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My grad school semester is winding down, and I’m starting to think about all the fun Essay Guide work I’m going to be doing the minute I had in my last paper. To that end, I wanted to invite you to write an essay in response to the prompt below. If you do, I’ll grant you access to the Essay Guide Beta, and I might choose to use your essay in the book. Details below.

Physically, morally, and emotionally we are woven into the web of life with old-growth redwoods and rainforests and dying lakes and polluted rivers. We need them, not simply as a matter of intelligent resource management, but for the good of our souls. The same toxins that kill them run in our blood, the ugliness of their suffering afflicts our eye, for all we know images of their dire fate haunt our dreams. And surely children who grow into life without knowing wild nature will be less than fully human.

Adapted from Theodore Roszak, “Sanity, the psyche, and the spotted owl”

Assignment: Does one’s emotional well-being partially depend on one’s environment? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

The details

I’m looking for clear, concise writing in SAT essay format. Which means I need to be able to believe that what you submit could fit on 2 pages, hand-written, and that you did it in 25 minutes. I will score the first 10 submissions I get and I will dissect some in great detail in my Essay Guide. To gain access to the guide, submit your essay as a comment below. Once you’ve done that, use this form to tell me your GMail address, ignoring all the bits about Facebook (that’s for a different contest). For more details on why you need a GMail address, read up on the Beta here. Please note: By entering this contest, you are giving me permission to reprint and comment on your essay in a book that I might sell someday. I will not use your name.. In exchange for this, I am giving you early access to that book as I draft it. If that doesn’t sound like a good deal to you, do not enter this contest.

Comments (20)

Hi mike! I have come across an excellent website for practicing one’s essay writing skills. It’s called debate.org
It’s a platform for people to have text-based debates and users can vote. I’ve found it very useful for practicing organizing my thoughts. I hope you find it as useful as I have. It’s also really fun! You should try it 🙂 Anyway, take it easy

Hello, here is my response. It was written in 25 minutes, blah blah blah, but unfortunately I printed a smaller paper than I was accustomed to because my printer made some weird error. I used the paper provided in one of the official practice tests.

It is a commonly held conviction that one’s well being does not change whether one is in the midst of a great forest or in the center of a great metropolis. Such a viewpoint is unfortunately common, for not only is it mistaken and misguided, it it is also misleading and egregiously incorrect. Instead, our lives are hopelessly intertwined with nature; in fact, our well-being depends on nature. Though the myopic adopt (note: this is supposed to refer to my first sentence, but I used the wrong pronoun) this provincial creed because they believe that we are humans and therefore are able to exist independently of nature, in reality, we are actually inevitable products of our environment and are therefore influenced emotionally by it. Two episodes from history serve as compelling examples of this universal truth.

First of all, closeness to nature may make us feel more attuned to the world. For example, the general Albert Wood was a famous warrior for the Cerarian Army during the early 1900s. At first, when he was born in 1834 to a poor family in the center of the capital Elmore, he was knwon to be a petulant and irritable man. Once, for instance, he even killed his own dog as a 10-year old because the dog would not learn to steal food from a neighbor. The situation worsened much more at age 18, when his parents died. He was regarded as a man who was constantly picking random arguments even with strangers. This all changed when he first visited a forest at age 21. Breathing in solemn tones of green and brown in the quiet forest, he was not accustomed to the soothing trickling sound of a small creek; no, indeed, he had lived all his life listening to the growl of the industrial machine, the cacophonous clamor of a city marketplace. In the forest, Albert Wood felt much calmer. As a result, he adopted a gentler disposition and became a much more agreeable man; he finally became a general through a series of acquaintances who admired his manner. Albert’s manner greatly changed when he was exposed to a different environment, one of forest and nature.

Furthermore, it was no coincidence that my great-grandfather, a man named Joe Steeler, became a famous businessman in the mid-20th century. In his autobiography, he attributed his great success selling shoe-soles not to his friends or to his luck, but to the way he grew up. Whenever he felt empty, irritated, or impetuous as a child, he would follow a certain log roll (I meant road lol) on a nearby mountain. As in Albert’s case, the quietness had a palliative effect. Meanwhile, as soon as he went back to his house, he would suddenly become irritable again, until he conjured up in his mind’s eye the quiet and gentle noise on the log road. Then, he would take a deep breath and resume his work, reinvigorated and reenergized. Such events contributed greatly to his success; as a shoe-businessman, while his competitors would engage in angry debate, as though influenced by the honking of a car’s horn or the mindless prattle in the great city, he himself would be unperturbed by any of the mindless insults aimed at him; he would be unruffled and undisturbed, just like the great redwood or the great sequoias.

In conclusion, our environment contributes greatly to our well-being. Nature has a calming effect and can change our disposition greatly, as evidenced by both Woods and my grandfather. Sometimes, I wonder why people do not all revert to living in forests rather than it cities. At least then people will not fight over overwhelmingly petty matters.

I really agonized over the score for this one, which means it’s a great example to include in my book. First, it’s clear you can write. The full points granted on vocabulary, variety of sentence structure, and grammar are well deserved. That doesn’t mean the essay’s perfect on those dimensions, though. I think, for example, it goes way overboard with the vocabulary use in this phrase: “Though the myopic adopt this provincial creed…” and as a result, the sentence, and in a way, the whole introductory paragraph, feels a bit muddled.

But the main problem with the intro is that it tries to do way too much. Is it a “commonly held conviction” that people aren’t emotionally influenced by their surroundings? A conviction is something people think about often—some of my commonly held convictions are that it’s important to tip well in restaurants, and churlish to drive through residential neighborhoods late at night with my music blasting loud enough to wake people up. I don’t know if people think enough about the emotional significance of nature for any stance on it to be a commonly held conviction, and further, I’d posit that most people who do think about it often believe that nature is important. Further, is it really egregiously (outstandingly, shockingly) incorrect to think that people are not emotionally influenced by their surroundings? That seems a bit extreme. Because these claims aren’t really central to the argument in the essay, they get no supporting evidence. They’re just left hanging out there, waiting to be refuted. I doubt you really believe these things, so I wonder why you include them.

Do you see what’s happening here? You’re trying to open the essay by making a grand, sweeping statement about life and universal truth, but all that’s really happening is that you’re giving your readers reasons to disagree with you before you even get to your thesis statement. I’m arguing with the premises you’re introducing as a contrast to his thesis! As a reader, even though I agree with the general thesis that people’s emotional state can be influenced by their surroundings, I’m already thinking of reasons to disagree with this essay. Which means I’m on high alert for weak points in the argument. Which means I’m going to find some.This essay would be stronger if it just got to the thesis. This is where the 4 on Organization and Focus comes from.

Moving right along. The “evidence” in this essay is all fabricated. As you know, I’m against making up evidence, even though doing so is not against the rules and won’t necessarily cost you points. I’m against it because it’s too easy to dismiss an argument when its two pieces of evidence basically boil down to two simple characters with generally angry dispositions who are placated by nature. I, as this essay’s reader who’s looking for a reason to disagree, can easily come up with two other fictional characters who get really angry when they’re in the forest—maybe someone who witnessed his father’s murder in a forest, and goes into a complete rage whenever he sees a tree.

The other reason making up evidence is a bad idea is that, as
detailed as you try to make it, it’s difficult to stay consistent with yourself in a 25-minute timeframe. Note how, in the first example, Albert Wood is a horrible person who kills his dog and picks fights with strangers, but then learns to mellow out when he goes into the woods. However, only after he mellows out does he become an army general and a famous warrior. Seems incongruous to me.

I’m nitpicking here, admittedly, but I do so to make a point: the reason this essay scored relatively high is that you clearly have a firm grasp on the written word, not that your evidence was fabricated. The argument isn’t bad—I gave it a 5—but it’s dragging the score down, not pulling it up.

Scientists and cognitive psychologists have confirmed through repeated experiments and studies that one’s personality is both the result of genetic traits inherited from his or her biological parents and the social environment that he or she has been exposed and become accustomed to. One’s personality is largely the result of the emotions and actions of one after he or she has been put in a situation. Because emotions make up a person’s personality and their environment plays a crucial role in influencing his or her personality, it is acceptable to say that one’s emotional well-being depends largely on one’s environment.

One paradigm in which this case is abundantly clear is in the life and actions of a man named Ted Kascynzki, who is more famously known as the Unabomber. As a child, he was a prodigy. He had mastered advanced math by the time he was in high school and was accepted into Harvard at the tender age of 16. At this point his emotional well-being began to deteriorate. He was made fun of in high school and at Harvard for being younger than his classmates and odd. If he had been with children his own age much of the bullying may not have occurred. He was also involved in very high-pressure situations as a young child. As a prodigy, he had immense expectations thrust upon him and he was included in a study conducted by psychologists that were researching the effects of stress on young people’s brains. This type of social environment contributed greatly to the deterioration of his social well-being. His environment had been one with copious amounts of stress and intolerance, which largely contributed to the dangerous and illegal activities of his adult years. The life of the Unabomber clearly shows that one’s environment affects one’s social well-being greatly.
Another paradigm in which this is abundantly clear is in the case of Ted Philips. This man was born to two drug addicts, but he surrounded himself with friends and adults that supported him and allowed him to excel in life. Philips’ environment was one filled with love and friendship even though he had been born into a life of poverty and suffering. In contrast to Kascynzki, he had made friends in school and had thus been popular. Philips’ cool demeanor and intelligence has allowed him to become one of the most successful men in America. He surrounded himself with good people and good came from him. He now helps lead a Fortune 500 company and participates in many philanthropic events.

In addition to genetics, one’s environment influences one’s emotional well-being the most. The stories, lives and works of Kascynzki and Phillips clearly demonstrate the relationship between one’s environment and one’s social health. In one case the environment benefited the man and in the other it helped deteriorate his social health, but in both cases their social well-being was affected immensely by their environment.

Hey mike, I am just wondering if you are going to grade this soon. I am sure you are busy but on the post you did say you would grade the first 10 essays and my essay is only number two as far as I can see haha. I know I am being nitpicky and acting kinda like a brat, but I just wanna have another graded essay under my belt. Thank you!!!

Thanks for the reminder–this has been on my to-do list but that’s becoming a pretty long list. Sorry to keep you waiting. I give this an 11. In giving you an 11 I’m saying that I think someone might give you a 6, which means I think you’d have a shot at a 12. But you could also get two harsh critics and end up with a 10.

Here’s why it’s not a home run: You cite a convincing piece of evidence in the Unabomber, but your second example is awfully vague. This is the problem with making things up–it’s hard to be super specific. Name the Fortune 500 company. Tell me what drug his parents were addicted to. Give me more details on his many philanthropic activities.

Or just stick with the one strong example you’ve got. Could you argue that his physical environment and social isolation in his cabin contributed to his “dangerous and illegal” activities? Why don’t you tell me what he did? Chances are good that your grader knows, but specific details that are relevant to your argument are the keys to great scores. You gave good details in the beginning (naming Harvard, etc.) but then you rush off to talk about a fictional businessman instead of detailing a series of bombings that had the whole nation on edge. The truth, in this case, is so much more sensational than fiction!

Bottom line: nice work, but if you can only come up with one real piece of evidence, and it’s a strong one like the Unabomber, just ride it for all its worth. If you can write two strong pages about one piece of evidence, that’s better than weakening your strong piece of evidence to make room for more another, weaker piece of evidence.

Thank you! I really appreciate all of the comments and the fact that you explain the reasons behind your grading. I also felt the second example was pretty crappy but the idea that an sat essay has to be four or five paragraphs has been ingrained in my head so I felt that I had to find another example even though I could have just expanded upon the previous better example. I now understand that one or two quality examples is still better than three vague ones, if they fill up all the space though since there is a direct correlation between length and score even though there shouldn’t be. But I digress, both quality (I.e. well-written) and quantity (I.e. good descriptions and specificity) are important and real examples will help me achieve this balance. Thank you for helping me understand that.

Nice synthesis of the important points. Let me just push back a bit on one point: you said that there shouldn’t be a correlation between length and score. Of course there should be! It’s not causation—long essays aren’t automatically scored higher. It’s just that good writers, who are the ones who achieve high scores, tend to be able to fill 2 pages without running out of things to say. 🙂

Sorry this took so long to post, Kyle. When you include links in a comment it goes into moderation (this is to protect the site from spam) and I have to approve manually. Unfortunately, the link you included requires a user/pass to view, so I can’t comment on your essay, other than to say that simply from the comments you’ve left on this site I can tell you’re a better writer than you give yourself credit for.

While there certainly are bad essays that get good scores (graders are human, after all) that’s certainly the exception, not the rule. Filling 2 pages doesn’t guarantee you a 10. It just so happens that a lot of people who can write 10-quality essays have no problem filling 2 pages.

I also agree that usually longer means better but I always felt like for some reason that real tutors suggest quality over quantity which is why I said what I said. I think I made that correlation because quality over quantity is something real English teachers say so my subconscious just made a (rather poor) connection between school English teachers and sat writing tutors. I am glad though now that my original theory that quantity is really important on the sat is considered true even by tutors

Oh, no problems. But how are you able to post your score report onto the website? I saw your 2400 score report :).

Thank you. Success! I managed to copy my essay onto word through a LONG AND ARDUOUS PROCESS. It is attached. I want to take the SAT again in June, and I want to know how can improve or keep my SAT essay level the same. (aiming for 2000+. January’s curve was horrible, you know. -1 for SAT reading was 790!!!! Normally, it’s 800. I got a 600MC for writing, with 10 essay, so I ended up with 640. Please tell me your comments so I can get another 10+ essay because I think I was lucky.


Any adult reader will know instantly that your president quotes are made up. Presidents choose their words very carefully, and your quotes clearly read like a kid wrote them. And even if FDR or JFK did utter those words, they’re not profound or quotable. There’d be no reason for you or anyone else to have such a quote memorized.

A great quote is “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Nobody would ever bother to memorize “This nation is home to the individuals who have merged their own ideas with those of great people to shape the world.”

In other words, don’t interpret your 10 as validation of your use of fabricated quotes. You got a 10 in spite of them, not because of them. Your intro and conclusion are made more confusing by these quotes.

The reason you got a 10 is because you take a nice, nuanced approach to the question–you say that progress is the result of a combination of innovation and imitation, and you give two great examples of that. Edison innovated, MLK imitated (but adapted Gandhi’s approach to the American Civil Rights context).

Oh, so would you have given me a 10? And fabricating quotes is bad right? Also, do you think my essay is at a “kid” level? I think I was lucky because the reader saw I was a kid and gave me a 10 :(. Also, like you said, the quotes read that a kid wrote them.

I probably would have given this a 4, but I can see why graders gave it a 5. The reader doesn’t know anything about you, though. He doesn’t know if you’re male or female (although sometimes I bet he can tell from handwriting). He doesn’t know your age, ethnicity, or anything. All he gets is your essay.

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