This is part 3 of a multi-post series on writing the 25-minute SAT essay, a paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence breakdown. Basically, these posts will construct a full-fledged essay template.
I had this convo the other day:
Me: Ah, so nice to see you again, my dear good ol’ friend Mr. Analysis.
Mr. Analysis: I’m going to pwn you, straight up. You can’t even handle me right now. I’m so tricky.
Me: Hey, that’s not nice. Plus, if I remember correctly, I’m the one who pwned you last we met. Remember all those As I got on English papers in high school?
Mr. Analysis: Pfft. That doesn’t count. As I recall, you only got an 11 on the SAT essay one time.
Me: @#%@%!! Crap. You’re right. Good thing I got a 12 the next time. And since you’re being so mean to me, I’m going to expose just how to pwn you to the rest of the world now.
Mr. Analysis: Say what??!! I keel you now. I keel you till you dead.
Me: Sure, buddy. See you in hell.
All right folks, listen up. Mr. Analysis is no easy opponent. He doesn’t like to go down without a fight as you just saw in my conversation above. He’s a belligerent, mean little guy with a lot of brawn on his side. In some ways, it’s a David vs. Goliath match.
No matter though because I’m in your corner. Now the biggest things to watch out for are Mr. Analysis’ right and left hooks. He even has pet names for each fist. His right fist has the word “CLAIM” tattooed to it. And his left knuckles spell “SUMMARY.” Those are his two biggest weapons against you.
So basically, you gotta get past Claim and Summary to get to Analysis himself. But what exactly are Claim and Summary?
CLAIM – a statement, declaration, or allegation. This guy is a beast to beat because Claim likes to go unsupported. He’s a bit of a show off, and no doubt, most of Mr. Analysis’ blows will be from his right fist, Claim.
This is the biggest problem I see when students write. They write a dizzying number of unsupported claims. Students make some big bold statement, but then they don’t back it up with any sort of evidence. Worse, they don’t even try to explain their reasoning behind their bold declaration.
Claim Example: “The death penalty is unfair. It is an ineffective way to curb violence because too many criminals get away anyways. The death penalty would only show the world how hypocritical we are.”
Notice that this writer is getting pummeled by Claim. Every sentence is just a claim, a declaration without an ounce of reasoning or support. He doesn’t explain WHY he thinks the death penalty is unfair. Sure, he says it’s ineffective, but what’s his reason? Because too many criminals get away? That doesn’t explain HOW it’s ineffective; that’s just restating the definition of ineffective (when something doesn’t work…when criminals get away.) He needs to actually tell us WHAT makes it possible for the criminals to get away and WHY the death penalty doesn’t deter crime. Basically we want to know WHAT makes or HOW or WHY the death penalty is ineffective.
He goes on to say the death penalty shows the world how hypocritical we are. Okay…but…like, how? He doesn’t answer that.
To get past CLAIM you have to use your own weapons: the five Ws and H (who, what, where, when, why, and how). Constantly re-read your own sentences and ask yourself those five Ws and H. If you can ask yourself one of those five Ws or H, then you need to answer it. You need to clarify your sentence until you’re no longer making an unsupported claim. You need to explain your reasoning behind your claim. Tell us what makes you believe your claim.
The other big foe is SUMMARY, Mr. Analysis’ left fist. If you’ve heard your English teacher ever tell you, “Don’t give me a plot summary, give me a plot analysis…” then you’ve already gotten a taste of the secret to beating SUMMARY.
SUMMARY – a restatement of what’s already been said in your own words. Or telling us the details of the event/incident/example you’re going to use to support your claim.
It’s great that you’re bringing in some specific examples to support your claim. The problem is you can’t let the example itself do all the fighting (analyzing) for you.
Let’s say you want to argue (claim) that the death penalty is effective, and the example you have for that is a study in Texas about the effects of the death penalty.
Summary Example: “In Texas, where the death penalty was in effect for quite a long period of time, the crime rate was at an all-time low. But when the death penalty was repealed, Texas suddenly experienced a spike in crime rates, especially murders.”
That’s almost pretty good. However, it’s still just a summary because it summarizes what happened – the details of the situation. This is not analysis because it doesn’t actually tell us HOW the death penalty is effective. Yes, I know it’s pretty clearly implied, but you need to explicitly say it. Don’t let your summary sing its own merits. You need to drive the point home with a sentence (or several) that directly spells it out so that even the slow ones can’t miss your point.
Go on and actually say, “By scaring would-be criminals with the very real reality of the death penalty, Texas was able to deter crime and create a state with record low crime rates. This consequence is no coincidence but the result of an effective deterrent known as the death penalty. The reason Texas saw a spike in murders immediately after the death penalty was revoked is that criminals were no longer scared by the possibility of their own deaths. Criminals knew the worst that could happen to them if they were caught was a lifetime prison sentence, maybe at a maximum security facility, from which there was still hope to break out of or earn probation and an early release. As long as they weren’t dead, there was always a chance to rectify things. This lesser punishment made criminals more willing to commit more deadly deeds. Clearly, anything less than the death penalty is ineffective at preventing murder.”
That there, my friends, is true analysis.
Summary is the first step to getting to true analysis, but summary is not analysis itself. Summary helps set up your position so that you can better explain yourself. But just like opening your SAT book is great because it puts you in a position to study, it doesn’t actually study for you. YOU have to study. YOU have to analyze, not just let your summary analyze for you because it won’t and can’t.
True analysis is showing WHY your claim is right by supporting it with specific examples where you don’t just summarize what happened, but actually tell us something that’s not directly stated in the quote/example you’ve picked.
Now that you’ve learned to dodge Claim and Summary (what NOT to do), you still have to learn how to deliver the finishing blow (what TO do): strike Mr. Analysis deep in the chest. We’ll cover how to actually analyze well in the next post.
Peter Peng is a SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at email@example.com.