Have we met?, Part 2

Your introduction can be simple or complex, seductive or workmanlike, elaborate or austere. On a basic level, it doesn’t really matter, as long as you get your main idea across.

However, if you want to wow your readers, go big.

The style I mentioned in my last post is pretty flexible. When I write essays, I like to start not with just a bare statement that “some people think” an idea that I disagree with. Instead, I mention a famous person or concept that disagrees with me. For example, I might write something like this:

“Many people agree with Thomas Jefferson, who once said, ‘Honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom.’ However, honesty is not that last chapter of that book. Though in an ideal world dishonesty would be unnecessary, the world in which we live often requires deception to live a moral life, in situations both mundane and extreme.”

See how this quickly written intro conforms to the basic template in my previous post, yet adds bells and whistles (a quotation, a qualifying clause in the thesis) that increase its sophistication without distorting the format?

Try it out yourself. Next, we’ll move on to the body paragraphs, another place where tyros often go off track.

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Have we met?

The introduction is an extremely important part of your essay, and the thesis, which we discussed yesterday, is an extremely important part of your introduction. But don’t you need more than a thesis?

Well, ideally, yes. The good news is that writing a competent introduction isn’t hard at all, and writing a stellar one is only a little more difficult.

I recommend an introduction that begins with an argument from the lips of your opponents, whether it’s a sentence beginning with “some people argue…” or an actual quotation from someone famous. Then, a short, quick sentence saying that the first idea is wrong. The paragraph concludes with a thesis that clearly states your main idea. But enough abstract gobbledygook. How about an example?

Many people believe that telling the truth in all situations is the only proper mode of behavior. However, this idealistic approach to life is wrong-headed. In fact, deception is often justified, especially when one is trying to save someone’s reputation or someone’s life.

I liken it to a boxing match. Let your opponent come in swinging, and then stop him short with a well-placed jab. While he’s stunned, unleash your uppercut–that’s your thesis statement and the following essay–and get the knockout.

miketyson

I don’t watch a lot of boxing, but that always worked in the video games.

Anyhow, this method works for pretty much any essay, and it’s incredibly flexible, accommodating ideas and arguments from weak writers and strong ones. Try it out yourself. I’ll be giving some other examples in the coming days and hours.

Begin at the beginning

To write a good SAT essay, you don’t have to be Michel de Montaigne; in fact, it’s probably better if you’re not. Most classic essays have a discursive complexity that wanders from idea to idea, discussing fine sub-arguments and defining subtle nuances of thought.

Such an approach would likely not get you a great score on your SAT essay. Sorry, Michel.

Michel de Montaigne: Dresses dashingly, but probably would get an 8 on his SAT essay.

Michel de Montaigne: Dresses dashingly, but probably would get an 8 on his SAT essay.

Top-scoring SAT essays tend to take a more direct approach, answering the question in the prompt unambiguously and then presenting examples to support that position. That means that your essay needs to have a strong, clear thesis statement.

Take a look at this plausible SAT essay prompt:

“Is honesty always the best policy?”

Which thesis is better?

A. “Honesty is not always the best policy.”

B. “Honesty can be a good approach.”

C. “Both honesty and dishonesty are good approaches depending upon the situation.”

D. “Abraham Lincoln was a very honest man.”

E. “It is important to be honest whenever possible.”

If you said A, congratulations! It’s not a perfect thesis by any means, but it does provide the clearest answer to the question. Let’s take a look at why the others are flawed:

B. This sentence merely says that honesty “can be” a good approach, but the question is asking if honesty is “always” the best policy. A good answer to this question takes a side: yes, honesty is always best or no, it is not always best. You can, of course, say that honesty is never the best policy, but that’s probably a harder line to hold.

C. The idea here is, I think, correct: both honesty and dishonesty are useful approaches in different contexts. But for this essay, take a side. In this person’s case, it probably makes more sense to go with the idea in A. Why? Well, think about the question: it is asking if honesty is always best. If you say that the usefulness of honesty depends on the situation, you are saying that it is not always best.

D. Though this may be true, it is not a good thesis for this essay because it doesn’t answer the question in the prompt.

E. This one is a little more difficult to disqualify. Clearly, the writer believes that honesty is the best policy. But this answer choice say that in an oblique, disguised way. Write thesis statements that give an obvious answer to the prompt.

We’ll talk more about the essay tomorrow.

Joining the chorus

There are a lot of great standardized test sites on the Internet, and I read them all frequently. You should, too. They give sage advice about how to succeed on a range of tests.

I’d like to add my voice to the chorus, and maybe sing a solo every once in a while, too. To start, I’ll give my own basic rundown of the parts of the SAT with which I have the most experience: the Critical Reading and Writing tests. Today, we’ll talk a little bit about the latter test:

WRITING

The Writing test consists of three sections. The lowest score you can get is a 200; the highest, an 800.

The first (and it’s always first; just get used to it) is the essay. You get 25 minutes to record your most profound thoughts on a wide range of philosophical issues. It’s a lot easier than it sounds, I promise. The essay is scored on a 6-point scale by two readers; the sum of those two numbers is your final essay score. It accounts for around 30 percent of your score, but its ultimate importance relies on your multiple choice score.

Sections 2 and 3 are usually Math and Reading, and then one of the sections between 4 and 6 is another Writing section, this time a 25-minute multiple choice behemoth of 35 questions. Like Caesar’s Gaul, this section is divided into three parts:

  1. Sentence Correction: For these 11 questions, you must read a sentence, figure out what (if anything) is wrong with it, and then find the answer choice that corrects that error the most stylishly. There are sometimes multiple answers that are grammatically correct, but only one that sounds pretty. Aesthetics matter, on the SAT and in real life. Sentence Correction problems are arranged roughly in order of difficulty, from easiest to hardest–though the well-prepared test-taker often finds that the statistically hard questions are actually quite easy.
  2. Finding the Errors: This part of the long Writing section frequently flummoxes test-takers. Much like those of the previous section, Finding the Errors problems require you to identify a mistake. However, you get no potential corrections. This means you have to rely on your ability to notice errors, not merely your ability to compare different ways of saying something. Well-trained test-takers often find this section to be a breeze, for they know all the common problems. These are also ordered–roughly–from easiest to hardest.
  3. Paragraph Correction: These 6 problems ask questions about two or three paragraphs of a student’s rough draft. In addition to simple grammar questions, they also test your skill in structuring essays and making  contextual connections.

The final section of every SAT, section 10, is also always a Writing section. For these 14 Sentence Correction problems, you get 10 minutes; work fast. Again, the first question is generally easy, and the last question, hard.

So that’s what you’re up against on the Writing portion of the SAT. It’s intimidating for some people, and a superficial glance at the numbers confirms this fear: on average, members of the class of 2012 did more poorly on the Writing section (488) than they did on Math (514) or Reading (496).

But the good news is that you can fix a low score in Writing very, very, very, very, very, very easily, even if you get terrible scores on your grammar in school. Trust me. I’ve helped people improve by as much as 400 points with a few months of practice. Stay tuned over the next few days for some basic tips.

And remember: practice makes perfect. 

Sharpen your pencils!

Let me tell you about the first time I took the SAT.

I had no idea what I was doing. A plump seventh grader, I barely knew what the SAT was, but I was excited to peek inside Lovett, the (to my mind) tony private school about which I had merely heard in my family hovel in Smyrna, Georgia. I remember nothing about the exterior of the school, or the hallways, or the bathrooms, or even the test itself, but I do remember the floor-to-ceiling windows which opened onto the vast bucolic expanse of a verdant garden. Leaves swayed languidly. A brook babbled. Waterlilies floated on a small pond. It was like a haiku. I got about a 1000–good enough to qualify for the summer programs that my family couldn’t afford to send me to.

Four years later, I took it again at Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta. There were no windows, just beige concrete that intensified the heat, odors and sounds of the thirty shuffling students in the room. Intensely uncomfortable, I scored barely two hundred points above my previous score.

The third time, I opted for Lovett again, and I hit my goal.

The moral of the story is this: take your test somewhere pleasant, somewhere where you feel comfortable, and you will probably get a higher score.