Pens and art supplies

Student Artist Spotlight: Alexis Chisom

Alexis Chisom’s piece “Mother Earth,” a black and white chalk pastel pencil drawing
Alexis Chisom’s piece “Mother Earth,” a black and white chalk pastel pencil drawing, will be on display until May 31, 2018

Open Door student Alexis Chisom, a home-schooled sophomore from Littleton, is April and May’s featured student artist in the Acton Office.

Alexis’s piece, “Mother Earth,” is on display in Acton until May 31, 2018. She says she was moved to create the piece, hoping to inspire people to re-establish a connection with nature. The black and white chalk pastel pencil drawing depicts a figure who, she says, is based on herself, but is also representative of any Mother Earth figure.

“I feel like there was a reverence for nature in the past that has slipped away,” says Alexis. “I wanted to create something to connect the viewer and nature, and an image of myself became the vehicle.”

Why a Mother Earth in black and white? “I felt that black and white is more striking and unusual for a piece about nature,” says Alexis. “Since most of us are accustomed to seeing nature drawings in color, seeing light drawn on dark makes the viewer pause and think.”

Alexis also works in pen and ink, graphite, and, occasionally, watercolor. She says that after taking a class in scientific illustration, which satisfied her combined interest in bio and art, she has enjoyed creating anatomical drawings.

Alexis indeed has a strong interest in the sciences. She recently applied for the prestigious Inspire Science Award for Collaborative Cancer Research, and as a recipient will be working this summer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in research on anaplastic thyroid cancer. She also trained as a certified yoga teacher at the age of 15 and teaches privately. Her blog, Young Adults Discovering Wellness + Health, covers topics that range from personal wellness to public health—the latter being the field she hopes to enter as an adult.

Alexis’s goal is to found a system of wellness centers that focus on youth, including services for underprivileged adolescents, and combining pediatrics with research. She imagines the first center being “in a big building, probably near an underserved area.”

Another of Alexis’s passions is writing. She penned her first book as a young child, a picture book called The Lion and the Elephant, and recently she received a Scholastic Silver Key in poetry. Fluent in Spanish, she has begun writing fiction in that language, as well. She hopes someday to be published in both fiction (she’s currently working on a fantasy adventure that also addresses family bonds) and nonfiction (with a particular interest in the beneficial aspects of intergenerational activities between adolescents and older adults).

If Alexis’s current energy and passion are any indication of how she will live her life, it is likely that her “big building” full of health and wellness services will come to fruition, and we are honored to be sharing this part of her journey!

Students write the SAT and ACT essay portions

SAT and ACT Essays: To Write, or Not to Write?

Most high schoolers’ parents took the SAT when it was completely multiple choice, but today’s students must choose whether to register for the essay on both the SAT and the ACT. The cost of adding the essay section to the multiple choice test is negligible relative to the rest of college application expenses—$14 extra for the SAT essay and $16.50 for the ACT essay. Yet, parents and students frequently ask whether it is worth it, less in terms of dollars than in time spent preparing and practicing. Students and parents also wonder whether it is worth the time spent writing on the day of the test—another 40 (ACT) to 50 (SAT) minutes more tagged onto the already lengthy and exhausting multiple choice exam.

To write or not to write?

In April 2018, Harvard announced that they will no longer require or recommend the SAT and/or ACT essay, and the University of California system is also under pressure from the California legislature to move in that direction. Because Harvard often sets precedents, and because half of the 27 schools that require the essay are in California, it seems that the essay is on its way out. However, it isn’t yet: many competitive colleges and universities continue to recommend or require it*, and in the world of college admissions, “recommend” might as well be “require”. Students should check the requirements and recommendations each college on their list provides on their admissions website page.

Considering the fluid nature of college list building, it is safer to write the essay in case of any last minute decisions to apply to a college or two that do recommend or require the essay.

The SAT Essay

The SAT essay is a 50-minute handwritten rhetorical analysis akin to the AP Writing/Language five-paragraph essay. The test provides a passage taken from a famous speech, book, or journalistic piece, and the prompt requires students to identify the argument and explore the effective persuasive rhetorical strategies and devices employed. Such strategies and devices include: appeal to emotion, strategic repetition, authorial positioning, data use, allusion, figurative language, ethos/pathos/logos, and more.

High scoring SAT essays include:

  • An understanding of the position taken in the passage as well as facility with rhetorical terminology
  • Coherent, well-developed, well-organized writing which is mostly free of grammatical and usage errors
  • References to specific lines of the passage
  • A structure based not on the order of passage paragraphs but instead on strategies and devices the student identifies as the most significant
  • Length (anecdotal evidence suggests going onto the third page results in a higher score)
  • An introductory paragraph that grounds the issue discussed in the passage and provides a “roadmap” for the body paragraphs
  • Clear and specific analysis
  • A conclusion that reaches beyond mere analysis to reinforce the position of the passage in a broader way

Scoring is confusing. According to the College Board website:

  • Two different people read and score the SAT essay.
  • Each scorer awards 1–4 points for each dimension: reading, analysis, and writing.
  • The two scores for each dimension are added.
  • The student receives three scores for the SAT Essay—one for each dimension—ranging from 2-8 points.
  • There is no composite SAT Essay score (the three scores are not added together) and there are no percentiles.
  • The Essay score is not factored into either the Verbal or the Total SAT score.

The ACT Essay

The ACT writing test is a 40-minute handwritten essay based on one writing prompt that describes a complex issue and presents three different brief perspectives on that issue. Students are asked to develop their own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between their perspective and one or more other perspectives. They may adopt a perspective from the prompt, partially or fully, or generate their own. The score will not be affected by the point of view taken on the issue. The student’s goal is to write a coherent and well-developed four to five paragraph argument with a clear thesis.

High scoring ACT essays include:

  • An introductory paragraph with a “hook” that grounds the topic in real world examples to be addressed in the body paragraphs and leads up to a strong thesis statement
  • Body paragraphs with specific examples supporting their points and one paragraph addressing the opposing view and refuting it
  • A concluding paragraph that returns to the thesis in a new way, not adding more evidence, but instead a gesture toward a broader implication of their argument
  • Length—again, anecdotal evidence shows that essays longer than two pages receive higher scores

Each ACT essay is scored by two different graders on a scale of 1-6 across four different domains, for a total score out of 12 in each domain. These domain scores are then averaged into a total score out of 12. The score is not factored into the student’s ACT English or composite score.

Can students practice writing these essays for improvement?

Absolutely. Although tutors focus first and foremost on the multiple choice sections of both tests, a minimum of one and sometimes two practice essays written for homework provide an opportunity for critique and suggestions for improvement. Working together, tutors and students can identify strategies that will allow the student perform to their best ability on test day.

This work may include:

  • Reviewing prompts, sample scored essays, and rubrics
  • Discussing best use of time
  • Outlining
  • Drafting good introductions and conclusions
  • Creating good thesis statements and strong topic sentences
  • Using evidence well
  • Building a word bank

Does the score matter?

A high score of course never hurts; an average score likely won’t hurt; a below-average score is a red flag to selective colleges’ admissions officers. Because such a high percentage of students applying to selective colleges now work with personal essay coaches, admissions officers who see a strong personal essay and a low standardized test essay score will have to wonder: who is really responsible for the high quality of a personal essay?

Whether to take the test again for the sole purpose of raising the essay score is a question only the family can answer, but if you received a low score, not repeating it risks your personal essay looking suspect to admissions officers. Still, it’s complicated. Students who earn top grades in challenging high school English classes and who do well on the AP Writing/Language exam also prove their abilities there.

How parents can help students who aren’t excited about writing the essay

As with all elements of test prep, parents can encourage students to practice without a negative attitude. Students who say, “But I’ll be tired at that point!” can be reminded that with all that adrenaline pumping, they’ll make it through another test section. Students who say, “Why bother? I’m not a good writer,” are doing themselves a disservice. All students can improve their writing with the right attitude and help. Parents who talk up their own improvements in writing over the years set a great example for students who resist taking this part of the test.

As with all elements of the SAT and ACT prep, students should view all critiques and errors as opportunities to learn, and be willing to self-analyze mistakes and challenges based on the expert advice provided in tutoring sessions. Think about trying to improve your tennis backhand without a pro, or your batting stance without a coach. The best athletes take the analysis of their physical (and mental) behavior on the court or field, and then go home and practice, practice, practice with that advice in mind. Both elements are essential, and maintaining a growth mindset about improvement–fostered by the parent, another coach of sorts–is the icing on the practice cake.

*Information on whether colleges recommend or require the SAT or ACT essay can be found on their admissions webpages.


Sample SAT Writing Prompt

Sample ACT Writing Prompt

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