The SAT, that infamous rite of terror and No. 2 pencils, is still a solid four months away for this year’s crop of precocious high-school juniors. But in certain precincts of the city—the ones with the good public schools that neighborhood kids still don’t attend—some students have already written their 25-minute essay. In their minds, at least.
“I already have my essay in my head. I use examples from history, literature, and [my] personal [life],” said a Dalton girl whom we’ll call “Tracey,” who spends approximately 100 minutes a week prepping for the big exam with a private SAT tutor. “My history is the Gettysburg Address or the first walk on the moon; my literature is To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men; and my personal is always about [community service].
“I’ve even been taught lines to use,” she said with a self-aware grimace (she knows what’s what), “like in my conclusion to say, ‘Each and everyone one of us should …. ’”
It was 8:30 a.m. on a private-school morning, and 16-year-old Tracey was sitting in Juliano’s Espresso Bar, a café near her school that is known as something of a tutor-tutee gathering spot. Poised, confident and clutching a large iced coffee (she needs a good three, she said, to really get going), she might almost have been mistaken for a breezy young Wall Street analyst—except that she wasn’t analyzing stocks, bonds or pork bellies, but unpacking the mysteries of The Essay, one of the most terrifying—and perhaps controversial—features of the “new” SAT. Among the recent tricks she had learned, she said, was memorizing quotes from history and literature to add extra oomph to her essay, using a second pencil as a kind of ruler to underline the names of books, and tailoring her tiny handwriting to just the right height and width.
“It should be big, but not too big that it uses up all the room without getting your point across,” she said, repeating her tutor’s handwriting directives. “And it shouldn’t be too bubbly that it’s wide, but it should be bubbly enough that it’s not too high. Little stuff like that,” she concluded, with a wry wink.
Tracey is, admittedly, something of a dramatic case, the over-studious product of one of the city’s top private tutors. But in an age when tutoring has become as central to certain students’ lives as skinny jeans and riding boots, when private-schoolers dedicate almost as much time to test-prep as calculus, science and Latin (call it finishing school for finishing school), many students are receiving at least some kind of “help”—on the math section, the verbal section and now the essay. Particularly, perhaps, the essay. That this section is worth only one-ninth or so of a student’s total SAT grade makes the whole obsession all the more bizarre.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the College Board introduced the essay in March 2005 as part of a mass retooling that added a third section to the test and bumped the perfect score from a 1,600 to 2,400, they hoopla’d it as an opportunity to bring depth to the SAT: The essay was going to resurrect the lost skill of writing in American classrooms, to show students’ raw, uncoached abilities, maybe even end all the rote SAT memorization and cramming.
“The reason that writing was added was because writing is critical to success—not only in college, but in the world beyond,” said College Board spokeswoman Caren Scoropanos. “It is critical, not optional, to be able to write and to write well.”
But if the idea sounds smashing, the reality has been somewhat dimmer, the gawky love-child of a grading system that seems to favor rote formulas—readers spend an average of just three minutes with each essay—and a tutorial-industrial complex that will find the shortcut around almost anything. This has been particularly true in New York, where SAT prep has become, for a certain caste of student, a kind of precollegiate arms race—and tutors are the mad scientists making the weapons. Already, in less than two years, they have sliced, diced and broken the essay into its component parts. They have made it, in the prep-world vernacular, tutorized.
Tutorized, adj.: heavily influenced by your tutor, coached down to the last period and comma.
“[The essay] is utterly coachable,” said Katherine Cohen, founder and C.E.O. of IvyWise, one of several “educational consulting companies” that have sprung up to help coach kids into their dream school. “There is sort of a method to the madness, in the sense that there’s very specific things that they’re looking for in order to get a high score.”
And what exactly are these specific things? These tricks and treats that can bounce a student’s score from, say, a 7 to an 11? (The essay is graded on a scale of 0 to 12.)
Opinions tend to vary somewhat, depending on the philosophy of the tutor as well, perhaps, as the price.
But even so, a few basic precepts stand out, like: The key to the essay-reader’s heart begins with the five-paragraph essay. Or: Length really does matter. Or: Scrap all those English-class lessons about elegant prose and complex ideas, because they won’t get you far with a harried, hurried reader.
“The big thing about the essay is that it’s its own particular type of essay,” said Jonathan Arak, a veteran Princeton Review tutor. “I had a student, and she had won three citywide essay awards and went to Hunter College High School, and she was getting an 8 out of 12. Meanwhile she said, ‘There’s this kid who’s half-asleep all the time, and he got an 11.’ And basically I said to her, ‘You’re writing too well.’”
A lanky Dalton junior named Brianna offered an even more succinct appraisal: “I just think basically they’re telling us structure is more important than anything else,” she said. “Like really rigid old-school structure.”
Brianna was sitting in a classroom smelling vaguely of cleaning chemicals, her two best Dalton friends bouncing in the desks beside her. It was a Thursday evening, and they were gathered for their weekly joint Princeton Review tutorial, which they had decided to take because they had discovered, as one of the girls said, that “everyone who wants to get into college [takes some kind of course].” This being essay week, they were busy brainstorming books they could cite as examples in their essays—a task they took to like bidders at an auction.
“Anna Karenina,” shouted Teddy, an energetic sophistikid in jeans, Converse and a Rolling Stones shirt.
“Romeo and Juliet—and Moby-Dick,” chimed in her friend, a canny, bespectacled creature who asked to remain anonymous.
“Macbeth and 1984,” hollered Brianna.
Their teacher, Jackie Pinckney, looked on with pride, nodding and encouraging, before offering her own little tidbit of essay advice. “This is kind of an aside, but it’s also really important: Make sure it’s a good length,” she said. “You don’t want to put in a bunch of BS and stuff … but push for two pages. And if you need to, write bigger.”
“Write bigger” has, oddly, become a sort of mantra for some tutors, an SAT theme song in the key of perfectionism. Most likely it began after the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s undergraduate writing program found, in early 2005, that he could actually guess an essay’s score just by looking at its length—from across a room. Longer was, apparently, better.
Ms. Scarpano vehemently denied this theory, citing a “tremendous” in-house study that showed that whether a kid wrote one page or two, or used cursive or print, “doesn’t matter.” But try telling that to a group of hyper teens.
“What my tutor always tells me,” said Tracey, “is that when an essay grader, who only has 35 seconds to grade a paper, looks at it, they’re going to be a lot more impressed by an essay with tab marks, five paragraphs, not a lot of scratches-out, not a lot of carets—just like a very clear, nice paper.
“A good half of the grade these days,” she added, “is what the essay looks like.”
The Dalton junior believes she knows whence she speaks. As recently as six weeks ago, she was landing practice scores of 6 or 7, but her latest attempt—which incorporated her tutor’s advice to use her thumb to make perfectly sized paragraph indentations—scored a solid 11.
“I hate to admit it—that’s why my parents are paying [my tutor],” she said.
Of course, not all tutors are convinced by this bells-and-whistles strategy. Brandon Jones, the national director of SAT and ACT programs at the test-prep giant Kaplan, said he thought the penmanship issue was overblown, that it was easy to “sensationalize” the importance of handwriting. “If you look at the college-boards scoring guide,” he said, “it really isn’t even one of the bullet points on a score of 6 or 5.”
But even he had to admit that students ignore legible penmanship at their own peril—a lesson that one of the three Princeton Review kids learned the embarrassing way, when she scored a zero on her first diagnostic test because of illegibility. Still, she was lucky: While she’s been instructed simply to “concentrate” more on her handwriting, some particularly recalcitrant scribblers have been forced to take more regressive measures, including buying second-grade handwriting books to relearn their letters.
Tracey was relieved that her own tutor had never made her do much more than puff up her letters and rewrite a few sloppy phrases, because her writing, while “very small,” is still neat. Even so, she had her doubts about the new hyper-tutoring culture.
“I think it’s just corrupting the SAT more,” she said. “It’s defeating its purpose. The essay was supposed to even the playing field a little bit more, and it’s just making it worse and worse.”
Pyongyang Eliminated as Host of 2007 Invasion
“President Bush said Wednesday that he would not use force against North Korea.”
—The New York Times
WASHINGTON, Nov. 1—The Republican Invasion Committee announced today that Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, is no longer under consideration as a site for the 2007 Invasion, narrowing the list of finalists to five: Tehran, Damascus, Caracas, Khartoum and Paris.
“Of course, we are very disappointed,” said Song Il Sung, head of Pyongyang’s Invasion effort. “After the investment in infrastructure we have made, with encouragement from the R.I.C.”—referring to the Republican Invasion Committee, which supervises the selection process—“it is like being hit in the face with a bowl of miyeoknaeng-guk,” he said, referring to Sea Mustard in Chilled Vinegar Water.
The billions of dollars invested in nuclear-weapon programs, culminating last month in the test of a small nuclear device, were a high-stakes gamble for the impoverished Stalinist country. “With the money we spent to attract the Invasion,” said Nat Phor Long, a dissident leader, “we could have fed all our people for 12 yea—”
“Or, better yet, put up a really big statue of the Great Leader,” added Gat To Goh, an agent of the state security agency. “Now come quietly or we break the other leg.”
Mr. Song speculated that the Oct. 9 explosion, which analysts believe involved a device of four kilotons or less, may have been too small to impress the R.I.C.
“To speak truthfully, I wanted a bigger one,” he said, “but most of our plutonium was employed to prepare the glow-in-the-dark specter costume that the Great Leader wore this Halloween. Not that I am complaining, of cou—”
Some analysts say Tehran now emerges as the favorite to host the 2007 Invasion. Like North Korea, Iran has made a major investment in infrastructure in an effort to impress the committee.
“We may not be quite ready for a test,” said Ayatollah Akbar (Johnny) Rafsanjani, who has spearheaded Tehran’s effort, “but when we are, it will knock your turban off.”
Damascus, for its part, has attempted to woo the R.I.C. by arming Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, notably during the recent war in Lebanon. Boosters of the Syrian bid complain, however, that most of the credit has gone to Iran. All of which may be moot, sources inside the R.I.C. say: With Middle Eastern cities having hosted the last two Invasions, many on the committee worry that choosing either Tehran or Damascus would provoke charges of favoritism. “The last thing we’d want to be accused of,” said a member of the R.I.C., “is Islamophilia.”
For this reason, the bid by Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, has its champions. “It’s gorgeous down there just about year round,” said Lenny Riefenstahl, professor of history at the U.S. Army War College. “Sunny, breezy—perfect Invasion weather.” Moreover, many on the R.I.C. still have warm memories of Invasions hosted by other Latin American countries, such as Panama and Grenada.
Despite this advantage, Caracas nearly knocked itself out of the running when Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, made a direct plea to the R.I.C. in his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly. Mr. Riefenstahl said that it is considered bad form for a head of state to intervene so blatantly in the selection process.
Paris, a surprise addition to the list, has made a strong showing in recent months. Without directly interfering in the selection process, French diplomats have subtly supported Paris’ bid by antagonizing their U.S. counterparts at every turn. In addition, Paris has a proud history as an Invasion host, said Jacques le Jock, who has presided over the city’s bid. “Ask les boches—we always show our visitors a bon temps,” he said, using the French term for a good time.
While lacking an active W.M.D. program comparable to those of Tehran and Pyongyang, Paris does boast the world’s third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, Mr. le Jock noted. “One says that this imports not, as we are ‘a stable democracy.’ Zut alors! From which tongue, think you, comes your word ‘caprice’?”
Despite the eagerness with which the candidate cities have pursued the prize, economists are divided on whether the benefits of hosting the Invasion justify the huge expense. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. completed a study of the 2002 Invasion in Kabul and the 2003 Invasion in Baghdad. Its conclusions were inconclusive.
“True, both cities have seen large influxes of foreign visitors,” said L.L. Bean-Counter, a senior analyst at McKinsey. “But very few of them were actually tourists.” On the other hand, the study found, the death of an estimated 655,000 Iraqis, or nearly one out of every 40 persons, meant that each living person’s share of the G.N.P. increased by 2.56 percent.
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