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What To Do With Unfamiliar Essay Prompts

The college discussions boards are sounding off over an SAT essay prompt last Saturday. Even the New York Times takes a moment to cover the issue. At hand, was an essay prompt asking students to discuss reality television.

Many students who had spent months away from television to study history, english, and literature, preparing themselves in all sorts of scholarly ways, were taken aback by the question. How were they supposed to answer a question about reality television when they don’t even watch television?

This seems like a good chance to chime in on what you do if you get a prompt asking you to discuss something you don’t know about. Whether it is about pop culture or an adage from an ancient philosopher, you need to be ready to tackle it- even if you have no clue about the topic.

The first thing you should do is avoid complaining. Rather than take to the message boards all upset, tell yourself that you can marshal your smarts to talk about whatever it is asking you to discuss. The big thing to remember is that the essay section is not measuring your knowledge of arcane details and unusual examples. It is testing your ability to write. This means that all you have to do is write a simple structured essay that answers the question.

The biggest mistake you can make is trying to do too much. Even if it is a subject you are not comfortable with, you will still probably have some opinion on what it is asking you. Even if you never watch reality television, you still probably have some feelings about whether it is a positive or negative part of the world. Once you’ve identified your opinion, ask yourself why you feel the way you do: what experience or set of knowledge brings you to your viewpoint? Don’t worry if it’s the best example, or if it answers the prompt precisely. What’s more important than the ideas is that you clearly express those ideas. Rather than fret over whether you make the most compelling argument, worry about whether you have a clear introductory paragraph, whether your examples are concisely explained, and wether you have  a simple concluding paragraph summing it up.

So don’t get all worked up if you don’t have something brilliant to say. It’s much more important that whatever you say, you do so simply and clearly.


This post is titled, “What To Do With Unfamiliar Essay Prompts” It was written by Jon B., a writer on Top Test Prep’s team.

To learn more about Top Test Prep’s programs, call (800) 501 – Prep or visit TopTestPrep.com.

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