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To “I” or Not to “I”: Using the First Person in ACT and SAT Essays

By February 9, 2017ACT, SAT

Sometime during middle school, students are taught that the word “I” should never appear in their academic writing. Often this “writing rule” is explained in terms of forcing students to write outside of their own experience and use evidence from the outside world. What should probably be posed as a writing exercise or tool ends up being drilled into students as an unbreakable rule. Understandably, students end up confused. If you read contemporary writing across all genres and most disciplines, you’ll see the word “I” is used often.

We’ve written at length elsewhere about the SAT and ACT essay assignments and how best to approach them. But as a quick refresher, the SAT requires students to read a persuasive essay and then write a brief rhetorical analysis of the piece. The ACT presents a debate through a paragraph of context and three opposing views; students are asked to claim a position within the debate while analyzing and evaluating the other three claims.

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about these assignments is whether students should use “I” in their SAT and ACT essays.

My answer depends entirely upon which test the student is taking and not upon what constitutes good writing.

SAT is an emphatic NO!, whereas ACT is a more nuanced maybe.

SAT

DO NOT USE “I”!

To understand why using “I” in your SAT essay is a mistake, you should understand the history of the test’s development. When David Coleman became the president of the College Board – the organization that writes and administers the SAT – he spoke of being frustrated that the old SAT “[did] not grade you on the correctness of what you write.” Instead, it asked students to take a position on an issue and explain it with examples, which many savvy students realized they could simply make up.

When the SAT underwent its redesign for the new test offered in March 2016, the test writers wanted to make sure that students were drawing from actual evidence to support their claims. As a result, the writers chose to include a source text. The assignment explicitly states that students should analyze the argument presented in terms of persuasive elements like logic, evidence, and stylistic elements and NOT on whether or not the student agrees with the position.

“I” does not belong in this type of essay.

Do not use “I agree because…” or “I disagree, but….” Students should focus on explaining why and for whom a certain piece of evidence is effective.

The danger of using an “I” in this essay, even in service of analyzing the features of the source text (“I agree that the statistics provided in paragraph three clearly support the point that…”), is that it could easily cue a quick-reading grader that the writer has inserted personal opinion. Why risk it?

When it comes to the SAT essay, students are much better served remembering the rule laid down by their eighth grade English teacher: don’t use “I” in your essay!

ACT

The ACT is an entirely different story.

In general, students tend to write stronger essays when they avoid relying on the crutch of “I believe” statements to prop up their claims; however, in the case of ACT essays, “I believe” statements can be quite effective because they help differentiate between what the student thinks and how the student summarizes the given perspectives.

Let’s assume that a student is writing an ACT essay on the topic of convenience, and one of the three perspectives states, “Being able to complete tasks more quickly and with less effort doesn’t make us lazy. It simply allows us to devote our time and energy to more important tasks.”

The student might present his analysis of this perspective in a multitude of ways. One way would be to write:

​Perspective One states that completing tasks efficiently “doesn’t make us lazy,” but I believe that many teenagers are lazy. They’re lazy because they’ve never really had to work hard because everything is so convenient.

Another would be to write:

​Perspective One states that completing tasks efficiently “doesn’t make us lazy.” ​If it’s not convenience that makes us lazy, then what does make teens so lazy? My friends often put off homework until the last moment, if they do it at all. They’d much prefer to spend their time at the mall, knowing that a quick spin through the online synopsis of the book for English class will be sufficient to get them through tomorrow’s class.

The second version is clearly stronger because it replaces the “I believe” with a specific, concrete detail. Lazy “I believe” writing is all about trying to fake out the reader by making a generalization sound more legit by wrapping it in personal belief.

Having said this, when it comes to the part of the assignment that requires a student to locate her own perspective in relation to the three perspectives presented by the prompt, “I believe” statements can serve as invaluable road signs for the reader. Especially when students are writing quickly, the difference between someone else’s view and their own can quickly become fuzzy.

Consider the use of “I” in the following transitional sentence:

While Perspective One believes convenience to be beneficial, Perspective Two believes it to be detrimental, and Perspective Three believes it to be less significant than speed, all perspectives seem to agree that convenience is an absolute, but I believe that convenience is entirely relative.

​Similarly, if a student is struggling to differentiate between her summary of a position from her own claim about the position, using “I believe” statements can help clarify where the other perspective ends and the student’s begins.

​Perspective One states that completing tasks efficiently “doesn’t make us lazy.” Convenience is really just speed, and speed itself can’t change our attitudes or behaviors.

Is this second sentence a paraphrase and logical continuation of Perspective One, or is it the student agreeing with this perspective? A subsequent sentence that begins “I argue…” would go a long way to clarifying who thinks what.

Used sparingly and strategically, the “I” that students have been taught never to use can be an effective addition to an ACT essay arsenal of strategies.

Ash Kramer

About Ash Kramer

With a career in test prep and higher education that began in the late 90s, Ash has held a variety of educational roles from tutor to administrator. She is currently a PhD candidate at USC and the Director of Curriculum at Compass, where she is lucky to lead a brilliant team creating the very best learning materials for students and their tutors.

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