ImageLast spring, high school juniors taking the SAT were required to write an essay as part of the most sweeping changes to the test since it was introduced in 1926 (the essay looms large in a new, 800-point section that includes multiple-choice questions on grammar).

Here at Editorial Emergency, we say, "Yay."

At some point in its controversial past, the SAT became a measure of intelligence. It took on an importance only loosely related to its actual purpose of measuring one's aptitude for college. Some bragged about their high scores; others kept disappointing scores to themselves; others still, unsatisfied with their scores, took the test a second time. No matter how you did, or how much you've accomplished since then, I bet you remember the number. (Mine was 1120, well beyond the 1000 required at the time for admittance to the University of Michigan, the only school I applied to.)

I don't remember studying for the SAT, though I'm sure I did.
Very little of what's drilled into you while you're training for the SAT will ever help you do your job. Good writing will.
In today's brutally competitive college-admissions climate, many kids start preparing for — and worrying about — the SAT as sophomores, their parents spending a small fortune on prep courses. Yet despite the test's stature in American consciousness and students' nightmares, the skills it requires have few real-world applications.

It's true that what you get on your SAT will help determine where you go to college, and that detail at the bottom of your resume, in turn, may assist you in landing a decent job. But very little of what's drilled into you while you're training for the SAT will ever help you do that job. Good writing will. Any kid boning up for this pivotal essay should take some small comfort in knowing that he will, in fact, need to use what he's learning, need to write persuasively, throughout his career.

In its Aug. 22 issue, Newsweek's Richard Rubin offered a few pointers to students facing the SAT. It comes as no surprise that several of them apply to any kind of expository writing. We excerpt those below (hoping the gods of fair use will watch over us).
Use examples.
A philosophical argument is fine, but part of a good essay is backing up your argument. For example, if you're writing an ... essay about high-school dress codes, describe situations you've seen in your own school to bolster your point.

Don't overreach.
There's no need to use five-syllable words to wow the readers. Clear thoughts and clear arguments will work just fine.

Watch the clock [stay with us here].
With about two minutes to go, pause and reread your work, looking for quick ways to polish....
Hopefully, you'll have more than 25 minutes to write that pitch to prospective investors, so by all means, take whatever time you need to "pause and reread your work." You wouldn't go into the boardroom without polishing your Cole Haans; don't send a letter to shareholders without polishing your prose.

Of course, the SAT essay test has received its share of criticism: It encourages formulaic writing; it's biased toward white males; it rewards longer essays, regardless of merit.

Still, I'm delighted that the College Board saw fit to address former University of California president Richard Atkinson's concerns about the SAT — in 2001 he raised the possibility of dropping it from UC admissions criteria — by, among other steps, adding the essay. As Atkinson noted in a formal statement (June 27, 2002), "It will ask students to express their thinking in writing — a critical skill for success in college and beyond."

The beyond is upon us all too soon, and, if we're lucky, it lasts a lot longer than our school years. Best, then, to start developing those writing skills early, even if, in the short run, it's only to boost your SAT score.