The SSAT Narrative Essay
By Rob Gilliver
(English Literature, ESOL, and SSAT tutor at The Edge Learning Center)
Many students who take the SSAT mistakenly believe that the essay is the least important section – that, because it is ungraded, the essay is somehow less significant than Verbal, Reading, or Quantitative Reasoning. While it may be true that the SSAT essay will not affect overall score, as the SSAT essay is ungraded, it will be sent to admissions officers in the schools you are applying to. Therefore, the essay should be seen as an opportunity to showcase your skillset, display your ability to write clearly and concisely, demonstrate your capacity to produce a high standard of written work under timed pressure, and exhibit your vocabulary and creativity. Crucially, it could be the ultimate deciding factor that separates you from other candidates with similar scores.
There are three different styles of prompts on the SSAT, and which ones you will encounter will depend on your grade and on the level of test you will be taking. Let’s take a look at an overview of each level and its various options, with examples of each from the SSAT website.
- Elementary Level Students (Grades 3&4) are given 15 mins to respond to one prompt. This particular prompt will be a picture and the student will be expected to create a story based on the picture. The prompt always requires the story to include a beginning, middle, and end.
- Middle Level Students (Grades 5-7) are given two prompts and 25 mins to complete a response. Both these prompts will be narrative; they will give you a sentence that you have to use as the first sentence and basis for your own story.
- Upper Level Students (Grades 8+)are given a choice between one narrative and one traditional essay prompt. Again, you only have 25 mins to form a response. For the narrative essay, you will get a sentence to form the beginning of a story (exactly like the middle level). For the traditional essay you have to respond to a given prompt. (We’ll save this for another blog!)
For the purposes of this blog entry, let’s focus on the narrative prompt. Many of you surely have some experience writing short stories, but before we begin, let’s cover the basics.
First, do not underestimate the difficulty of this task. Our aim is to create a complete, satisfying, and entertaining story that showcases strong grammar and vocabulary, and in only 25 minutes. Many prolific writers would find this a daunting task. Here’s The Edge’s breakdown of how you should be managing your time:
0-1 min: Read the prompts and select one
1-3 min: Plan
4-24 min: Write
24-25 min: Proofread
Luckily, the essay will be the first section for middle and upper level test takers to complete. So, hopefully, you will be able to approach this task with well-rested, fresh eyes.
Let’s take a look at some typical narrative structures and consider how we can use this to help us plan our short story. Many of you will already be familiar with Freytag’s representation of narrative structures, which outlines the essential elements of a plot.
For a detailed breakdown of the stages the dramatic structure, check out this simple guide. Essentially, within any complete story you should be able to identify the exposition, the rising action, the climax, the resolution, and the denouement. If we consider this short animation by Shaun Tan, we can see the exposition (man searches for bottle tops), an inciting incident (man spots “The Thing”), the rising action (various attempts to identify “The Thing”), the climax (finding a home for “The Thing”), the falling action (man leaves “The Thing” behind), the resolution (man remembers “The Thing” and considers if there are other oddities out there), and the denouement (man fades into the hue of the busy, grey cityscape).
When we write our narrative essays, we need to be aware of how we take our reader through these structural elements in order to ensure we reach a satisfying conclusion. Speaking of which, we absolutely, unequivocally, definitely DO NOT want to end on a “cliffhanger,” and for obvious reasons: a cliffhanger is a device writers use to try to encourage people to return to the story in order to find out what happens, and as our stories are being sent one time, with one application, we will have no opportunity to complete the narrative, meaning it will appear incomplete to anyone who reads it.
One of the biggest issues The Edge teachers see while marking, editing, and teaching the SSAT Narrative Essay is finding an appropriate ‘problem’ or ‘thing-the-protagonist-must-overcome-to-achieve-resolution.’ The prompts almost always allow enough room to make the problem as complex or as simple as you like, but you should always consider HOW you are going to resolve the problem before you start writing.
Imagine baking a cake. First, you decide that you’re going to bake a delicious chocolate cake. You find a recipe and go to buy all the necessary ingredients. You artfully combine them following the recipe to the letter. You delicately ladle the mixture into carefully greased tins before realizing you don’t have an oven. So, you end up scoffing raw cake mixture (and that’s all well and good), but in the end, it’s probably going to make you sick. This is kind of how a badly planned story can read. Let’s take a look at an example and brainstorm some potential ideas for problems and resolutions.
“The classroom was empty.”
This prompt immediately gives us a physical setting, but, remember, it doesn’t provide a time – this could be Victorian London (fog and misery) or modern-day Iceland (snow and Björk) or a futuristic space station (lasers and … pipes). Most people would consider attaching the problem to the reason the classroom was empty. Where’d everyone go? And why? But remember, just considering that won’t give you a complete story – you have to find a way to get everybody back again. And you have to know how you’re going to do that BEFORE you start writing.
The above prompt does not give us any indication of the text’s perspective, so we could introduce a 1st-person narrator (I, me, my) or a 3rd-person (he, she, Sara, the knight, Juanita). However, this is not always the case – many prompts indicate who a person might be, and we would be expected to continue with that description. Also, be aware that the prompt uses the past tense “was”, meaning we should continue in the past. Irregular tenses in stories are not only grammatically annoying, but they can also make the plot really confusing.
Let’s imagine a student arrives late, only to remember that there was a school trip that day and that the whole class was supposed to meet at the train station. You could give your protagonist a short amount of time in which to complete a hectic race to the station. They could make it just in time or just miss the train and learn a lesson about tardiness. Or, maybe you could have the classroom empty because your archnemesis, Destructanator, has kidnapped your trainee space-pilots and you must vanquish him in a laser-jousting battle that you only win because you have been training solidly ever since Destructanator maimed your father. Perhaps a volcano erupted nearby and the town was evacuated, but a group of intrepid students had raced into the school, braved the slowly moving lava, and rescued the class’s hamster before the building collapsed. The possibilities are endless but the point is that you must have the resolution planned before you start writing.
While there are many other things to consider when writing the narrative essay (spelling, grammar, vocabulary, descriptive language, etc.), having a well thought out plan and a strong resolution to the problem is the most vital aspect of this task.
And it goes without saying that the best way to improve on this section is to practice. Why not take a look at these prompts from ssatprep.com?
I knew it was dangerous, but…
She opened the door and saw…
How could I have turned into a…
Try to follow the time guidelines above and spend 25 minutes crafting a response to one or all of these prompts. Once you have finished, critically assess how well you have done. Can you easily identify the dramatic elements from Freytag’s pyramid? Does your protagonist overcome the problem? Does it seem believable? Would you enjoy it if you were a 50 year-old admissions officer from a fancy American Boarding School?