When I was my students’ age, the SAT had two sections, not three. The verbal section was heavy on analogies, which the College Board has long since purged from the test. They added an essay in 2005, which to me feels like last week, but to my students, that’s a time when their ages were in single digits.
Read too many SAT essay prompts in a row, and you begin to think your head will explode, even if you’re not taking the test yourself: Can success be a catastrophe? Which is the stronger motivator–conscience or the will to power? Has technology outpaced our ability to put it to good use? Do ends justify all means? What is the good? How shall we construct our civilization? How must we live? There’s a slight tendency toward the grandiose, which I quietly remedy by imagining Scarlett O’Hara working for the College Board on essay prompts–Where shall I go? What shall I do? All the real essay prompts are more entertaining in Scarlett O’Hara’s voice. My students, however, claim never to have heard of Scarlett O’Hara. Imagine being that young. Now imagine that you have 25 minutes to bluff your way through a response in five-paragraph essay form with specific examples, and that your parents have half-convinced you that your entire future depends on how you answer. Twenty-five minutes to put your civilization right, with unfailingly correct use of commas and with diction in the formal academic style.
One way to arrive at the starting line for that sprint is to have a handful of versatile works of literature in your head from which to draw examples. I’ve lost count of how many students I’ve worked with who found ways to use Macbeth, The Catcher in the Rye, and Fahrenheit 451 for every single practice essay, no matter what the prompt was about.
Shakespearean tragedy is predictably versatile–it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!–but I wasn’t expecting Ray Bradbury to hold up equally well as an all-purpose example. I have yet to see a practice essay use Fahrenheit 451 in a way that couldn’t work. Didn’t work? Well, sometimes, depending on how close to cooked the student’s writing skills were, but that’s neither Bradbury’s nor his fireman protagonist’s fault.
There’s enough technology in Montag’s world that is still ahead of or sideways from ours that 451 can serve for all technology questions. There’s Montag of the before-picture, conforming and combusting, and there’s Montag of the after-picture, transforming and transcending–any question about the inner life is covered. The self-lobotomizing culture in which the book begins will do for any thesis that calls for cynicism, and the secret society of hobo scholars that inherits the earth supports any call to idealism.
Of course, it helps that the SAT’s official scoring rubric does not permit the live humans who score the essay to ding the kids’ scores for misinterpreting or misrepresenting their texts. You can claim Macbeth is about some guy named Hamlet, or about two gents from Verona, or about a barbarian named Conan for that matter, and as long as you present a relationship between evidence and argument that’s coherent within the alternate universe of your essay, your evidence can be as far out of synch with the real world as you like.
The scorers are also not supposed to take into account the cultural status of the examples students use, either. I know of a real case in which a student got a perfect score from the College Board for an essay whose examples all came from Gilligan’s Island.
Given this wide latitude in how they choose and handle their examples, I wonder why more students don’t use works of fantasy.
Le Guin and Tolkien are the most obvious go-to authors, the ones I imagine writing about when I put myself in my students’ shoes. Ged’s struggle to integrate his shadow self in A Wizard of Earthsea and Frodo’s suffering to resist the shadow on his world in The Lord of the Rings would work for nearly every prompt I’ve seen that dealt with the individual’s inner life. Why does no one use Aragorn’s training for kingship, or Prince Arren’s in The Farthest Shore, for the questions on governance? Technology questions don’t fit so well–they cry out for science fiction–but the total absence of fantasy from my students’ test prep repertoire is perplexing.
Not that I would recommend writing one’s SAT essay in the mode of Schwarzenegger’s Conan. What is good in life? To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women. That might be a bit much, even for the novelty-starved scorers who applauded the Gilligan essay.