Would Shakespeare Get Into Swarthmore?

How several well-known writers (and the Unabomber) would fare on the new SAT

Every year more than a million college-bound high school students spend a Saturday morning taking the SAT. In 2001 the University of California system, led by Richard Atkinson, then its president, threatened to change that by replacing the SAT with a test that measured a student's mastery of advanced high school-level math, did not contain verbal-analogy questions, and included an essay. Since the University of California is the SAT's biggest customer, and has been for more than thirty years, many thought this spelled the beginning of the end for the test.

Writing Contest: Rewrite Shakespeare (March 17, 2004)
The results are in. Read the winning entries of the Princeton Review's Rewrite Shakespeare Contest.

In the summer of 2002 the College Board announced its plans to change the SAT. The new test will (surprise, surprise) contain several higher-level algebra questions, will no longer contain analogies questions, and will—as part of a whole new section on "writing"—include an essay question. It is scheduled to be administered for the first time in March of next year.

The writing section (which will be scored on a scale of 200 to 800, making 2400 the new maximum score on the SAT), will seem familiar to anyone who has taken the SAT II: Writing test (formerly known as the English Composition Achievement test). In its haste to satisfy the University of California, evidently, the College Board has simply tacked the SAT II test onto the SAT I. Students will have an extra half hour to complete the test, which currently lasts three hours.

To grade the roughly 2.5 million student essays the new SAT will generate each year, the College Board will have to hire thousands of readers (mainly high school teachers), who will generally score each essay in a minute or two.

Students will be asked to respond to a vague, platitudinous quotation with an essay that will be graded on a scale of 1 to 6. Essay readers will be trained to grade "holistically," taking into consideration "development of ideas, supporting examples, organization, word choice, and sentence structure." To receive a score of 6, according to the College Board, a paper must demonstrate "clear and consistent competence," though it may have "occasional errors." More specifically, a grade of 6 will indicate that an essay "effectively and insightfully addresses the writing task," "is well organized and fully developed, using clearly appropriate examples to support ideas," and "displays consistent facility in the use of language, demonstrating variety in sentence structure and range of vocabulary." A score of 1, in contrast, will indicate that an essay "demonstrates incompetence" and suffers from one or more of the following weaknesses: "very poor organization," "very thin development," "usage and syntactical errors so severe that meaning is somewhat obscured." (The full version of the SAT grading rubric can be found at www.collegeboard.com.)

We and our colleagues at The Princeton Review have spent many years training students to take the SAT II, and have carefully analyzed the College Board's essay-grading criteria. To receive a high score a student should write a long essay of three or more paragraphs, with each paragraph containing topic and concluding sentences and at least one sentence that includes the words "for example." Whenever possible the student should use polysyllabic words where shorter, clearer words would suffice. The SAT essay will not be a place to take rhetorical chances. Flair will win no points; the highest-scoring essays will be earnest, long-winded, and predictable.

To illustrate how the essays on the "new" SAT will be scored, The Princeton Review has composed some typical essay questions, provided answers from several well-known authors, and applied the College Board's grading criteria to their writing.

Directions: Consider carefully the following quotation and the assignment below it. Then plan and write an essay that explains your ideas as persuasively as possible. Keep in mind that the support you provideboth reasons and examples—will help make your view convincing to the reader.

"Writing is the most demanding of callings, more harrowing than a warrior's, more lonely than a whaling captain's—that, in essence, is the modern writer's message."
—Melvin Maddocks

Assignment: In an essay, discuss your opinion of the quotation above. Support your view with one or more examples from literature, the arts, science, politics, current events, or your personal experience or observations.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

Reader's evaluation: Although it displays a solid vocabulary, Mr. Hemingway's essay lacks specific examples and clear topic sentences. Too undeveloped to be good. Grade: 3 out of 6

"The four stages of life are infancy, childhood, adolescence, and obsolescence." —Art Linkletter

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. And then the whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school. And then the lover, sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier, full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice, in fair round belly with good capon lined, with eyes severe and beard of formal cut, full of wise saws and modern instances; and so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side; his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide for his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, turning again towards childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

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