that have the following characteristics. According to The College Board’s criteria, essay prompts must:
  • Allow for an extremely wide variety of possible responses.
  • Be clear enough to enable a reasonably well-developed response in 25 minutes.
  • Be accessible to everyone who takes the SAT, including nonnative speakers.
  • Be free of all jargon and specific technical, scientific, cultural, and literary references.
  • Not be related to a narrow or specific topic, but rather must be relevant to a wide range of areas of knowledge and activities.
  • Not draw on any specific course material or specialized knowledge.
The idea is to provide a prompt that allows millions of test-takers to produce a structured response without providing any unfair advantage to anyone. That’s why the prompts sometimes seem bland.
These criteria reinforce the point made earlier about what evidence, reasons, and examples are fair game. Think about it: if you want to create a fair assessment of students’ writing ability, you’d want to factor out any advantage that knowing a particular fact, theory, or other piece of knowledge would provide. You’d want to train your readers to ignore the content and concentrate on the one feature of writing that can evaluated objectively: how well a student uses language to structure and support an argument.
In a sense, the SAT Essay is really the twenty-first-century version of the old writing assignment, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” Old-school teachers really couldn’t have cared less what you actually did; they simply wanted to see how well you could come up with a coherent piece of writing, regardless of whether you claimed to have built a doghouse, hitchhiked to Alaska, or been abducted by aliens.
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