I love this question. It shows just how frazzled people are when writing under the clock. However, it also means they lack confidence when choosing examples. When test-takers get anxious and panicky, they often feel that lying is their only option.
When this happens on the SAT essay, students support their argument with made-up wars, non-existent university studies, and novels written on the spot. This is amusing, but is it allowed? Technically, yes.
Your essay is not scored on correctness of content. It’s not in the rubric, so it’s not an official score criteria.
Is it recommended? No. Just because something is technically allowed doesn’t mean that it’s a great idea.
- Making something up and getting away with it doesn’t mean that you’re “gaming the system.” In fact, it ends up being more work.
- It’s not what you write—it’s how you write it. With any example you choose (real or fake), you have to analyze it and support your main argument with details. However, this is hard to do when something is totally made up.
- Your energy should go into explanation and organization because THOSE are the main score criteria. If you devote precious time to conjuring something out of nowhere, you lose time for everything else.
- An improvised example is bound to be flimsy, rudimentary, and just plain awkward. It can weaken your argument, so you could actually lose points.
- Credibility matters. You’re trying to develop and support an argument. Lies—especially the really obvious ones—reflect poorly on you and weaken your argument. Regardless of the rubric, your scorer is a human being and will likely be critical if you write something ridiculous.
Solution: Make An Example Bank and Use It
Making things up is an absolute last resort and puts you at a disadvantage. The best way to avoid this situation is to prepare effectively and collect some go-to examples. They should be REAL and adaptable to different essay themes. Going forward, use them in practice essays. You’ll learn how to tweak an example to fit a prompt and will not end up lying on test day.
For each of the following categories, choose examples and study them closely: What are the main details? What are the different sides/angles to this? What are the main lessons from it? Which “SAT essay themes” does this example fall under?
Create a list of go-to examples and notes for practice.
- THIS is where many students feel compelled to lie. After all, scorers don’t know if something actually happened to you.
- Still—you need something detailed and believable. If you can’t come up with a good one under time constraints, why bother lying? It’s not like personal experiences are required.
- Credibility: If you must make something up, avoid things that are blatantly false. Don’t write about that time you summited Mount Everest.
- Choose examples from history class; you’ve learned them in detail, remember them easily, and have already written about them.
- Credibility: Avoid phony historical events, kings, and countries. Flagrant errors (i.e. saying that George Washington was president during the Civil War) are also detrimental.
- Factual inaccuracy: This is different from lying. It’s not as risky. Muddling a few details won’t hurt you; this is not a research paper. If you’re drawing a blank on a particular detail, just omit it.
Literature & Film
- You’re already writing an essay and don’t have time to write a fake story.
- List examples from your own reading & English classes. Brush up on the plot, characters, and themes so you know how it fits different prompts.
- Films: If you’re not a voracious reader, you could easily come up with so many movie examples. So again, why lie?
- Credibility: Major inaccuracies/lies not only weaken your argument, but also confuse your reader (especially if they know the story). Don’t say that Tom Buchanan is the narrator of The Great Gatsby.
- Choose examples you’re comfortable with, especially if you’re stuck. True story: I once had a student who used The Lion King for all his practice essays. Every. Single. One. However, he would analyze it very creatively and thoroughly in support of his thesis. Surprisingly, it worked for every practice prompt and technically, that’s what mattered.
I am exaggerating 0%.
As hilarious as this is, don’t rely just on Disney for your Example Bank.
Also Look Into:
University Studies, Contemporary Issues/Events, Well-Known People (Historical & Current), Principles of Different Fields (Science, Psychology, Philosophy). More details on these will be in an upcoming post. 🙂
Let’s say you don’t prep and go into the essay…sans Example Bank. This is when lying usually happens.
Not really an ideal situation, so please don’t wind up here.
What are your options at this point?
- If you must fib… Personal Experiences are your best bet. That’s risky, but at least it won’t be as obvious.
- For Personal Experiences (real, semi-real, or fake), I often suggest using two and presenting them differently. One is written as an event from your own life. The other can be presented as a local news story/something you read about, as long as it has details that support your argument.
- If using other kinds of examples (history, literature, etc): Do yourself a favor and make it easy: try to use simple, familiar, REAL things.
To Sum Up:
1. Because the essay is a composition exercise, you are scored primarily on organization, argumentation, and language use—not content.
2. Lying on the essay is time-consuming, stressful, risky, and not really worth doing.
3. Made-up examples are under-developed and can weaken your essay. You’re better off using a real example that you know well.
4. Even though it’s not on the rubric, blatant lying may still affect your credibility in the eyes of the scorer.
5. Solution: During prep, make an Example Bank and practice using it.
BTW—If you’re not writing practice essays, it’s time to start. Stay tuned for related exercises and opportunities for feedback.
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About Tanya Shah
Tanya has taught advanced English and test prep for over five years, and sees standardized tests as solvable puzzles. When she's not reading or writing, she is sampling local bakeries or enjoying the outdoors with her dogs.
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