SAT Writing: Colorful Vs. Formulaic

I read an article in Time tonight titled How I Did on the SAT. I have been interested in what the SAT is like now with the additional writing portion that I didn’t have to take.

What surprised me the most was John Cloud’s assesment that “the essay readers reward formulaic writing over original voices.” Well, I wasn’t that surprised. Original voices are not always heard. But, the people with original voices usually stand out in the crowd when they get out of the mechanical confines of high school. I’m not too worried about them; but I hope that one day high schools and test makers will look beyond the people conforming to standards and put more focus on those “original voices.” Not to say that conforming to standards is a bad thing, it’s just not the only way. They try to get you to do the same thing in college. Only then, though, will some professors notice what has gone unnoticed for many years—originality.

Cloud argues that formulaic writing earns better test scores.

Finally, I was right about one other thing: that the graders would reward formulaic, colorless writing over sharp young voices. The average essay score for kids who wrote in the first person was 6.9, compared with 7.2 for those who didn’t. (A 1-to-12 scale is used to grade essays. That score is then combined with the score on the grammar questions and translated into the familiar 200 to 800 points.) As my editors know well, first-person writing can flop. But the College Board is now distributing a guide called “20 Outstanding SAT Essays”–all of them perfect scores–and many are unbearably mechanical and clichéd (“smooth sailing always comes after the storm”; “they say that history repeats itself”).

“20 Outstanding SAT Essays.” How bout’ that? Anyone who actually wrote “smooth sailing always comes after the storm” or “they say that history repeats itself” in an essay I graded better have something a lot better to back that up. Those are two of the most unoriginal ideas I’ve seen in an essay since, well, high school. And I like the idea of first-person writing from high school students. I like to read it on any education level. It gives essays a more personal feel (this largely depends on the type of essay also).

I know what these essay-graders are looking for. They’re looking for the standard five-paragraph essay. You know, the one where the thesis statement must be the last line of the first paragraph, which is called the introduction; three body paragraphs supporting the thesis; and a closing paragraph, basically restating what you wrote in the introduction. Boring, “colorless,” writing.

I’m honestly just mad that young original voices are being graded poorer than the standard. This is because I am an English major, and I’ve read all types of writing. At least in my world, part of it anyway, colorful writing is appreciated. Forget some of those literature classes. The professors in those have a mechanical system too. I say keep writing from your heart with your voice to those kids whose voices are being smothered now. Someone will value it later.