The main idea of an essay question for the SSAT, ISEE, or even the SAT, is to follow a standard format. You want to “be a sheep.” If sheep stray too far from the flock, wolves pick them off. If you try something too unusual or creative (for example, writing your essay as an epic poem, a series of haikus, or in the shape of the head of Abraham Lincoln, while creative, will make the grader spend more time reading your essay, and thus more likely to find grammar and spelling errors, style problems, or other things that might otherwise go unnoticed).
I suggest what I’ve been told is the Toastmasters formula (I’ve never been to a Toastmasters meeting, so I’ll have to take the guy’s word for it): Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell it to them. Then tell them what you just told them. How do we do that? It’s simple.
In the first paragraph, make your thesis statement: What is your answer to the question in the essay prompt? Yes, no, maybe so? Explain why you agree, disagree, or why you partially agree and partially disagree in one or two sentences. List the two examples you will use to prove your point, using a sentence such as “This is evidenced by [example 1] and [example 2].”
In the second paragraph, explain how your first example supports your thesis. For example, “The Beatles support my thesis that hard work can overcome any obstacle because they came from working-class backgrounds and learned to play their instruments by ear, but went on to become perhaps the most influential rock band ever. Therefore, a person does not need wealth and formal training in his or her chosen field to succeed if she works hard.”
In the third paragraph, you do the same thing with your second example. For example, “Thomas Edison was mostly home-schooled and also took some classes at the Cooper Union in New York City, but was largely self-taught through reading and tinkering. His family was not wealthy. Yet he invented or improved the light bulb, the phonograph, and countless other things we take for granted in modern times, becoming wealthy and famous. Thus, wealth and formal education are not necessary for success.”
In the fourth (last) paragraph, restate your thesis, examples, and how your examples support your thesis. “An affluent background and an extensive formal education are not necessary for a person to succeed, as illustrated by the examples of the Beatles and Thomas Edison. Both came from humble, cash-poor backgrounds, and both had little formal education, but both were pioneers who revolutionized their chosen fields.”
This brings us to another aspect of “being a sheep.” Don’t distract the graders with anything controversial. Please don’t use this essay as your discussion forum for your opinions on race, religion, sex, politics, etc. If your parents wouldn’t talk about it at Thanksgiving dinner with their parents and your aunts and uncles there, don’t write about it in your essay. Trust me, you’ll be able to write all you want about these things once you’re actually in college.
At this point, you’re probably wondering “So how do I pick examples for my essays?” It’s easy, if you give this issue a little forethought. Think about your favorite stories from books (either from school or your own reading), movies, and TV. Think about your favorite memories – the stories of your life, your hobbies, your work. What have you learned from being on the basketball team, having a paper route, washing your parents’ car, walking the dog, or German class? Think about your favorite stories others have told you. Why are they your favorite stories? Usually it’s because they taught you something.
Let’s take some details on your favorite things. Fill in the blanks.
My favorite book is _____________________________, by the author _____________________________________________________. It is
a (novel, biography, history, ________________) about _________________________________________________.
I liked it because _________________________. One main idea I got out of it is ____________________________________________________________. Another main idea is ___________________________________________.
My favorite character is ___________________. That character was important to me because ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________. That character faced challenges such as : ____________________________________________________ and _____________________________________________________________________, and ended up ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.
My favorite movie is _____________________________, directed by _____________________, and starring _________________________________. It is a ([type] ________________) about __________________________________. I liked it
because __________________________________. One main idea I got out of it is ___________________. Another main idea is _____________________________________.My favorite character is ___________________. That character was important to me because ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________. That character faced challenges such as : __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ and _____________________________________________________________________, and ended up _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.
My favorite TV show is _____________________________. It
is a ([type] ________________) about _____________________________________. I liked it
because __________________________________. One main idea I got out of it is __________________________. Another main idea is _____________________________________.
My favorite character is ___________________. That character was important to me because ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________. That character faced challenges such as : ____________________________________________________ and _____________________________________________________________________, and ended up _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.
My favorite memory is ____________________________, because ________________________________. I learned ___________________________________ from it.
My least favorite memory is ____________________________, because ________________________________. I learned ___________________________________ from it.
My favorite activity is ________________________ because _______________________________. I learned __________________________ from doing it.
My least favorite activity is ________________________ because _______________________________. I learned __________________________ from doing it.
Preparing for Essay Prompts:
Essay prompts are usually going to deal with broad, general topics, both to avoid controversy and to allow for many different responses to the prompt. Think of old sayings like “Haste makes waste.” “Slow and steady wins the race.” “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” A good place to look for practice essay prompts is a book such as Bartlett’s Quotations, or the Quotations Page at www.quotationspage.com . Try looking at the quotes arranged by subject. Now pick a quote and try to use examples from your favorite book, movie, TV show, or from your life, in an essay where you agree or disagree with that quote.
For example, you can try “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you really want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln. [This was literally the first quote listed under “Adversity” when I viewed the Quotations Page’s subject index.] Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
A couple of notes on the above: Please do not attempt to write an entire essay in advance, memorize it, then edit it during the test to fit the prompt. It doesn’t work. Your favorite stories should naturally relate to many different prompts. For example, if you read a few biographies of famous people such as Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, or Catherine the Great, you can apply different aspects of their lives to different essay prompts. An essay “written from scratch” will sound better than some rehashed and revised essay from your memory.
Some things should lend themselves naturally to certain prompts: your team sports experience should lend itself to prompts dealing with teamwork, competition, and working to reach a goal. Any work experience might also lend itself to an essay about teamwork and working to reach a goal. A time when a person or a thing surprised you, because he, she, or it was not what it appeared to be, would be a good example in an essay prompted by the saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
The most recent SAT, as of the date of this writing (October 30, 2014), asked a different question, something to the effect of “Should high school students be required to commit to a year of community service?” While this sort of “issue” question seems like a curve ball, because it is, it’s no reason to panic (and luckily, my student who took the test didn’t ).
For a question like this, you may be able to find an appropriate reference from history or your reading (e.g. the Bible story of the Good Samaritan). If you can’t, don’t panic Just remember your own experiences with volunteering (service projects from school, Scouting, or church, nice things you did just because you wanted to do them, things people did for you). If you can’t think of any appropriate experiences from your life, remember the Einstein quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
What I mean is, the questions asking what you think about an issue, so THINK! Do you think volunteering would ready high school or college students for paid employment, and teach them that doing things for others feels good, while getting important work (for example, care for seniors and children, street cleaning, park, forest, and beach maintenance) done? Or do you think the benefits would be reduced by unmotivated, forced “volunteers” looking to circumvent the requirement by faking logs of hours, goofing off on their volunteer “jobs,” or causing more problems they solve (e.g., leaving more damage to parks than the damage they clean up?)
The best way to prepare for this sort of question is to READ. Read the editorial pages of your local paper, either in print, of on your website. Watch YouTube videos about current events (e.g., from CNN, the Young Turks, and so on). Read the comments to YouTube videos and things about them. Read websites about politics and pop culture. Do you agree or disagree with the comments you find? Why or why not? Articulate your reasons in your head, or better yet, respond to them (either online, or just in a word processing page or on a piece of paper). The more practice you have setting forth your thoughts in writing, the easier it will be for you to do it on the SAT, or on college applications, college essays, job applications, and in other circumstances throughout your life.
Hope this helps! You can start practicing by commenting on this blog. :-)
Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.