Add Flavor to your Essay- Bring in History

I have read literally thousands of SAT essays, and I know that many students mention examples from history in their 25 minute essay. However, students do just that – they mention history. In 25 minutes, the average student has difficulty coming up with the details necessary to really support an essay and therefore only brings in superficial examples without adding any juicy details. The goal is to memorize and include concrete examples and interesting facts (and, if possible, even a date) for three historical moments.

Take a look at this weak historical detail included in response to the following prompt: “Can success be disastrous?”

During the Civil War, the North was competing with the South, and the North succeeded, freeing the slaves but leaving some people unhappy.

What is this proving? Everyone knows that slavery was abolished. This is a superficial, boring account of the Civil War, exactly the type of account that will prevent you from achieving a top score on the SAT essay. And, “some people unhappy”? This is another superficial statement that gives less-than-clear direction.

As a grader, I need concrete examples! Add flavor to your essay with battles, dates, names, places, etc.

From 1861 to 1865, the northern and southern United States entered into a period of bloody civil war; although the North’s success emancipated slaves, the country was thrown into a period of economic and social instability.

Ooh – much more interesting. I have a date; I have a place; I have a direction as to where the essay will be going. Now the writer can bring in details of the Reconstruction Era. These are new details – about the birth of the KKK, tax increases for the South, the oppressive Black Codes, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

I recommend that your historical moments include one war, one era, and one historical figure. These should be disparate moments in history so that all possible essay topics are covered. Don’t choose the Civil War, the Civil War Era, and Abe Lincoln!

To find a list of recommended historical moments to “own,” check out Write the SAT Essay Right(on Amazon or at www.barnesandnoble.com) and look at page 63.

Five Damaging Remarks Well-Meaning Parents Make

I recently posted the five characteristics of supportive parents, adapted from The Zen of the SAT by Susan Fine. Now it’s time to look at Susan Fine’s five damaging remarks well-meaning parents make. Sadly, I see that I have been guilty of at least three of the five damaging remarks, regarding tests in general. I plan on keeping this article handy as a reminder of what not to say to my sons!

1. “Don’t worry about it…It’s no big deal.”

A parent telling a teenage child not to worry about the SAT/ACT is like a general telling a soldier not to fear going to battle. It is easy for some parents, who have long since cleared these hurdles, to make light of them. “That test is so stupid. You’ll do fine,” is another way of saying: your concerns are silly. Now, in addition to the burdens of dealing with the test itself, your child may also feel foolish for being concerned.

Being dismissive of something that deeply affects another person is not a helpful way to make him or her less concerned. The words may be temporarily reassuring, but the implied message can be insulting. Perhaps parents do this because they can’t deal with seeing their children feel such acute anxiety and they feel unable to help. When your child was little, you could give him/her a hug and a kiss and make troubles go away. But the SAT/ACT is a challenge you can’t solve for your child.

2. “What did you get on your practice test?”

This question may seem fair, but it is not. If your child is preparing for the SAT/ACT and practicing weekly, you want to know how the practice is going. But, it is a loaded question. We all want to please our parents. We can’t help it. Even if you act pleased with the results, your child may feel that you are not pleased or that you shouldn’t be. Practice tests are just that – practice. Too much scrutiny of practice test results creates anxiety and can limit improvement. Of course, parents do need to be involved and should ask questions. However, parents should not focus on a specific practice test score. Scores fluctuate. Sometimes they are high; sometimes they are lower. Please emphasize the positive that you are proud that your child is practicing, and do not focus solely on one week’s scores.

3. “X is about as high as you can realistically expect to score.”

In an effort to make your child less anxious, you may try to lower your child’s expectations. However, these comments can feel like a lack of faith in your child. Also, you may not really know what your child is capable of doing.

The best bet is to set REALISTIC goals and to discuss with your child what he/she will have to do to achieve these goals. (If you need WilsonPrep to help you and your child create realistic goals, based off of diagnostic or PSAT/PLAN scores, please email us at info@wilsonprep.com.)

4. “That’s good, but you can do better.”

Some parents believe that by withholding their approval they can make their child try harder. This sort of behavior may make your child perform in the short run, but, in the long run, the lack of approval may undermine your child’s confidence.

5. “You’re just not a good standardized test taker.”

This comment is akin to “We’re just not good at math in this family.” It expresses the idea that doing well on the SAT/ACT or in particular subjects is inherited or fated at birth and that doing poorly runs in the family. Of course, there are differences in how people do on standardized tests (or in math classes), but a parent’s promoting the notion that a child just isn’t good at standardized tests may be the best way to create a self-fulfilling prophecy and to destroy any motivation to try to do well. I have seen too many students (and even students who originally said that both they and their parents don’t do well on standardized tests) make enormous improvements on the SAT/ACT. Those students who are confident are the students who show the greatest increase!

Narrowing the College Search

There are thousands of colleges and universities to choose from. Start by eliminating schools that do not meet your standards.

Consider the following criteria when first beginning your college search:

• Regional Location
• Setting (Urban or Rural)
• Enrollment Size (20,000 or 2,000)
• Academic Program
• Admissions Criteria

Admissions criteria should be the LAST thing to consider in your college search. Do not rule out schools that you’d love to go to simply because you think you won’t get in. Of course, be reasonable – if you’re a C+ student you most likely won’t get into Harvard, nor would you be happy there. But plan to apply to several “reach” and several “safety” schools.

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