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Students: Forget What You Learned
About Writing for the SAT

As the new school term approaches, it is worth noting that this year’s batch of college freshmen will bring something unprecedented to their colleges and universities: Experience with the new writing portion of the SAT. As the first high school students to take this new section of the exam, one would hope that they prepared for it by honing writing strategies that will help them succeed in higher education.

Don’t count on it. Granted, students who did well on the written part of the test have demonstrated that they understand the rules of grammar, usage, and punctuation. That knowledge will help some freshmen coast, a little. But, beyond that, all that these particular students have proven is that they understand a very formulaic template for persuasive writing, namely, the five-paragraph essay.

The five-paragraph essay has its place in writing instruction. It is often the first template teachers use to teach essay writing because it is relatively straight forward and it covers the basics. It teaches students how to write an introduction, how to write a thesis, how to write a three point, three paragraph body, and how to write a conclusion. Journalists and writing instructors who have studied the writing section of the SAT report that a strong five-paragraph essay, enhanced by a smattering of fancy words and references to literary or historic figures, is basically what graders want. Many new college students, in turn, spent much of last winter practicing to write just such pieces. Finding admittance to a good college has never been more difficult, and if learning to write “to the test” helped the perseverant, so much the better.

But students eager to succeed in college better drop that writing model, and fast. College instructors, compositionists in particular – and most freshmen are destined to meet one of those – hate five-paragraph essays with a passion that borders on the obsessive. I have heard composition professors refer to 5-paragraph essays with such disdain and disgust that one would think they were staring at something foul and putrescent.

Here’s their complaint: five-paragraph essays foster shrunken narratives that, because of their rigid format, tend toward the over-general and unanalyzed. The confined structure of the body paragraphs means that writers must eschew complex argument, nuanced study, and detailed examples in favor of three weak suppositions. Pity the poor writer who would like to discuss four – not three – ideas. The template doesn’t allow it – after all, there can only be three body paragraphs, and thus three ideas, in a five-paragraph essay, so the writer tends to combine information in convoluted paragraphs that lack unity and clarity

To combat this dreaded beast, my university, Cal State LA, has even produced it’s own handout: “The trap of the 5-paragraph essay.” It is standard issue at the University Writing Center and professors are welcome to distribute it to students.

It’s ironic that the very students who had to work so hard to prove how well they write -- who took the SAT prep courses, who went on line to study sample exams, who practiced until they could write five-paragraph essays in their sleep -- are now destined to fail if they utilize their expertise in college.

Which leads one to wonder, how exactly does the SAT writing section demonstrate that students are ready for higher education? It doesn’t even show that they understand what college-level writing is all about.

If you are about to enter college, however, you have more important concerns. The new term is upon us. If not the five-paragraph essay, what? Take my advice: write six paragraphs. Seven is better. In fact, forget about rigid templates. Let your argument be your guide. Write with detail. Write with passion. Use examples. Keep the smattering (really, a few will suffice) of big words, but only if you know what they mean. And cite those literary and historic figures that support your argument, just make sure you actually studied them in class. No one cares about Virgil if the topic is the Civil War.

Above all, remember, college professors – like SAT graders – know what they like. But you know your professors. For goodness sake, ask them what they look for in student writing. They will be bowled over by your curiosity and impressed by your eagerness to learn. Those things – not formulaic templates – actually matter in college. Enjoy them while you can.