Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
Nobody hates writing papers as much as collegeinstructorshategradingpapers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.
What’s more, if your average college-goer does manage to read through her professor’s comments, she will likely view them as a grievous insult to her entire person, abject proof of how this cruel, unfeeling instructor hates her. That sliver of the student population that actually reads comments and wants to discuss them? They’re kids whose papers are good to begin with, and often obsessed with their GPAs. I guarantee you that every professor you know has given an A to a B paper just to keep a grade-grubber off her junk. (Not talking to you, current students! You’re all magnificent, and going to be president someday. Please do not email me.)
Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”
Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utterwasteof their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellowhumanistsinsist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic),and look at him.
Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency. But I have tried everything. I held a workshop dedicated to avoiding vague introductions (“The idea and concept of the duality of sin and righteousness has been at the forefront of our understanding of important concepts since the beginning of time.”) The result was papers that started with two incoherent sentences that had nothing to do with each other. I tried removing the introduction and conclusion altogether, and asking for a three-paragraph miniessay with a specific argument—what I got read like One Direction fan fiction.
I’ve graded drafts and assigned rewrites, and that helps the good students get better, but the bad students, the ones I’m trying to help, just fail to turn in any drafts at all. Meanwhile, I come up for air and realize that with all this extra grading, I’m making 75 cents an hour.
I’m not calling for the end of all papers—just the end of papers in required courses. Some students actually like writing, and let those blessed young souls be English majors, and expound on George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to their hearts’ content, and grow up to become writers, huzzah. But for the common good, leave everyone else out of it.
Instead of essays, required humanities courses (which I support, for all the reasons William Cronon, Martha Nussbaum, and Paulo Freire give) should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral. You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is immediately and readily manifest (not to mention, it’s profoundly schadenfroh when a student has to look me in the face and admit he’s done no work).
A Slate Plus Special Feature:
Students hate writing papers, and professors hate grading them. Should we stop assigning them? Listen to the debate on Slate Plus.
Plus, replacing papers with rigorous, old-school, St. John’s-style tribulations also addresses an issue humanities-haters love to belabor: Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation as imprecise, feelings-centered disciplines where there are “no right answers.” So let’s start requiring some right answers.
Sure, this quashes the shallow pretense of expecting undergraduates to engage in thoughtful analysis, but they have already proven that they will go to any lengths to avoid doing this. Call me a defeatist, but honestly I’d be happy if a plurality of American college students could discern even the skeletal plot of anything they were assigned. With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them.
The redesigned SAT Essay asks you to use your reading, analysis, and writing skills.
It’s About the Real World
The SAT Essay is a lot like a typical college writing assignment in which you’re asked to analyze a text. Take the SAT with Essay and show colleges that you’re ready to come to campus and write.
What You’ll Do
- Read a passage.
- Explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience.
- Support your explanation with evidence from the passage.
The SAT’s essay component has had a total makeover:
- It’s optional—but some schools will require it. Get College SAT Essay policies.
- You have 50 minutes to complete your essay, 25 minutes more than the required essay on the old SAT.
- You won’t be asked to agree or disagree with a position on a topic or to write about your personal experience.
Watch the Video
The Essay Prompt
The prompt (question) shown below, or a nearly identical one, is used every time the SAT is given.
As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
- evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
- reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
- stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.
You can count on seeing the same prompt no matter when you take the SAT with Essay, but the passage will be different every time.
All passages have these things in common:
- Written for a broad audience
- Argue a point
- Express subtle views on complex subjects
- Use logical reasoning and evidence to support claims
- Examine ideas, debates, or trends in the arts and sciences, or civic, cultural, or political life
- Always taken from published works
All the information you need to write your essay will be included in the passage or in notes about it.
What the SAT Essay Measures
The SAT Essay shows how well you understand the passage and use it as the basis for a well-written, thought-out discussion. The two people who score your essay will each award between 1 and 4 points in each of these three categories:
Reading: A successful essay shows that you understood the passage, including the interplay of central ideas and important details. It also shows an effective use of textual evidence.
Analysis: A successful essay shows your understanding of how the author builds an argument by:
- Examining the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and other stylistic and persuasive techniques
- Supporting and developing claims with well-chosen evidence from the passage
Writing: A successful essay is focused, organized, and precise, with an appropriate style and tone that varies sentence structure and follows the conventions of standard written English.
Take a look at the SAT Essay rubric, or guidelines, scorers use to evaluate every essay.
Who Should Take the SAT with Essay
You don’t have to take the SAT with Essay, but if you do, you’ll be able to apply to schools that require it. Find out which schools require or recommend the SAT Essay. If you don’t register for the SAT with Essay at first, you can add it later.
SAT fee waivers cover the cost of the SAT with Essay.
If you take the SAT with Essay, your essay scores will always be reported along with your other scores from that test day. Even though Score Choice™ allows you to choose which day’s scores you send to colleges, you can never send only some scores from a certain test day. For instance, you can’t choose to send Math scores but not SAT Essay scores.
Reminder: Check the Score Choice policies of every college you’re applying to, because some schools require you to send scores from every time you’ve taken the SAT. If this sounds intimidating, keep in mind that many colleges consider your best.