NEW YORK — A few years back, the University of California threatened to replace the SAT with a test that would better measure advanced high school-level math skills, would omit verbal analogy questions and include an essay. In response, the College Board came up with a new, improved SAT featuring a few higher-level algebra questions, zero analogies and a new writing section with a 25-minute essay. The test will be given this coming school year.
The new essays are short and formulaic and will be scored in a minute or two. The board calls its style of scoring "holistic," as if graders will measure karma rather than grammar or creativity. Each essay will be scored on a scale from 1 to 6.
As a result, the essay addition, though well intended, adds little to the test's value; it's the educational equivalent of swimming halfway across the lake or taking only the first few pills of a course of antibiotics. The College Board's desire to keep its expenses down will ultimately doom its efforts to produce a generation of better writers. Fortunately, though, these essays are absurdly coachable, so if you find yourself at the wrong end of a No. 2 pencil, here's how to reach nirvana:
* Size matters. Write a long, neat and visually organized essay. The College Board tells its graders to value substance over style, but you can't train away human nature. Use neat handwriting, avoiding script, and organize your essay into at least four discernible paragraphs. Most important, don't even think about being brief. The best predictor of a high score is the length of your essay.
* Stop and smell the question. The essay will ask you to agree or disagree with a trite statement and support your position with a few examples from literature ("Phil Jackson once said, 'There is no 'I' in team.' Do you agree or disagree?"). Don't parrot back the quote in your opening remarks. Contemplate the topic. Put the fundamental question in other words ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers") and take a position in your introductory paragraph. Then power through the rest of your essay with three examples and a summary.
* Prepare your examples in advance. You should walk into the test prepared to support your position with good examples. Pick a book, a historical event and an emotionally complex personal story. Review them, know how to spell everyone's names (especially family members) and think about pivotal moments. Then, when you're asked to take a position on "Honesty is the best policy" or "Life is too short," recall that scene from Hamlet, the attack on Ft. Sumter and the time you took the rap for your best friend.
* Take few rhetorical chances. Your idea of flair is likely to get you nowhere with your graders. Concentrate on being earnest, long-winded and, most important, predictable. Remember, you're writing for a harried English teacher sitting at her computer after a long day of teaching. And prepare a few $20 words to sprinkle on your essay; you'll sound smart, erudite and knowledgeable (see?).
* Finally, do not take the current SAT unless you're in the class of 2005. UC will no longer accept the old SAT for the class of 2006 and beyond. You've heard you might score higher on the current test this fall? It's not going to happen; students almost never receive their highest scores in the fall of their junior year. In any case, the new SAT is no more difficult than the old one; as you can see above, it's even easier to manage than its predecessor. We could mislead you and advise you to take multiple SATs, but that would waste your time and money in extra prep. Catch some extra waves this summer and get your critical junior year off to a great start. If you do choose to prep now, focus on the new PSAT (this October) and next spring's new SAT. And if you must torture yourself with extra tests, try one that is different: the ACT.
Although this generation of students will survive the new SAT, the test and the entire process should be reconsidered. California has created the High School Exit Exam to determine whether its students are ready to graduate. With a little work, the test could be retooled to predict college performance just as well as the SAT. By combining the two functions, the state could save parents $25 million a year in redundant tests and encourage less-advantaged students to go to college.
UC has already shown a willingness to challenge the current system. It should push for the next step: integrate California's existing extensive testing program with the college admissions process, and abandon the SAT rather than slap another coat of paint on it. We'd write an essay about this for the College Board -- if it only had the time to read it.