How to Choose Essay Examples for the SAT and Actually Use Them
I’ve decided I want to use The Iliad and One Hundred Years of Solitude as essay examples on the SAT. What is the best way to apply these to essay prompts?
Unfortunately, I can’t give you detailed help with your question for two reasons:
1) I have not read The Iliad.
2) I have not read One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Fortunately, for your SAT essay, that doesn’t really matter. Because you don’t know what question you will be asked on the official test day, it does not make sense to waste your study time coming up with specific ways to apply specific essay examples. You will much more effectively prepare yourself by instead developing your ability to apply a few examples to many different prompts in many different ways.
Let’s look at an example: The Hunger Games, a trilogy I’m pretty sure you’re at least a bit familiar with (Warning, spoilers!):
Step One is to check that you know your example in deep detail. Do you know all of the character’s names? Remember all of the major plot points? Know both the title and the author? If your answer to any of these is no, perhaps consider choosing a different example.
Step Two is to determine whether your example is “rich” enough to be able to apply flexibly. For example, if you wanted to use “Humpty Dumpty” as an example (Yes, from the nursery rhyme with a crown and king’s men and a wall. Yes, I know you wouldn’t actually use this as an example. That’s not the point.), you’d quickly find that this particular story doesn’t give you enough interesting material to work with.
In the story, Humpty falls off a wall and cannot be fixed – and that’s all that really happens. You cannot learn anything substantial about community responsibility, the value of honesty or hard work, the implications of changing technology, or the importance of education from Humpty’s story. By contrast, The Hunger Games is really quite rich: the story touches on numerous themes including poverty, work, class, determination, honesty, secrecy, selflessness, love, hate, family, technology, decisions making, and community, which could apply to countless essay prompts. You have plenty to work with.
Step Three is to decide whether your example has an appropriate tone. Definitely avoid examples that are potentially offensive or controversial, and be sure to steer away from pop culture and personal anecdotes unless you are absolutely confident you can discuss them seriously. In most cases, classic books sound much more impressive than young adult fiction novels. (So in a real essay, I would not recommend actually using The Hunger Games as an example. I’m just using it here because it’s so widely known.)
Now all that is left to do is get good at being flexible with applying your chosen example. Recognize that a rich story can be applied to different SAT prompts in different ways, as these prompts will be vague and rich stories will give you a lot of material to work with. Take a look at some past official SAT prompts that The Hunger Games could fit into:
Should people pay more attention to the opinions of people who are older and more experienced?
No. President Snow was much older and more experienced than Katniss, however it is clear his opinions about how the world should work were selfish and unjust.
Is it better to be idealistic or practical?
It is better to be idealistic. The nation of Panem would never have changed if the rebels had not stuck to their ideals about how the world SHOULD be, rather than how the world WAS. Ideals led them to victory and to a better society.
Should books portray the world realistically or idealistically?
Idealistically. The Hunger Games is not realistic at all, but we still learn a lot from it — the value of honesty, the importance of friends and family, the benefits of hard work, etc.
Are people too materialistic?
Yes. Materialism in The Capitol blinded its citizens to what really matters: justice, community, morality, and humanity.
Is learning the result of experiencing difficulties?
Yes. Through the obstacles she faced, Katniss learned a lot about herself — how kind she really is, what kind of significant other she needed in her life, etc.
Is creativity the result of closed doors?
Absolutely. Katniss learned to hunt as a result of the obstacle of lack of food she faced growing up.
Can dishonesty be appropriate in some circumstances?
Yes. It would have been foolish of Katniss to reveal to the districts of Panem how traumatized, emotionally broken, and fearful she was. Her “lie” to the people of the nation enabled a revolution that eventually brought about a better society.
Is success the result of being extremely competitive?
No. The revolution succeeded because the rebels were desperate to create a more equal and compassionate society, not because they wanted bragging rights winning a war.
I could fill a book with more examples. To answer a prompt about privacy, all I would need to do is think of an example in The Hunger Games in which someone kept a secret. To answer a prompt about adversity, I would simply need to think of a single instance when a character was faced with a problem. There are so many secrets and so many conflicts in the trilogy, I should have no problem finding plenty of examples of both.
Unfortunately, there is no one perfect way to apply an example to an SAT essay prompt, and there is no one perfect example for a prompt, however, a rich storyline can adapt to almost any prompt. The trick is to choose examples with abundant content, and to recognize how broad the SAT topics really are.
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