I’ve decided that I want to use The Iliad and One Hundred Years of Solitude as essay examples. What’s the best way to apply these to prompts?
I can’t give you detailed, example-specific help with your question for two reasons:
1) I have not read The Iliad.
2) I have not read One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Fortunately, for the purposes of your SAT essay, that doesn’t really matter. Because you don’t know exactly what question you’ll be asked on your official test day, it doesn’t make sense to use up your study time coming up with specific ways to apply two specific essay examples. You’ll prepare yourself much more effectively by developing your ability to apply several examples to many different prompts in many different ways.
Let’s take The Hunger Games, a trilogy I’m pretty sure you’re at least reasonably familiar with, as an example. (Warning: spoilers!)
The first step is to check that you know your example in pretty deep detail. Do you know all the character’s names? Do you remember all the major plot points? Do you know the title and the author? If the answer to any of these questions is no, consider choosing a different example.
The second step is to check whether your example is “rich” enough to apply flexibly. For instance, if you tried to use “Humpty Dumpty” as an example, you’d quickly find that the story just doesn’t give you enough interesting material to work with. (Yes, from the nursery rhyme with a crown and king’s men and a wall. Yes, I know you wouldn’t actually use this as an example. That’s not the point.)
Humpty falls off a wall and can’t be fixed – and that’s all that ever happens. You can’t learn anything substantial about privacy, community responsibility, honesty, the value of work, the implications of changing technology, or the importance of education from Humpty’s story. The Hunger Games, by contrast, is remarkably rich: the story touches on countless themes including class, poverty, work, determination, honesty, secrets, selflessness, love, hate, family, technology, good and bad decisions, and community. You have plenty to write about.
The third step is to decide whether the example is tone-appropriate. Definitely avoid examples that are highly controversial or potentially offensive. Then, steer away from pop culture and personal anecdotes unless you’re confident that you can discuss them seriously. In most cases, classic books just sound more impressive as examples than young adult fiction novels. (Note: In a real essay, I wouldn’t recommend using The Hunger Games as an example. I’m just using it here because it’s so widely known.)
All that’s left is to get good at applying your chosen example flexibly. Recognize that a rich story can be applied to many different SAT prompts in many different ways, since SAT prompts are vague and rich stories give you so much material to work with. Here are some past official SAT prompts that The Hunger Games could fit into:
Should people pay more attention to the opinions of people who are older and more experienced?
No. President Snow was older and more experienced than Katniss, however his opinions about how the world should work were selfish and unjust.
Is it better to be idealistic or practical?
Idealistic. Panem would never have changed if the rebels had not clung to their ideas about how the world SHOULD be, instead of how the world WAS. Ideals led them to victory and to a better society.
Should books portray the world realistically or idealistically?
Idealistically. The Hunger Games isn’t realistic at all, but we learn a lot from it — the value of honesty, the importance of friends and family, the benefits of hard work, etc.
Are people too materialistic?
Yes. Materialism in The Capitol blinded Capitol citizens to what really matters: justice, community, morality, and humanity.
Is learning the result of experiencing difficulties?
Yes. Through all the obstacles she faced, Katniss learned a lot about herself — how gentle and kind she really was, what kind of significant other she needed in her life, etc.
Is creativity the result of closed doors?
Absolutely. Katniss learned to hunt as a result of a serious obstacle she faced growing up (lack of food).
Can dishonesty be appropriate in some circumstances?
Yes. It would have been counterproductive and foolish for Katniss to reveal to the districts of Panem how traumatized, emotionally broken, and fearful she was. Her “lie” to the people of Panem enabled a revolution that brought about a better society.
Is success the result of being extremely competitive?
No. The revolution survived because the rebels were desperate to create a more equal and compassionate society, not because the rebels wanted bragging rights for having won a war.
I could fill pages and pages with more examples. To answer a prompt about privacy, all I need to do is think of an instance in The Hunger Games in which someone kept a secret. To answer a prompt about adversity, I just need to think of a single instance in which a Hunger Games character was faced with a problem. There are so many secrets and so many conflicts/problems in the trilogy that I should have no trouble finding plenty of examples of both.
There is no single perfect way to apply an example to a prompt, and there is no single perfect example for a prompt. A rich storyline can adapt to almost any prompt – the trick is just to choose examples with rich content, and to recognize just how broad and vague SAT topics really are.
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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.