kitchen table math, the sequel: 3/17/13 - 3/24/13

Saturday, March 23, 2013

SAT Essay

My son is in the middle of preparing for his first (and hopefully only) official SAT test. He took the PSAT in the fall and did very well, so we do have some ideas of what to work on. However, the PSAT does not have an essay portion, so he is starting from scratch for that. I had him do the Blue Book essay for test 10, but I don't know how the scores are calibrated. Was it a 6, a 9, or a 12? How does one improve? Also, I was told that even professional writers might get 10's and not 12's. The problem is that there is way too much advice if you just search online.

Since I have used and liked Mike McClenathan's PWN the SAT book for math, I thought I would download his new Kindle "Essay Guide". Like his math book, it gets right to the point. (It's also so inexpensive that buying it is a no-brainer.) It uses a five-point star diagram to explain how there are five areas that one has to improve upon to get a better score:

1. Development and support of point of view

2. Organization and focus

3. Grammar, usage, and mechanics

4. Variety of sentence structure

5. Use of vocabulary

The document explains each of these and then talks about a general approach to writing the essay, starting with the body. OK. we are on the same wavelength. I've always thought that your examples will define your position. Of course, Mike goes into much greater detail, but he still keeps the document short.

One issue that I talked with Mike about was how, even with this information, some students might go backwards before they go forwards. He agreed that that can happen. I don't want to shove his document in front of my son and say: "Read this!" My goal is to see the big picture and focus on the things that will most likely improve my son's score. I'm more apt to show him parts of the document that will help him.

Mike's book does put this into perspective. Since it's so hard to improve from a score of 10 to 12, you will be better off improving on the multiple choice section. If you get all of those questions correct, you can perhaps get a '9' on the essay and still get an 800 score. If you get one wrong, then you need to get an '11' on the essay to get an 800. If you get two wrong and a '10', you could drop down to 760! This analysis can be extended to those not up at that lofty height, but you come up with a different answer. On BB test 1, if you get a raw score of 41 (about 7 wrong), the difference between an essay score of 8 and 9 changes your writing score from 630 to 660! At that level, it would be better to work on your writing rather than the multiple choice questions. And, as Mike points out: "Colleges you apply to might read your SAT essay."

So, my question was where is my son located on this map. I had to have some calibration for the multiple choice questions and the essay. His PSAT score told me about the multiple choice questions, but I needed to have some real feedback on his essay. I was told that robo-readers tend to give high scores. Some talk about getting 12's from them, but 10's from real people. Mike offered to give me real feedback for my son so that we would know where in the ballpark he was. I think this is a good process. Don't just dive in and work without knowing what to work on. It turns out that my son is in the '10' ballpark with no studying, so I will probably just pick and choose parts of Mike's document to show him. I think I will start with having him organize his experiences and references in terms of larger ideas, like morality, technology, and creativity. Then I will have him practice reading questions and determining his examples and position. The biggest risk for him is to read a question that stops him cold. Apparently, a "reality TV" question once did that for a lot of people. It would be tough to fit The Great Gatsby into that.

From all of this, I found out that my son does not need to spend as much time as I thought on the essay, and we know specifically what to work on. Now, where did we put Erica's grammar book? We are also waiting for pages 26+ in her new "The Critical Reader" book.