The College Admissions Equivalency of "Spelling Doesn't Count"


Diamond Member
Nov 22, 2003
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Formula writing for high test scores:

Fooling the College Board

In the 1930’s, American businesses were locked in a fierce economic competition with Russian merchants for fear that their communist philosophies would dominate American markets. As a result, American competition drove the country into an economic depression and the only way to pull them out of it was through civil cooperation. American president Franklin Delenor Roosevelt advocated for civil unity despite the communist threat of success by quoting “the only thing we need to fear is itself,” which desdained competition as an alternative to cooperation for success. In the end, the American economy pulled out of the depression and succeeded communism.

Does that paragraph read like an excerpt of an essay with “reasonably consistent mastery” and that “effectively develops a point of view” and “demonstrates strong critical thinking, generally using appropriate examples"? Those are the College Board’s descriptions of the kinds of qualities that earn an essay a score of 5 (the second highest possible) on the essay portion of the SAT, a new and controversial part of the exam. And that is the score an essay with that paragraph (all punctuation, spelling, FDR’s new middle name and other “facts” verbatim) received from two readers when a student submitted it in October, having been coached on how to do so by a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Les Perelman, the professor, is among the many writing experts who fear that the new essay portion of the SAT and the push to use standardized testing for writing are harming American students. Perelman has had various skirmishes with the College Board on the issue, with each side offering analyses of the test. Perelman helped a student (over the age of 18 and with informed consent, he is quick to add) take the SAT in October, intentionally paying no attention to whether any historical facts he cited were correct, following certain formulas (including examples from the arts and history, but not worrying whether they make sense), and including key words that the SAT scoring teams are thought to favor ("plethora” and “myriad” are both considered tops — and this essay featured both).


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