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Writing on the Topic: Three Approaches
Please Note:
The last administration of the SAT II Writing was on 1/22/05. Beginning 3/12/05, parts of the SAT II Writing test will be included in the New SAT. You should be studying the New SAT book. Go there!
Writing on the Topic: Three Approaches
The three different ways ETS presents the Topic require three slightly different approaches. Let’s go through them one by one.
The Two-Statement Topic
Here’s the typical Two-Statement Topic we showed you earlier:
Consider carefully the following statements. Then plan and write your essay as directed.
“The government should never limit personal freedoms.”
“In some cases, it is necessary for the government to limit personal freedoms.”
Assignment: In an essay, discuss one of the two statements above, supporting your views with an example or examples from science, art, history, literature, current events, or your own experience or observation.
Understand the Topic
First, as always, make sure you understand the Topic. Here, the important phrase to consider is personal freedoms. This phrase demands interpretation. ETS chooses the general topic for you, but personal freedoms is a broad concept, and it’s up to you to narrow it. Maybe you want to discuss the freedoms mentioned in the Constitution—bearing arms, assembling, speaking freely. Maybe you want to discuss freedom from governmental prying. Whatever personal freedoms you end up writing about, it is crucial to think about and narrow the Topic before you do anything else.
Pick a Statement
The Two-Statement Topic asks you to discuss one of the two statements, so after chewing on the terms of the Topic for a moment, you’ll need to decide which statement you’d rather defend. You certainly don’t have to defend the statement you actually support; pick whichever statement you think you can defend more successfully. Think of yourself as a lawyer equally skilled at defending both the clients you admire and believe in, and the clients you despise and find odious. Even if, in your innermost soul, you think the government should never limit personal freedoms, you don’t necessarily have to defend the corresponding statement. If you think you could do a better job defending the statement you don’t actually support—that government should sometimes limit personal freedoms—by all means, defend that one.
Choose Example(s)
In the case of the Two-Statement Topic, it’s often a good idea to use two or three different examples. The directions ask you to “support your views with an example or examples from science, art, history, literature, current events, or your own experience or observation.” This laundry list of suggested topics implies that multiple examples are welcome.
Write an Outline
Suppose you decide to defend the first Topic statement: “The government should never limit personal freedoms.” You narrow the idea of personal freedoms to include only freedom of speech. You think of a few examples: Martin Luther King Jr. and Jerry Falwell. Your outline will sketch out what you want each paragraph to prove. The outline might look something like this:
  • intro: gov’t shouldn’t limit freedoms, esp. freedom of speech, b/c it would impede progress
  • 1st paragraph: MLK Jr. wasn’t silenced by gov’t even tho. his views were controversial
  • 2nd paragraph: Jerry Falwell offensive but important for him to have free speech or where do we draw the line?
  • conclusion: even if views are offensive to some, free speech necessary
This outline doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense, but it made sense to whoever wrote it, which is the sole purpose of an outline. No one will judge you on the clarity and beauty of your outline. It is for your sole benefit.
Write the Essay
Your first paragraph should start with a fairly broad sentence that lets the reader know, in general terms, what the essay will be about. The second and third sentences should narrow that topic and clearly lay out the main idea of the paper.
The second paragraph should begin by introducing the first example and explaining how it relates to your main idea. The body of the second paragraph should develop the example. Try to provide interesting and relevant details about the example, instead of talking about it in vague terms.
The third paragraph should begin by introducing the second example and explaining how it relates to your main idea. Like the second paragraph, the body of the third paragraph should develop the example by using interesting and relevant details.
The final paragraph, which need be no longer than two or three sentences, should provide a small summary, and should synthesize the information in some slightly new way. Do not use the final paragraph to simply repeat what you’ve said elsewhere in the essay. Try to broaden the scope just a little bit in the last paragraph.
Sample Essay
As you read this sample essay, pay attention to its structure, organization, examples, and prose. Look for the ways in which the essay is successful, and the places where it might need improvement. Our analysis follows the essay.
One of the benefits that Americans enjoy is the freedom of speech. Free speech is one of the most treasured personal freedoms we possess. The United States government must never limit freedom of speech, even when those speaking have a controversial or upsetting message. To limit freedom of speech would be to impede progress.
      Martin Luther King Jr. had a message that upset many people. He said, in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, that we should judge people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He also said that black people’s justifiable indignation should not lead to violence. Both of these ideas, especially the first, seem like conventional wisdom today. There is hardly anyone who would say that we should judge men and women by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. And most people agree that nonviolent protest is the answer, rather than responding to bad treatment with physical retaliation. But at the time, Martin Luther King Jr.’s message was extremely controversial. Many people objected to the idea of equality for blacks and whites; many people objected to the idea that protest should be nonviolent. But rather than censor King, the government let him speak. In fact, King delivered his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in the heart of the government. Because he was not silenced by the government, King was able to make a huge contribution to the civil rights movement. Our nation became more morally sound because he was able to express his ideas freely.
      Jerry Falwell is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He preaches messages that strike many people as full of hate and anger. He often speaks against women and homosexuals. But even though many people disagree with what Falwell stands for, the government cannot interfere with his right to free speech. He has a right to express his opinions, unpopular as those opinions may be. And even though his attitudes may be objectionable, good can come of them. Some people, when they hear his angry message, are motivated to speak out in favor of tolerance and acceptance. This speaking out may have a positive effect. So in the end, if the government limited someone like Falwell in his ability to speak freely, it would also be limiting the counterattacks of groups that work for love and tolerance. Paradoxically, objectionable speech can lead to progress.
      If we want to move forward as a country, we must let everyone, inspiring or offensive, have their say. Inspiring speech leads to progress and so, less obviously, does offensive speech.
Essay Analysis
This essay is quite good, and would probably receive a combined score of 11 or 12. It has a few problems here and there, but for the most part it is well developed, features an interesting and readable argument, and uses clear, grammatical language.
The essay is a bit vague at the outset; the sentence To limit freedom of speech would be to impede progress, sort of makes sense, but what the writer has in mind is not exactly clear. However, the examples clarify the writer’s main point. This initial vagueness is not the end of the world, for the readers do understand that the main idea of your paper will probably become more and more clear to you as you write. Still, you should strive to explain your main idea in all its fully developed glory right from the outset. Some students don’t want to “give away” the gist of their essay right off the bat, but please: give it away. The reader does not want to be mystified, the reader wants to know immediately what you’re trying to say.
There are a few minor problems with the essay. In the first paragraph, the word freedom gets repeated too much, in various incarnations. It’s hard to avoid repeating the Topic statement over and over, but do try to find synonyms. Repetition is boring for the reader.
There are a few awkward phrasings in the second paragraph. This sentence is probably the worst offender: And most people agree that nonviolent protest is the answer, rather than responding to bad treatment with physical retaliation. It’s never a great idea to start a sentence with And. Also, although it’s possible to figure out the meaning of the sentence, it’s a lot of work for the reader. A better way to phrase it would be: “Most people agree that it’s better to respond to bad treatment with nonviolent protest than with physical retaliation.”
The Jerry Falwell example works fairly well, although criticizing someone’s politics, as this writer does, is always risky. It’s possible that you’ll get a rabid Republican reader, or a Democrat who foams at the mouth when he hears the word “conservative,” so be aware that it’s never absolutely safe to express political opinions. You risk annoying your reader with your politics. This writer does a minimally acceptable job of sounding neutral; he or she throws in lots of phrases like to some people to indicate that some people do like Falwell. Despite these diplomatic phrases, however, it’s blatantly obvious that he or she is not a Falwell supporter. This is fine, but indicating your politics is a calculated risk.
The last paragraph does a nice job of tying together the essay, bringing all the points and examples into a strong conclusion.
The Single-Statement Topic
Consider the following statement and assignment. Then write an essay as directed.
“True love can overcome all obstacles.”
Assignment: Choose one example from personal experience, current events, or history, literature, or any other discipline and use this example to write an essay in which you agree or disagree with the statement above. Your essay should be specific.
Understand the Topic
True love is the big, abstract idea in this statement. True love is probably an easier phrase to understand and narrow than others you’ll encounter. Still, even when the topic includes phrases you’ve heard a million times, give some thought to how you’ll hone the idea. In this case, you could do something slightly different by talking about, for example, the true love of a mother for her child—or you could stick with the more obvious interpretation and write about young lovers.
Choose an Example
The Single-Statement Topic specifically asks you to write about one example. If you can, generate an example from the arts, literature, or history.
When coming up with an example, try to avoid the most obvious ones. For instance, did you read true love and instantly think Romeo and Juliet? If that’s the first work of literature that popped into mind, then chances are it also popped into the minds of thousands and thousands of other test-takers. If you can’t think of anything else, it’s okay to write about R&J, but the readers are probably going to see a couple of hundred essays that use that play as an example. Using R&J is dangerous for two reasons: first, the readers will be sick of hearing about the balcony scene and the feuding families. Second, since they’re reading tons of essays on the same play, they will be intimately familiar with that play. This means that if you fudge a little on the details because you read R&J three years ago, that fudging might be obvious to the readers, because they can compare your essay to the six essays by people who read the play last Tuesday. If you write about Middlemarch, on the other hand, they might not be quite as quick to catch your minor slipups, and they will certainly be relieved to hear about Dorothy and Mr. Casaubon instead of Ms. Capulet and Mr. Montague. So try to choose examples that are slightly off the beaten path.
A personal example is usually less desirable than an example from history, literature, or the arts. This particular Topic presents a dangerous example pitfall: it has to do with true love, and some people will be tempted to tell their personal tales of true love. This could be disastrous. Your boyfriend or girlfriend probably should not make an appearance in the essay. Valiantly as you try to keep the tone objective and disinterested, chances are the essay will get mushy, angry, or weepy.
Write an Outline
Suppose you decide to write about Othello. Your outline might look like this:
  • intro paragraph: true love can’t conquer all
  • 2nd paragraph: o. and d. really love each other
  • 3rd paragraph: but race class age differences drive them apart—Iago uses differences against them
  • conclusion: jealousy + real diffs can ruin true love
Write the Essay
The Single-Statement Topic essay does not differ very much from the Two-Statement Topic essay in its execution. Like the Two-Statement, the Single-Statement essay should introduce the main idea and develop it by use of an example or multiple examples.
Sample Essay
As you read, think about what elements of the essay are successful and what elements could be improved upon.
Although it is a cliché of popular culture that love conquers all, this is not always the case. In Shakespeare’s play Othello, for example, Desdemona and Othello truly love one another, but their love cannot survive the influence of an evil man. Iago takes advantage of the differences in Othello’s and Desdemona’s class, race, age, and social rank, and shatters what seems to be a perfect marriage.
      Desdemona and Othello truly love one another. They dote on each other. She loves the fact that he has had many adventures and has seen strange things and can tell wonderful tales about his adventures. He loves her spirit and beauty. They can hardly stand to be apart from one another. They treat each other with respect and affection.
      It is unclear what motivates Iago to wreck Othello’s love for Desdemona. Whether from jealousy, cruelty, boredom, or the desire to control other people, Iago turns Othello against Desdemona by suggesting that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Although Desdemona is innocent of any crime, and Iago has no evidence to bring against her, he manages to convince Othello that he has been cheated on. But it is not just Iago’s cruelty that ruins true love; Iago can only convince Othello that Desdemona has strayed by highlighting the differences between the lovers. He reminds Othello that Desdemona is younger. She is a nobleman’s daughter, where as Othello is a general who did well but did not come from money or class. Desdemona is white, and Othello is black. Iago plays on this difference in the first scene, using racist language to suggest that Othello and Desdemona’s love is like two animals having sex, because of their different races.
      Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that even for a couple as in love as Othello and Desdemona, disaster can strike. He tells us that pure evil (Iago) can ruin a marriage, but so, perhaps, can the mismatched coupling of rich and poor, white and black, young and old. In Othello, Shakespeare describes the cynical real world we live in, not the fairy tale of modern movies that pretend love can conquer all.
Essay Analysis
This essay would probably get a 10; it might get an 11 or 12 if both readers were feeling generous. The example works, and the writing is good. The main difficulty with this essay is that its thesis is a bit too complicated for the time and space constraints. The writer argues that Iago takes advantage of preexisting differences between Othello and Desdemona, but he or she never decides whether Iago could have split up the happy couple even if they had been from exactly the same class and race, or if their differences would have broken up their marriage even if Iago didn’t exist.
The essay works for the most part, but it is a bit ambitious for this space. Small problems of grammar and syntax pop up here and there. For example, these two sentences are repetitious: Desdemona and Othello truly love one another. They dote on each other. One or the other would suffice. Ambiguous pronouns become a problem in the phrase manages to convince Othello that he has been cheated on; Iago manages to convince Othello that who has been cuckolded? We can figure out the meaning from the context, but that he should be Othello.
This is a strong essay, but remember, the readers won’t necessarily reward the most complex argument; they will welcome a simple argument that is made well and clearly.
The Fill-in-the-Blank Topic
Consider the following statement and assignment. Then write an essay as directed.
“‘Failure often teaches more than success can.’ For me, an experience that proves this quote true happened when ___.”
Assignment: Write an essay that completes the statement above. Explain the reasons behind your choice.
Understand the Topic
This step is often pretty easy for Fill-in-the-Blank Topics. This particular Topic leaves some room for interpretation—are you going to talk about a moral failure? A more prosaic failure to do with the classroom or the playing field?—but the basic components, failure and success, aren’t as difficult to grasp as something like personal freedoms or censorship.
Choose an Example
This is perhaps the most important step for Fill-in-the-Blank Topics, especially personal Fill-in-the-Blank Topics. Choosing a good personal example is an art. You don’t want to sound prim and self-righteous; the reader will see right through an essay about how you learned a lot from your failure to save more than six people from a burning building. At the same time, you don’t want to be honest to the point of self-defeat; it’s a bad idea to write an essay about your failure to kick your shoplifting habit.
The readers are instructed to grade the essay on the quality of your writing, and not on its topic. But since the readers grade essays based on their holistic impression, it’s not a good idea to leave a bad taste in their mouths by showing yourself in a very negative light.
Write an Outline
Personal essays can, like double- or single-statement essays, introduce a main idea and then explain it by elaborating on examples. For example, suppose you decide to write about how you learned a lot from your failure to win the race for class president. Your outline could follow the traditional main idea–elaboration model:
  • intro paragraph: I learned popularity isn’t everything
  • 2nd paragraph: students know experience is more important than popularity—they elected more experienced candidate
  • 3rd paragraph: students reward hard work; the winning candidate deserved to win
  • conclusion: learned about myself & how people viewed me
An alternate type of personal essay can tell a story. Instead of presenting the main idea right away, it’s permissible when writing a personal essay to build suspense by revealing your main idea at the end of the essay, rather than at the beginning. Here’s an outline for a personal essay that tells a story.
  • intro paragraph: worst day of sophomore year was election day
  • 2nd paragraph: I was popular, well-liked, should have won
  • 3rd paragraph: realized that Mike won because he had more experience. Vowed to improve myself
  • conclusion: I learned that popularity isn’t everything
Write the Essay
The following sample essay breaks the mold a bit by telling a story in chronological order and stating the main idea at the end, rather than the beginning.
Sample Essay
I listened to the principal’s voice in disbelief: “Mike Pacelli has won the election! Let’s give a round of applause to your new class president.” For a moment I thought that the principal had made a mistake. He wasn’t supposed to be announcing Mike Pacelli as the new president; he was supposed to be saying my name. I could feel people around me looking at me with pity. It was all I could do not to burst into tears.
      I had failed to win the election. It was sophomore year, and I was in shock. I had been convinced I would win by a landslide. After all, I was one of the most popular kids in school. Everyone wanted to come to my house after school, everyone screamed for me when I took the field as the goalie on the soccer team, everyone even copied what I wore. And who was Mike? I thought to myself, nobody. Sure, he’d been on the student council for years, but so what? No one like me had run against him before. I decided to join the student council as a volunteer, just to see what he had that I didn’t have.
      I was prepared to hate Mike, but after just a few months, I had learned more about myself from him than I ever have from anyone else. I watched him run the student council, organize events, suggest fundraisers for charity, earn money for the new auditorium—he knew how to organize and motivate people, something I realized I knew nothing about. His previous three years of experience made a huge difference, and I soon saw that I was a novice next to him. Not only that, he was genuinly nice to everyone. He didn’t pick and chose who he wanted to hang out with him, the way I know I did. I saw that people came to him with problems and were much more relaxed around him than they were around me. I started to question a lot about myself. I saw why he had been elected; he deserved to be class president.
      What at first seemed like a failure was actually one of the luckiest things that has ever happened to me. Yes, I failed to win the election, but because I lost I changed alot of things about myself. I made a real effort not to be snobby, and I stopped taking so many things for granted. I have a more realistic opinion of myself now, and I look up to Mike as someone I can still learn from.
This essay would probably earn a 10 or an 11. The writer develops his story nicely, leading us through the paragraphs and keeping us interested; he starts the essay with a mildly compelling “hook,” and by the end of the essay we get the main idea: popularity isn’t everything, and he’s a changed man.
There’s something smug about the example; first we think the writer’s kind of a jerk, and then we think he might be lying about how much he’s changed. Still, the example works pretty well. The failure involved doesn’t cast the writer in a bad light, and the lesson learned is a valuable one.
Issues of grammar and syntax: generally, the essay is light in tone and word choice. This is acceptable, because the topic is light. There are a few misspellings: genuinly should be genuinely, chose should be choose, and alot should be a lot.
The strongest element of this essay is its readability. The readers will have no problem zipping through this essay and understanding the point being made. Readability is of the utmost importance.
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