The next SAT is coming up soon, so I thought I’d help with my method for answering the SAT Essay question in more detail than in my previous blog, with links to a prompt accessible to anyone, not simply those with copies of the Barron’s New SAT book (which I still highly recommend).
Here’s the link to the instructions for the sample essay prompts the College Board has provided.
Before you look at the first essay prompt, I’d like to give you the same instructions I’ve given for the SAT and ACT essays: save writing your first (or “thesis”) paragraph until after you are done writing the body paragraphs of your essay.
I am telling you to write your first paragraph until you are done with the body and ready to write the conclusion because your examination of the essay in the prompt and writing the paragraphs may well lead you to conclusions you had not reached when you started writing. It’s much easier to write one clean, clear thesis paragraph that clearly states your main idea and your examples AFTER you know what your thesis (that is, your main idea about the passage) is and what your examples are.
Otherwise, you’re likely to end up having to scratch words out, insert words with carets (you know, these little things à ⱽ ), or having a thesis that doesn’t really match your examples. A messy thesis paragraph is not great, but probably not horrible, as long as it’s still legible. A thesis that doesn’t match the points you make and supporting evidence you cite in the passage is DEADLY; it will seriously lower your grade. I mean, what would YOU think of someone who tells you one thing, then completely goes off on a tangent? Probably “Hey, this person is spacy and probably stupid.”
So the first thing you should do is read the prompt, making notes as to what you see in each paragraph. What is the author’s point in each paragraph? What language does the author use? What evidence does the author cite? Is the evidence appropriate? Does it raise further questions in your mind? Are those questions answered in elsewhere in the essay?
Does the language and evidence make you feel what you believe the author wants you to feel? Does the language and evidence make you more likely to agree with the author? If the answer to either of the two last questions is “No”, the author didn’t do a good job of winning you over to his or her point of view, which is the point of any piece of writing the SAT will use for a prompt. Point out how the writing is effective or ineffective at convincing you, and why. What convinced you the author was right? Evidence? Emotional arguments? Skillful logic? Did the author predict the obvious objections to his or her arguments and address them convincingly?
Alternately, what convinced you the author wasn’t right, or at least not completely right? Was the evidence he or she cited inappropriate or misleading? Did the arguments immediately bring obvious counter-arguments into your mind? Did the arguments appear to be avoiding these obvious counter-arguments through excessive qualifications or limitations on the claims the author made? Did the author seem to avoid these arguments altogether?
Here’s the link for the first sample essay prompt – see if you can respond to this prompt in 50 minutes:
Here is the prompt, for those of you who don’t want to click the link (NOTE: If you have a copyright claim to the following excerpt, I believe this is fair use. If you believe I’m infringing on your copyright, please let me know, and I’ll remove the direct quote to this excerpt. But since it’s up on the College Board site for public access, I assume it’s all right to use the excerpt here, with proper credit to the College Board, the L.A. Times, and Paul Bogard… )
As you read the passage below, consider how Paul Bogard uses
Adapted from Paul Bogard, “Let There Be Dark.” ©2012 by Los Angeles Times. Originally published December 21, 2012.
At my family’s cabin on a Minnesota lake, I knew woods so dark that my hands disappeared before my eyes. I knew night skies in which meteors left smoky trails across sugary spreads of stars. But now, when 8 of 10 children born in the United States will never know a sky dark enough for the Milky Way, I worry we are rapidly losing night’s natural darkness before realizing its worth. This winter solstice, as we cheer the days’ gradual movement back toward light, let us also remember the irreplaceable value of darkness.
All life evolved to the steady rhythm of bright days and dark nights. Today, though, when we feel the closeness of nightfall, we reach quickly for a light switch. And too little darkness, meaning too much artificial light at night, spells trouble for all.
Already the World Health Organization classifies working the night shift as a probable human carcinogen, and the American Medical Association has voiced its unanimous support for “light pollution reduction efforts and glare reduction efforts at both the national and state levels.” Our bodies need darkness to produce the hormone melatonin, which keeps certain cancers from developing, and our bodies need darkness for sleep. Sleep disorders have been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression, and recent research suggests one main cause of “short sleep” is “long light.” Whether we work at night or simply take our tablets, notebooks and smartphones to bed, there isn’t a place for this much artificial light in our lives.
The rest of the world depends on darkness as well, including nocturnal and crepuscular species of birds, insects, mammals, fish and reptiles. Some examples are well known—the 400 species of birds that migrate at night in North America, the sea turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs—and some are not, such as the bats that save American farmers billions in pest control and the moths that pollinate 80% of the world’s flora. Ecological light pollution is like the bulldozer of the night, wrecking habitat and disrupting ecosystems several billion years in the making. Simply put, without darkness, Earth’s ecology would collapse....
In today’s crowded, louder, more fast-paced world, night’s darkness can provide solitude, quiet and stillness, qualities increasingly in short supply. Every religious tradition has considered darkness invaluable for a soulful life, and the chance to witness the universe has inspired artists, philosophers and everyday stargazers since time began. In a world awash with electric light...how would Van Gogh have given the world his “Starry Night”? Who knows what this vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?
Yet all over the world, our nights are growing brighter. In the United States and Western Europe, the amount of light in the sky increases an average of about 6% every year. Computer images of the United States at night, based on NASA photographs, show that what was a very dark country as recently as the 1950s is now nearly covered with a blanket of light. Much of this light is wasted energy, which means wasted dollars. Those of us over 35 are perhaps among the last generation to have known truly dark nights. Even the northern lake where I was lucky to spend my summers has seen its darkness diminish.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Light pollution is readily within our ability to solve, using new lighting technologies and shielding existing lights. Already, many cities and towns across North America and Europe are changing to LED streetlights, which offer dramatic possibilities for controlling wasted light. Other communities are finding success with simply turning off portions of their public lighting after midnight. Even Paris, the famed “city of light,” which already turns off its monument lighting after 1 a.m., will this summer start to require its shops, offices and public buildings to turn off lights after 2 a.m. Though primarily designed to save energy, such reductions in light will also go far in addressing light pollution. But we will never truly address the problem of light pollution until we become aware of the irreplaceable value and beauty of the darkness we are losing.
Let’s try analyzing the essay paragraph by paragraph:
First, the author, Paul Bogard, uses the title “Let There Be Dark,” an obvious allusion to the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible – “Let there be light.” This title is designed to catch the reader’s interest.
Second, the essay uses appeals to the senses in a nostalgic anecdote about the author’s childhood summers spent at a bucolic Minnesota lake. “I knew woods so dark that my hands disappeared before my eyes. I knew night skies in which meteors left smoky trails across sugary spreads of stars.” The author also uses alliteration effectively in the phrase “sugary spreads of stars.” Certainly, this opening pair of sentences is an effective appeal to the senses and nostalgia (even if the reader has not had such an experience, he or she can think “Wow – I wish I’d been there!”).
The author then continues with “But now, when 8 of 10 children born in the United States will never know a sky dark enough for the Milky Way, I worry we are rapidly losing night’s natural darkness before realizing its worth… [L]et us also remember the irreplaceable value of darkness.” The author appeals to our sense of nostalgia and fear for the today’s children, as well as their children, by citing a statistic that 8 of 10 children will never know a truly dark sky, and citing to the “irreplaceable value of darkness.” This is effective rhetoric, since people often fear that technology and society are headed in the wrong direction, but the author weakens his argument a bit by failing to cite a source for his statistic, although it may be from the NASA photographs he cites earlier in the essay.
The author then asserts “All life evolved to the steady rhythm of bright days and dark nights,” contrasting that statement with “Today, though, when we feel the closeness of nightfall, we reach quickly for a light switch.” He then asserts “[T]oo little darkness, meaning too much artificial light at night, spells trouble for all.” That paragraph contains an appeal to the senses – “a steady rhythm of bright days and dark nights” appeals to both the sense of hearing and touch (we can hear and feel rhythms) as well as sight (“bright” and “dark.”).
The author then cites to the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association to support claims that lack of sleep caused by too much exposure to light at night is harmful, because complete darkness is necessary to produce hormones that prevent cancer, etc. The author also claims that sleep problems, presumably caused by too much light at night, “have been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression, and recent research suggests one main cause of ‘short sleep’ is ‘long light.’” This is a common-sense assertion – most people find it easier to sleep in the dark than in the light. The citations to medical authorities that raise the specter of fatal diseases being caused by a lack of darkness at night is certainly effective at convincing the reader why light pollution is a real problem, even if seeing many stars at night isn’t important to the reader. In other words, Bogard essentially asks the reader “So if you don’t care about not seeing the stars, do you care about not dying of cancer caused by light pollution? Then pay attention; this is important.”
Bogard then claims that light pollution threatens many nocturnal species, including birds and bats that migrate and feed at night, are threatened by light pollution, and that there is a genuine risk of ecological collapse from this light pollution. This is because nocturnal animals occupy key niches in these ecosystems, Bogard states, citing the examples of bats both consuming pests that would otherwise destroy crops, and nocturnal moths that pollinate those crops. Bogard then cites the economic value of the crops, and the “billions” of dollars farmers would otherwise have to spend on pest control measures (e.g. pesticides) if these creatures became extinct. These appeals to emotion (“Think of the poor birds and bats!”) and logic (“Think of how much food will cost, if we can get it at all!”) work in tandem to create an effective argument.
The argument would be stronger with citations to authorities to support his claims (e.g., Bogard should have named the source for his statistic stating 80% of plants are pollinated by nocturnal moths), but since the passage was adapted from a Los Angeles Times article, it is unclear whether Bogard cited a source for his claim or not. For our purposes, however, the claims seem reasonable and “true enough;” the claims that bats eat bugs and some bugs pollinate crops are generally accepted and not controversial. While extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, ordinary claims require only ordinary evidence, and “common sense” will do.
However, the final statement in that paragraph, “Ecological light pollution is like the bulldozer of the night, wrecking habitat and disrupting ecosystems several billion years in the making. Simply put, without darkness, Earth’s ecology would collapse....” Bogard uses an apt simile that appeals to emotion – comparing light pollution to a bulldozer certainly emphasizes its destructive power. However, Bogard’s bulldozer simile is an extraordinary claim, and he should have provided a citation to evidence, e.g., a statement from a biologist or association of biologists, to support it.
In the next paragraph, Bogard states that “darkness can provide solitude, quiet and stillness… which [e]very religious tradition has considered … invaluable for a soulful life, and the chance to witness the universe has inspired artists, philosophers and everyday stargazers since time began.” Bogard refers to Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night as an example of art that could be created only by an artist with a clear view of the night sky with little to no light pollution. He then adds “Who knows what this vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?” Bogard’s vague citation to religious practices and the more concrete example of Starry Night both provide an effective argument that darkness is important for spiritual and artistic inspiration, and it should not be done away with carelessly through light pollution.
In the next, second-to-last, paragraph, the author shows that NASA photos and computer images based thereon show that light pollution, a small problem as recently as the 1950s, has increased, and continues to increase, at an alarming rate. Bogard argues that this light pollution threatens to deprive the general public of the benefits of near-total darkness at night. This, in combination with the information from the preceding paragraphs, effectively creates a sense of dread and loss in the reader.
The final paragraph offers seemingly-easy solutions to the problem of light pollution: better-focused LED streetlights, as well as limits on when lights can be used at night. This is an extremely effective argument tactic, frequently used in advertising: presenting a high-fear situation (“You’ll be deprived of spirituality and art, then become obese and get cancer, if this light pollution continues!”), then a straightforward and apparently easy solution (“This won’t happen if we use better streetlights, and don’t leave building lights on all night!”). This approach makes it much more likely that the reader will adopt the writer’s suggestions – merely pointing out a problem without suggesting a workable solution just causes most readers to decide the problem isn’t as serious as the writer has portrayed it, or simply to rationalize “If there’s nothing I can do about the problem, why should I think about it? There’s no point in getting worked up for nothing.”
Now that we’ve analyzed all the paragraphs of the essay, all we need to do is add an introduction (for which you left space at the beginning, remember?), then rephrase it as a conclusion, and write that conclusion at the end.
So let’s write an introduction now, by going through the paragraphs:
Paul Bogard, in his essay “Let There Be Dark,” asserts that total darkness is necessary for people’s health, well-being, creativity, and even their physical health, as well as for the health of other animals who, in turn, support entire ecosystems, including our food crops. Bogard uses a personal anecdote, statistics from NASA and medical authorities, references to religion, spirituality, and art as evidence in support of his thesis. He also uses descriptive and emotionally evocative language when detailing these examples in order to impress the importance of total nighttime darkness upon the reader, explain the serious way in which it is threatened, and present a simple, common-sense solution to the problem. These techniques help Bogard make a convincing case for limiting the use of electric light at night, and for using streetlights that create less light pollution, in order to solve, or at least mitigate, this problem.
Let’s write a conclusion at the end now:
Bogard uses an effective starting anecdote about seeing the stars in near-total darkness in rural Minnesota, continuing with apt citations to scientific authorities to show light pollution causes disease in humans and animals. Bogard further effectively argued, using scientific information, that light pollution may indirectly but seriously damage crop growth. Finally, Bogard argues that light pollution may limit human spiritual and artistic inspiration by limiting the access to total darkness and the chance to see how many stars there truly are in the universe, using highly emotionally charged descriptive language. The high-fear approach, warning of dire consequences if nothing is done about the problem, is immediately followed by a simple suggested solution, making the message much more likely to resonate with the reader. While his citations are thin and perhaps insufficient in some parts, the essay is still very effective at explaining why light pollution is a serious problem, and in presenting a proposed solution to the problem.
Put these all together, and you’ve got an SAT essay, my friend! Hope this helps. Please comment on this if you have any questions, concerns, compliments, etc. Good luck to those of you taking the SAT in a couple of weeks – I’ll have some last-minute tips up soon!
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.