So. You get 25 minutes to write an essay for the SATs, and your college of choice uses your score to evaluate your readiness for the rigor of college work. It is part of the profile they compare with the next applicant’s when deciding which one should get one of those last openings. Mastery of this form you do not have–not by a long shot. Who confronts the SAT essay with aplomb?
Over the past year I have had to study and teach the essay form, and now I appreciate it for two reasons. First, it requires us to state an opinion and then support it, and second, its given form makes room for the writer to be creative in content without having to be creative about a form.
The basic form of an essay is: state the thesis and enumerate your points, take each point and develop the supports, and wrap it up in a summarizing conclusion. Once this is mastered, other parts are added: Exordium (an opening that draws the reader in), Division (the author states where opponents will agree and at what point they diverge), Refutation (the author states the strongest points for the other side and explains why they will not do), and Amplification (to whom does this matter, and why?). A middle school group can learn it, and certainly a high school student can master these elements if tackled one at a time.
In order to defend a position, one needs to come down on one side of the fence or the other. Am I the only one who prefers not to stir up trouble by stating and defending an opinion that will cause clash? It is a social skill, after all, to agree where you can and keep quiet where to speak might cause an argument. But we are not always sitting at the kitchen table with our grown family, treading lightly in order to make it through a weekend. Truth is, debate is healthy, and as we grow in our ability to reason through an issue, working through a disagreement can be tremendously satisfying.
So, the first thing a student needs to learn is to take a stand. An essay begins with a thesis, the conclusion he seeks to persuade the reader to make. “Goldilocks should be charged as a trespasser.” “Company dessert should most properly be chocolate.” “My children should not have internet access until they are 21.” Two or three points would “prove” the issue, and each is fleshed out with a few supports. Combined with the Refutation, where a contrary opinion is refuted, the author makes his case with a plentitude of reasons.
The second thing I appreciate about essays is the established form. Form is a wonderful thing–it is the skeleton that makes it possible for me to dance, the rhyming scheme pleases my ear, the plot that keeps me engaged with a book. When I need to order my thoughts on a subject, say for a blog, a proposal to a committee, or a letter to the editor, I can work with the essay format. My other choice is to take elements from advertising, that mysterious alchemy that seeks to turn words into profit through reader manipulation, and whose forms are myriad. The essay, which is after all, just a written form of the time-honored elements of oral rhetoric, does all we need it to do, systematically. Why alter it? Like the steep angle of a snow-shedding roof in Vermont, some things should never go out of style.
So, both for the way it requires us to state a real opinion and defend it with reason, and for its elegant and timeless form I admire the essay. The SAT essay does demonstrate one’s ability to give a reason for his conclusion, and it need not be a terror to anyone who understands it.