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
- Allow for an extremely wide variety of possible
- 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
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
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