Controversy Sat Essay

Brianna Letourneau was surprised when she first opened her SAT earlier this month. Letourneau, a senior at Eastside High in Gainesville, Fla. has taken the college entrance exam three times. This time, however the essay question caught her off guard.

"I was expecting something much different," Letourneau said. Among the reasons many high school students will long remember their March 12 SAT scores, which are being released today, is because of an essay question that continues to rankle: Do people benefit from reality TV? It's a topic that has sparked debate among students, educators and College Board officials. Some test-takers like Letourneau felt the prompt was insensitive to students who are not allowed to watch reality television shows such as MTV's Real World or ABC's The Bachelor. "If your mom and dad don't allow you to watch reality TV, you're stuck," she said. So what about those students who don't keep up to date with The Bachelor's love life or Snooki's latest social outing? College Board officials say they are not testing the student's knowledge of the essay subject, but rather how they compose their writing. In a statement released by the College Board, Laurence Bunin, senior vice president for operations and the general manager of the SAT Test said, "The central task of the SAT essay is to take one side of an issue and develop an argument to support that position." Using a popular culture reference is not only appropriate, but potentially even more engaging for students," said Bunin. Latourneau feels this gives students who watch reality TV an advantage. "Essay questions are usually more generic. How can you make a strong persuasive argument if you don't know anything about reality TV?" Not all of the test takers, however, felt the question was out of line. Kelly Savage, a junior at Ponte Vedra High School in Ponte Vedra, Fla. was given the same SAT question, but doesn't see why the question would be considered unfair.

SAT Essay Asks About Reality TV

"Reality stars are 'role models' and the constant scrutiny of their actions will always be a hot topic, and certainly one that the average student taking the SAT should be able to formulate an opinion on," she said. Even though Savage does not regularly watch reality TV she felt the prompt was especially relevant to students her age. "With reality programming prevalent on networks such as MTV and E!, whose target demographic is teens and young adults, it is relatively difficult for students my age to not watch reality shows here or there," she said. Like Savage, Tori Cabot is another teenager who does not typically tune into reality TV. Cabot, a junior at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, took the college-entrance exam for the first time on March 12th. "The thing that surprised me was the topic. I doubted it at first," she said.

'They Want To See If You Can Create A Well-Crafted Essay'

Cabot worked with a tutor in preparation for the SAT, but says she never came across a question like that one. Although it caught her off guard, she also feels that's the point of this type of test. "They might throw a curveball, but they want to see if you can create a well-crafted essay, no matter what the question," said Cabot. Cabot admits the question was strange, but does not feel the essay question alone will greatly affect anyone's scores. "I'm a little nervous, but not extremely concerned," she said. It's not about the point of view, but rather how the test-taker constructs the point of view, Cabot explained. "There might be some advantage for students who watch reality TV, but students who do not watch reality TV still have an opportunity to argue a point and show good writing technique," she said. Now that scores are released, the debate is bound to continue. College Board officials feel those who are up in arms may be missing the point. "If presented with a topic about balancing the risk of climbing a mountain with the reward of reaching the summit, for example, a good writer could compose a strong essay without ever having reached the summit of Mount Everest," said Bunin. "We acknowledge that not all students spend valuable hours watching reality television shows, nor are we recommending that students watch these programs."

True or False: Since essay length is not mentioned in the SAT essay grading rubric, it doesn’t matter how much you write in your essay.

Answer: True...but also false. Read on for an explanation of why and how the length of your SAT essay can affect your score.

feature image credit: How long by Martin Abegglen, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped & modified from original.


Why Does Essay Length Matter?

Why would you think that essay length even matters in the first place? As I said in the introduction, it's not as if the SAT essay rubric mentions essay length at all.

Well, there's at least one good reason to think this: essay length is positively correlated with essay score.

Ever since the essay was added to the SAT, current MIT research affiliate (and former director of the MIT undergraduate writing program) Les Perelman has been vocal about how the longer an essay is, the more likely it is to get a higher score. According to this 2005 New York Times article by Michael Winerip, Perelman analyzed the lengths and scores of 54 SAT-approved sample essays and found a nearly 90% correlation. The shortest essays (around 100 words) received the lowest possible score, 1 (or a combined score of 2 out of 12), while the longest essays (around 400 words), received the highest score, a 6 (or a combined score of 12 out of 12). Based on these findings, representatives of the CollegeBoard stated that they would be releasing shorter examples of higher-scoring essays.

This controversy first erupted in early 2005, right after the new SAT essay was introduced. To see if there had been any changes since then, I did my own analysis of the essays in the CollegeBoard's essay scoring guide that were all written in response to the sample prompt. Take a look at what I found:

Bonus graph reading practice for you in this, an article on essays. You're welcome.


As you can see, as essay length (measured by word count in the graph above) increases, the score also increases.

Just because longer essays tend to score better, however, doesn’t mean that you should just write the word “ideology” over and over again to fill up the page. The reason longer essays tend to score better is that students who write longer essays provide more support for their theses.

If this is the essay prompt:

"Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority,"

and all you write is the following:

"It's important to question authority because sometimes authority stops you from doing things you want. Like getting a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony."

for two pages, you'll still get a 0. Maybe a 1, if the grader is feeling generous and thinks that you made some attempt to write about the issue discussed in a prompt. For more on the thought process of essay grading, read our article about insights from real SAT essay graders (coming soon).

Similarly, if you try to drag out one example by writing larger than usual and restating the same facts and information over and over again, it won't automatically get you a higher score. In fact, you may lose points if either of your essay's graders think that your repeating of information leads to lack of coherence in your writing.

In any case, unless you have extremely small handwriting, it’s very difficult to write an essay that presents a thesis and supports it with at least two specific examples in less than one page.


Bad hair day by Brian Snelson, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

Seriously, though. Look at that face. Wouldn't you want a pony?


So How Long Should Your Essay Be?

Many factors go into determining essay length, which makes it difficult to give a blanket length recommendation. Here are the most important factors when it comes to length of your SAT essay:

  • Vocabulary. Often, the more advanced vocab you use, the fewer words you’ll need to get the job done, which might result in a shorter essay.
  • Handwriting size. Students with larger handwriting will naturally take up more space on the page than students with smaller handwriting. This doesn't necessarily mean students with larger handwriting have an advantage, however; in fact, students with larger handwriting tend to run into the issue of having filled two pages and not finished saying everything they needed or wanted to say.
  • How fast you can write and think. If you need to take longer to plan out your essay, you might end up writing a shorter essay, simply because you don't have as much time to write. That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll do worse on the essay - since an organized essay with strong specific examples will score better than a disorganized one without specific examples - but it does mean that you might end up with less time to write out your ideas.
  • How much time you leave yourself to write (vs. how much time you take to plan). This is something you need to figure out for yourself through practice and observation. Over the years, I've realized that I can write fairly quickly, which means that it's okay if I take a little more time to plan out my essay - I'll still be able to fill up those two pages. On the other hand, if you find that you're a slow writer, you might not be able to write enough unless you get very fast at planning your essay.

In general, assuming about 150 words per handwritten page, you need to write at least a page and a half (1.5 pages) to get a 3 or above on your essay (or a combined score of 6 or above). You'll need at least that much space to say what you need to say and support it clearly with concrete examples.


What’s Next?

Want to find out more about how to write a good SAT essay? Watch us write a top-scoring essay step-by-step, then check out our tips on how to write a long SAT essay as well as our more general SAT essay tips.

Discover the secrets to getting a perfect 12 on your SAT essay here.

What if you're planning on taking the new SAT? Read our breakdown of the new SAT essay here.

Want to get serious about improving your SAT score? We have the leading online SAT prep program that will raise your score by 240+ points, guaranteed.

Exclusive to our program, we have an expert SAT instructor grade each of your SAT essays and give you customized feedback on how to improve your score. This can mean an instant jump of 80 points on the Writing section alone.

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