SAT Essay Help: Understanding and Responding To Prompts and Assignments
Every SAT essay begins with a prompt, a short paragraph excerpted from a book, essay, or article. The essay prompt expresses a clear point of view on an issue. It's followed by an assignment that directs your writing. Most often, the assignment asks whether you agree or disagree with the prompt's position. The assignment also reminds you to back up your viewpoint with facts and examples from your classwork and reading (academic evidence) and/or what you have experienced or observed (personal evidence). You may choose to write a completely academic or personal essay, or combine the two.
Here's an example of an essay prompt:
There are only two kinds of choices available to us. First, the active: we make something happen and live with the consequences. Or we choose to not make a choice; we weigh the facts, decide the price of change is too high and make the choice to live with things as they are. The second kind of choice, the more dangerous, is the postponement of choice.
—Adapted from Making Choices, by Alexandra Stoddard
(William Morrow and Company, 1994)
Here is the assignment for this prompt:
Can it be dangerous to postpone choices? Organize and compose an essay that establishes your viewpoint on this issue. Substantiate it with examples and evidence derived from what you have read, studied, experienced, or observed.
The Assignment Holds The Key
Looking carefully at the prompt and assignment, you'll notice that the prompt contains much more information than the assignment directs you to respond to. Specifically, the prompt introduces the idea that there are only two available choices, and then discusses how choices are made and the consequences that follow a choice. The assignment zeros in on one small part of the prompt—whether or not it's dangerous to postpone making a choice.
If you pay too much attention to the prompt or to any piece of information it contains rather than focusing on the assignment, you could easily write an essay that's off topic. (Recall that no matter how well written, an off-topic essay will receive a score of zero.) Therefore, it's critically important that you respond exclusively to the assignment as you plan your essay by choosing supporting information, and then writing a thesis statement.
People with great projects underfoot habitually look further and more clearly into the future than people who are mired in day-to-day concerns. These former control the future because by necessity they must project themselves into it. They are seldom intimidated by the alarms and confusions of the present because they have something greater of their own, some sense of their large and coherent motion in time to compare the present with.
—Adapted from Time and the Art of Living,
by Robert Grudin (Harper & Row, 1982)
Does having a plan for your future help keep the concerns of daily living in better perspective? Organize and compose an essay that establishes your viewpoint on this issue. Substantiate it with examples and evidence derived from what you have read, studied, experienced, or observed.
Notice again how the assignment gives you everything you need to write the essay, and the prompt gives much more information. In fact, it might take you two or three minutes to read the prompt and understand it. For this reason, it makes sense to read the assignment first. If you feel you need more information, check the prompt. But keep in mind that you must respond only to the assignment. Reading the prompt is optional; it takes valuable minutes you could have spent planning or writing and should only be done—if at all—after you've read the assignment.
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