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David Recine

Sample New SAT Essay II

Need to practice your new SAT essay skills? Try this example passage and prompt! The passage you’ll be given will be an opinion piece from a noteworthy source.Your job in the essay task is to critique the construction of the author’s argument. Magoosh has already provided one sample New SAT essay here.

In this post, we’ll look at another sample essay question. Like the previous Magoosh High School Blog sample question—and like the authentic sample essay questions found on the College Board’s SAT prep website—this question is adapted from a famous source. The article below is a modified version of a TED Talk given by business guru Dan Pink.

New SAT Essay Instructions

As you read the passage below, consider how Dan Pink uses

    • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
    • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
    • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.


Reading passage

Adapted from Dan Pink, “The Puzzle of Motivation.” © 2009, TED Conferences, LLC. Originally published July 2006.

      There is an interesting brain-teaser called “the candle problem.”  In the candle problem, people are given candle, a cardboard box of thumbtacks and some matches. The task is to fix the candle to the wall in a way where it will not drip wax onto the floor when lit. At first, people usually try to pin the candle to the wall melt part of the candle so it will stick to the wall; these solutions do not work. After five or ten minutes, most people reach the problem’s real solution, which is to empty the box of thumbtacks, use two thumbtacks to affix the box to the wall, and set the candle upright in the box.

The key is to solving this problem is overcome what is called “functional fixedness.” It takes thought and time to solve the problem, because at first a box that holds thumbtacks appears to have no other possible use, even though it can also serve as a platform for a candle. Sam Glucksberg, a psychologist and researcher at Princeton University, conducted an interesting experiment with the “candle problem” that provides insight into employee motivation in the modern workplace.

Glucksberg timed the work of people from two groups. In the first group, members were told that the timer was only there to determine average duration for solving the candle problem. For the second group, Glucksberg used the timer to allocate financial incentives to the fastest puzzle solvers. He offered five dollars for individuals who were in the top 25% for speed of problem-solving. Glucksberg promised an additional $20 to whomever completed the task the most quickly.

Surprisingly, participants in the second group solved the candle problem more slowly than the members of the first group who didn’t receive any martial rewards. In fact, people the first group, with no rewards at stake, finished the job an average of 3.5 minutes earlier than individuals in the second group.

Glucksberg went on to perform the experiment again with a slight variation. This new iteration of his experiment reveals even more about how motivation really works, and why. He had the same group differentiation as before, with one group helping timed-but-unrewarded, and the other group receiving money for fast performance. This time however, the box was empty, placed separately from the thumbtacks on the table. With this new twist, the group receiving cash incentives completed their tasks much more quickly than the unrewarded group.

It is a lot easier to correctly identify the box’s proper use in the task if the box stands alone, and is not being presented as having a fixed tack-holding function. What Glucksberg discovered in this second experiment is that that if-then rewards—tangible incentives for completing a job to specific standards—work really well for tasks where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. External rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus and concentrate our minds. These kinds of incentives work spectacularly in simpler tasks like the one in Glucksberg’s second experiment, tasks with a narrow focus where participants can see the goal right in front of them and get straight to it.

But for Glucksberg’s original candle problem, in which participants must overcome their notion of the tack box’s fixed purpose, narrow focus is the wrong approach. The solution is on the periphery, and participants need to be looking around for an alternative answer. In tasks like this, tangible cause-effect-based rewards actually narrow a worker’s focus and restrict their perceptions of possible solutions.

These results of Glucksberg’s experiment have been replicated over and over again for nearly 40 years. This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored. There remains a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

What is alarming here is that our business operating system—the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources—is built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around external rewards. This actually does work well for many
kinds of common 20th century tasks. But for more creative 21st century tasks, that type of mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach is ineffective and counter-productive.

This is where the idea of “fixed function” comes into play in a new, unexpected way. We all assume that additional pay and other forms of material gain have a clear function in workplace motivation. We mistakenly believe that external incentives are “fixed” in purpose, and must be used to improve worker performance. In fact, external rewards only work for a limited and increasingly outdated subset of work projects.


NEW SAT essay question

Write an essay in which you explain how Dan Pink builds an argument to persuade his audience that motivational tactics should change in the modern workplace. In your essay, analyze how Pink uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Pink’s claims, but rather explain how Pink builds an argument to persuade his audience.

About David Recine

David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life. Follow David on Google+ and Twitter!

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