According to the latest College Board Annual Report, the average SAT score is 528 for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. If you want a good score, which we’ll define as 1200 or over, you need to be above average on reading and writing (how far above depends on whether you expect to ace the math section).
To achieve a high score such as top colleges seek, say 1400 or above, you need to do even better. It’s not impossible to get all 800 points on the reading and writing section, which allows those of us with math anxiety a little leeway.
Someone who practices test taking will have a score that reflects their starting level plus test prep, but test prep can’t turn a cow’s ear into a silk purse. Better to go into it with some raw silk with which to work.
What about college essays? Admissions officers look at the writing and the character it reveals. A well written essay about the life of Shakespeare tells an admissions officer much more about Shakespeare than about you, so don’t think the rules of school essays apply. They don’t.
An essay that’s intensely personal, authentically based in your actual experiences, and well written is a home run. Most essays aren’t any of those things.
It would be nice if colleges could magically see your future potential and select you for it, but they can’t. All they can see is what you’ve already said and done. If you feel you want to go to a competitive college but haven’t done much in your life so far, that’s okay. Consider your next couple of years to be a great time to come out of your cocoon. Maybe that means taking time to work in a field you think you love. Or be an activist trying to improve our planet and the lives of those who live on it. Or go to community college and study not things that someone tells you are prerequisites for something else but rather the things that really excite you.
Consider all this to be your research for a killer essay, or just a period of your life well lived; it amounts to the same thing in the end and it’s always worth throwing yourself into things.
That’s the character part of your essay. What about the writing? They compliment each other and depending on the candidate, one or the other may be more important. It really does matter that you practice and read great writing.
Someone who wants to major in creative writing (for example) needs to show their stripes in their essay. “I like creative writing. It’s creative.” Right. Next? But try an opening line such as, “I changed my name and left home after reading Gravity’s Rainbow. Not that it’s my favorite book or even my favorite author, but something shifted deep inside me as those pages unfolded to reveal a world so meaningful and meaningless spilling off the tip of some long-ago author’s pen.” Now the admissions officer is sitting a little straighter and wondering what’s coming next.
The threat of not getting into a college of your choice is just a blunt tool I’m using to encourage literacy. It’s certainly not the best reason. Writing, whether it’s an essay or a math formula, is a way to formalize and solidify one's thinking. Without bringing thoughts to a sharp point there is no rigor, no tough choices, no higher order of development. Thoughts stay loose and remain at a low level unless you go through the rigor of having to express yourself formally to others. Writing does that.
If you’ve got a critical mind, you might see my last sentence as a red flag. I assert something as fact without support. Is it true that writing helps thinking? Like most questions, we can find relevant research studies. One asked a test group of college biology students to write extensively, while other students just took traditional exams. Critical thinking skills were evaluated before and after the course. Here’s the result: “Analysis, inference, and evaluation critical thinking skills differed significantly between the writing and non-writing groups.” The writers improved, the others did not. [Ian J. Quitadamo and Martha J. Kurtz, Learning to Improve: Using Writing to Increase Critical Thinking Performance in General Education Biology, CBE Life Sciences Education, 2007 Summer; 6(2): 140–154. The authors are from Central Washington University.]
Rather than cite more research studies to make the case for high literacy skills, I think I’ll just mention a factoid from relatively recent history. In April 1831, the state of Virginia made it illegal to teach free African Americans to read or write. Why? As a way, of course, to maintain a widespread system of Jim Crow era oppression. Literacy is the enemy of oppression and a potent enabler of freedom and democracy. How’s that for a reason to be highly literate?
Writing by route doesn’t help your writing a whole lot, which unfortunately disqualifies a fair amount of the writing one does for high school classes. Tackling challenging topics, trying new forms and styles, stretching your mind and your knowledge of the language—these are things that lift your writing up. In my experience, so-called extracurricular writing is by far the most important kind. And if it happens to help you ace the SAT or write a standout college essay, so much the better. So here’s to a summer and fall filled with great writing!
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure now available at Amazon. In addition to writing more Silent Lee adventures, he has begun work on a new kind of vampire story.