SAT Essay Help: Sample Content
Below you will find sample content notes for each of the topics we just reviewed. When preparing your notes, your goal is to understand and explore the major themes of the topics you choose. You should develop basic background information in two to four sentences and reference characters, settings, and/or author as applicable. Note that the final topic (#6) represents your fictitious relative or friend who can be used to support any essay when a third example is needed.
Keep in Mind
Because one of the writing qualities your scorers will be looking for is variety in sentence structure, develop background information using at least one simple sentence and a longer one that is more complex.
- Literature: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850. As a descendent of one of the judges of the Salem Witch Trials, Hawthorne was interested in America's Puritan past. He set The Scarlet Letter in seventeenth century Boston, where the strict moral code and intolerance for dissent of any kind have a profound impact on the characters in the novel.
Hester Prynne (Prynne rhymes with sin); Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (the character is dim, weak, not able to comprehend well); Roger Chillingworth (brings a chill to Hester's, Pearl's, and Dimmesdale's lives); Pearl, Hester's daughter (in the Bible, salvation is described as the Pearl of Great Price).
- Secrecy. Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her baby Pearl's father; Chillingworth finds a mysterious mark on Dimmesdale's chest that is not described for the reader until the end of the novel; psychological torment of Dimmesdale—is it because he is keeping a secret? Dimmesdale dies immediately after confessing publicly—revealing the secret that he is Pearl's father.
- Sin and knowledge. Goes back to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve sin by eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They are then thrown out of the garden. Hester and Dimmesdale sin and are cast out of their community. They experience suffering and gain greater knowledge about the human condition because of that sin. Dimmesdale is a more compassionate person and preacher because he has fallen. Hester leads a life on the fringes of society but does good work to help those less fortunate than herself.
- Evil. Who or what is truly evil? There is debate within the novel about the identity of the "Black Man" (evil). Hester and Dimmesdale's relationship (sin)\ is not described as evil but Chillingworth's vengeance is. Pearl says it is evil that Dimmesdale will not own up to being her father in public. He withholds his love from his own child.
- Identity. Hester: Boston society, by making her wear the Scarlet Letter, is imposing an identity on Hester. But Hester refuses to be limited by it and even claims it as her own. She won't move away (where she would not be known as an adulterer or have to wear the A) and even gets upset when Chillingworth tells her she might be able to remove the letter. The Native Americans who see her at the end of the novel think it is the symbol of an important person. Dimmesdale: His role as minister means people don't see him as a regular person. The role both defines and limits him. Pearl: She is the result of Hester and Dimmesdale's sin, but she is also a great blessing to her mother's life, giving Hester a reason to continue when all of society has pushed her away.
"We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin."
"No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true."
- Art: Picasso's Guernica
In 1937, Pablo Picasso painted a mural for the World's Fair in Paris. It depicts the aftermath of the German bombing of Guernica, a city in his native Spain.
- Art as a political protest or statement. Picasso never painted a politically themed picture before and often said that he did not believe art should be used as a political statement. However, the bombing in his native country was so devastating that he changed his mind.
- Hope. Even in the darkest times, there is still hope (the painting includes a lightbulb within a sun shape and a flower held in the hand of a victim). The belief that things will get better helps people who are suffering to keep going.
- War as unheroic and brutal. This represents a break with art of the past that glorified the violence and sacrifice of battle. Innocent victims include animals (a horse and a bull are pictured).
- Use of color. Black, white, and gray give the painting the look of a newspaper and represent violence as abstract rather than realistic. Picasso learned of the massacre through eyewitness accounts and photographs in the newspapers of Paris, where he was living at the time.
- Indecision. By waiting to choose a theme, Picasso was presented with a terrible event that proved to be a powerful subject for his painting.
Key Quotes"Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth."
- History: The Great Depression
On October 29, 1929, the United States stock market crashed. This event, along with bank failures, consumers' fears that kept them from making purchases, bad governmental policies, and even the environment came together to create a worldwide economic collapse. Recovery would take nearly a decade.
- Excess of the 1920s. Hundreds of thousands of Americans bought stock—many even borrowing money to do so. Share prices rose, creating an economic bubble. One economist echoed the sentiments of many when he said the market had reached a "permanently high plateau." The bubble burst on October 29, 1929, when over 16 million shares were traded, and the stock market lost about 12% of its value (added to the 13% lost the day before).
- Fear. People lost confidence as they watched the markets plunge. This led to dramatically reduced spending and a run on the banks. Fewer goods purchased meant less production and a decrease in the workforce (25+% unemployment). Massive withdrawals plus defaults on loans led to the failure of almost half of all U.S. banks.
- Protectionism. The Smoot-Hawley Act tried to protect the American economy by heavily taxing imports. This led to less trade with other countries as well as retaliatory policies of former trading partners. In today's global economy, such policies are even more foolhardy and can lead to devastating consequences.
- Action versus inaction. Britain and Japan moved quickly to leave the gold standard, meaning their currency could no longer be exchanged for gold. As a result, the economies of these countries recovered more quickly than those that waited to leave the gold standard (including the United States, France, and Italy). This cause and effect relationship is explained in Economist Barry Eichengreen's book Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression (1992).
- Environment. Drought plus farming practices that damaged soil caused the Dust Bowl. Livestock, crops, and machinery were destroyed, and more people were put out of work. About 800,000 so-called Okies moved to California looking for jobs (John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath deals with this).
Rise of extremism in Germany leads to election of Adolf Hitler; election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt over Herbert Hoover brings New Deal in America; Smoot-Hawley policy eroded trust and cooperation between nations.
"Brother, can you spare a dime?"
(refrain from a popular song from 1931)
"…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
(President Franklin Delano Roosevelt)
- Science: Climate Change
The Earth has become about one degree (Fahrenheit) warmer in the last century. No one is debating that fact, but there is considerable debate about why this warming is happening and how, if at all, we can stop it.
- Science. Greenhouse effect—use of fossil fuels and electricity is tied to warming temperatures.
- Political. Countries that support this view are joining together to try to combat it. Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (came into effect in 2005) is a legally binding agreement of 186 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Economics. Cost benefit analysis: Is the price of compliance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions cost-effective? Should taxes be put on fuels in proportion to their carbon dioxide content?
- Agriculture. Agriculture is very vulnerable to climate change. This could challenge countries whose GDP is dependent on agriculture; may be harder to produce enough food for the world population.
- Technology. How can we get energy without emitting greenhouses gases? There is an effort to find/make alternative, nonpolluting energy sources; clean coal is being explored, as well as geo-engineering solutions, such as increasing cloud formations and the amount of CO2 absorbed by oceans.
"The danger posed by war to all of humanity—and to our planet—is at least matched by the climate crisis and global warming."
(UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon)
"Few challenges facing America—and the world—are more urgent than combating climate change."
(President Barack Obama)
- Historical Biography: Thomas Edison
American inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931) has been described as more responsible than anyone else for creating the modern world. In his research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, he invented the phonograph, made the electric lightbulb, and started the motion picture industry.
Because about 20% of SAT essay assignments to date have had something to do with emotions and/or the reason for certain behaviors, develop a corresponding theme for each of your content topics. Consider Edison's relationship with his mother, for example, or the fear that helped to worsen the Great Depression. These kinds of themes will help make your content more flexible and adaptable to a wide range of assignments.
- Perseverance. Not all of Edison's inventions were successful. Although he had over 1,000 patents, he had some ideas that never took off such as using cement to build phonographs, pianos, and buildings. Edison's greatest failure was an attempt to invent a practical way to mine iron ore. He lost a fortune in the attempt. But he did not stop inventing and built the largest laboratory in existence in 1886. More than half of his inventions began in that laboratory.
- Lack of formal education. Edison spent only a few months at school. He constantly questioned everything, and this upset his teacher who said he was slow. His mother became so angry that she withdrew him from school after just three months and taught him at home.
- Early "green" pioneer. Edison developed the alkaline battery for use in cars, but by the time he perfected it, electric cars were being replaced by gasoline powered ones. The battery had many other uses, though, and was very profitable.
- Cooperation between scientists and the military. Edison headed the Naval Consulting Board before and during World War I. The board brought together scientists and inventors to aid the military.
"Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."
"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
"My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me."
High-school-aged friend, male or female, who conveniently illustrates the necessary theme or an older relative who serves the same purpose.
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