Common SAT Essay Mistakes – Setup Disease

The following essay was submitted by a longtime reader who was wondering why she received a 9. This is a real SAT-graded essay that illustrates one of the most common mistakes students make. First, the prompt – Should we complain to get what we want?:

prompt

Now the essay (in case you want to see the handwritten copy):

essay_1 essay_2

Here is the typed out version:

The notion that one has to express disapproval of his current situation to obtain what he deserves is absolutely accurate. The three archetypes that elucidate the paramount importance of appropriate complaints are the book “Happy now” by Eva Kovalevskaya, Truong Gia Binh- the founder of Vietnam’s most successful software corporation, FPT and Tran Hung Dao- the Supreme Commander of Viet’s armies in the three glorious resistance wars against Mongol invaders from 1226 to 1286.

To begin with, an impeccable paradigm of power of expressing necessary complaints is the advice of the eminent psychologist E. Kovalevskaya in her best-seller “Happy now”. Mrs. Kovalevskaya recounts an anecdote in her childhood, when she suffered overprotection of both parents: they never offered her sufficient freedom in any decisions of life. Kovalevskaya solved this predicament by writing them a sincere letter , explicitly demonstrating her disapproval of her parents’ excessive intervention. Her complaint elicited auspicious changes. In other words, Kovalevskaya’s complained to obtain the independence she deserved.

Furthermore, Truong Gia Binh said that he had to send many letters to lawmakers in Vietnam’s government to express his disagreement with several rigid economic policies that posed unfavorable impact on the development of FPT. Likewise, his complaints ameliorated the situation substantially: the government made copious adjustments to the laws, which benefited not only FPT but also myriads of other enterprises. In short, Mr. Truong’s complaints contributed to the progress of both the corporation and Vietnam’s economy in general.

Finally, Tran Hung Dao demonstrated the dearth of financial supplies to the King Tran Nhan Tong in the war. He said that the paucity of money engendered the lack of food and weapon, which fomented the widespread disappointment among soldiers. Thus, the King augmented supplies for the army. With the supplies, Viet’s armies surmounted the arduous challenge and accomplished a glorious feat: victory over the most formidable army of the world in the thirteenth century. Ultimately, General Tran’s complaint rescued the army.

In the final analysis, complaints in the right place, at the right time can ameliorate the situation considerably. One may complain to obtain more auspicious changes in family relationships, business or military, as aforementioned examples suggest, as well as in many other circumstances of life.

From her essay, it’s easy to see she has a strong command of English – her use of sentence variety and vocabulary is stellar. The essay is logical and directly relates to the prompt. She’s a great writer and with one tweak, she could easily get a 12.

Her essay suffers from what I call setup disease – way too much background information in setting up the examples. To illustrate, let’s take a look at the second paragraph:

To begin with, an impeccable paradigm of power of expressing necessary complaints is the advice of the eminent psychologist E. Kovalevskaya in her best-seller “Happy now”. Mrs. Kovalevskaya recounts an anecdote in her childhood, when she suffered overprotection of both parents: they never offered her sufficient freedom in any decisions of life. Kovalevskaya solved this predicament by writing them a sincere letter, explicitly demonstrating her disapproval of her parents’ excessive intervention. Her complaint elicited auspicious changes. In other words, Kovalevskaya’s complained to obtain the independence she deserved.

If you really think about it, the two sentences I bolded are the only two details in this entire paragraph that really address the prompt, which deals with complaining. Everything else is setup or reiteration. Not only that, those two sentences are way too general. Yes, you will need to provide some background information, but don’t neglect to elaborate on the heart of the story that really matters. As the reader, I would want to know:

  • How was she overprotected? What kinds of things did her parents do to protect her?
  • What were some of the things mentioned in the letter?
  • Most importantly, why did the letter work? What were the auspicious changes that took place?

The sentence

Her complaint elicited auspicious changes.

is telling the reader – you need to show. For example,

“Her complaint elicited auspicious changes because once her parents realized how she felt, they stopped requiring a curfew and permitted her to go shopping for her very own clothes.” (I’m obviously making this up).

All the examples in this essay suffer from setup disease. Read all of them and make sure you understand this! There is simply not enough detail when it comes to the storyline. The key sentences shouldn’t boil down so easily to:

The main character complained.
Then the main character got what he wanted.

If your essays suffer from setup disease, here’s the solution: Don’t use 3 examples. Use 2. Doing so will allow you to add the necessary details yet still keep the same level of background information. You’ll have the extra time and space needed to really flesh out each paragraph. Fill up the same space (full two pages) but just use two examples.

Based on the students that I’ve taught, I’m 100% sure setup disease is why this essay got a 9. I see it all the time and it’s a common problem.

Hope this helps!

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