Preparing for an Essay Exam Help (page 2)
Introduction to Preparing for Essay Exams
Essay exams are stressful. You have to come up with a well-written piece under a strict time restraint in a room crowded with other students. How can you alleviate some of that stress and walk into the testing room with confidence? The answer is preparation.
Writing an essay in an exam situation, with the clock ticking, is very different from other types of essay writing. Of course, the fundamentals of good writing don't change (which is why Sections 1—3 apply to any type of essay).What changes is your approach. When you have just 25 minutes (SAT), 30 minutes (ACT), or an hour (many state tests, such as Regents'), you must use your time wisely. Every minute counts.
The way to take full advantage of every minute is to prepare; gather all available information about the test beforehand, checking the resources in the Additional Resources section of this book, as well as your exam's website. Understand the type of prompt you'll find on the test, know how to organize your thoughts, and be able to expand prewriting notes into paragraphs. Take timed practice exams not only to get used to the situation, but also to identify your strengths and weaknesses. When you take a timed essay exam, preparation can mean the difference between a great score and a poor one.
Types of Exams
Spend time learning the general features of the essay you'll be taking. Understand the topics and what scorers will be looking for. Study the instructions for your essay carefully (they're all online)—think of how much time you'll save during the exam if you don't have to read them. Finally, visit the test website to get the most up-to-date information about topics and any changes made to the tests.
The ACT Plus Writing Test is optional. Some schools require the test, so check with those you plan on applying to before you make your decision to register for it. The essay is written in response to a prompt concerning an issue of relevance to high school students. You'll need to take a stand on that topic, support your point of view, and present a counterargument.
Here's a sample prompt:
In an effort to reduce juvenile violence and crime, many towns have chosen to enforce curfews on minors under the age of eighteen. These curfews make it illegal for any minor to loiter, wander, stroll, or play in public streets, highways, roads, alleys, parks, playgrounds, or other public places between the hours of 10:00 P.M. and 5:00 A.M. These curfews also make it illegal for parents or legal guardians to allow minors to congregate in certain public places unsupervised. Those who support these curfews believe they would reduce community problems such as violence, graffiti, and drugs, and would force parents and guardians to take responsibility for their children's whereabouts. Those who oppose curfews for minors claim these laws violate the Fourteenth Amendment rights of life and privilege for U.S. citizens. They also believe that such curfews stereotype minors by presupposing that citizens under the age of eighteen are the only people who commit crimes.
In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this topic. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.
Two trained readers will score your essay on a scale of 1–6; the highest possible score is a 12, and the lowest is a 2. Those readers will evaluate how well you:
- supported your position
- maintained focus on the topic
- developed and organized your position logically
- supported your ideas
- adhered to the rules of standard written English
For the latest information about the test, check www.act.org.
The General Educational Development test contains a 45-minute writing section in which test takers must develop an expository essay that includes personal observations, knowledge, and experience. The typical GED essay is about 250 words in length, written on your choice of five topics. A list of possible topics, as well as some test-taking hints, may be found at http://www.cdlponline.org/gedprint/files/GED10.pdf. The official GED Testing Service website offers links to your jurisdiction's testing program, which may differ slightly from that of other states. Check www.acenet.edu/clll/ged/index.cfm for the latest information.
Those who score the GED essay read between 25 and 40 essays an hour. They look for:
- well-focused main points
- clear organization
- development of ideas
- appropriate sentence structure and word choice
- correct punctuation, grammar, and spelling
With just 25 minutes to write, you won't be expected to turn in a final draft essay when taking the SAT. Minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics are not weighed against you. Scorers instead read the essay to get an overall impression of your writing ability. They look for evidence of critical thinking: how well you responded to the topic, developed a point of view, and used appropriate examples and evidence to support your position. Is your essay clearly focused, and does it transition smoothly from one point to the next? Do you show evidence of having a varied and intelligent vocabulary?
You'll get either a "response to a quote" or a "complete the statement" prompt. The former has one or two quotes on a topic—you'll need to take a stand on that topic in your essay. The latter asks you to fill in the blank in a sentence, and write an essay based on your completed sentence. The latest information on the SAT essay may be found at www.collegeboard.com.
Regents' and Other Exit Exams
More than 25 states, including California, Alaska, North Carolina, and Texas, require a passing grade on an exit exam to be eligible for high school graduation. These tests vary, so it is important to get specific information about the test you are preparing to take. However, most exit exams allow 60 minutes to develop an essay based on one of a choice of topics. A list of topics for Georgia's Regents' exam, for example, may be found at www.gsu.edu/~wwwrtp/topics.htm (but remember to check with your school regarding the test you will be given).
A typical exit essay is approximately 1,500 words. Possible topics include responses to literature, biographical narratives, and even business letters. Those who grade exit essay exams ask:
- How well did you address the topic?
- Were your ideas organized?
- Did you develop major points, and support them with details and examples?
- Were your word choices and sentence structure effective and varied?
- How consistent was your style (paragraphing), grammar, spelling, and punctuation?
- Did you express yourself freshly and uniquely?
Types of Essays
You have been assigned dozens of essays during high school. They might have been a response to something you read, an argument about a particular topic, or an explanation of an event or other subject of study. In fact, there are countless types of essays. However, almost all timed essay exams fall into one of two major categories: expository or persuasive. In fact, the ACT and SAT call exclusively for persuasive essays.
An expository essay gives directions, instructions, or explanations. It informs by presenting the writer's knowledge about the topic to the reader. You might be asked to define, compare and/or contrast, or explain cause and effect. In fact, think of the verbs used in your topic as key words that clue you in to the fact that you are being asked to write an expository essay. These key words include:
- Compare: examine qualities or characteristics to note and discuss similarities and differences
- Contrast: examine two or more ideas, people, or things, stressing their differences
- Define: give a clear, authoritative meaning that identifies distinguishing characteristics
- Describe: relate the details that make the subject in question unique
- Diagram: create a graphic organizer that explains your answer
- Discuss: examine the subject(s) thoroughly, and give a detailed explanation of its strengths and weaknesses
- Enumerate: determine the points you must make, and present them in a list or outline form
- Explain: clarify meaning in a straightforward fashion, paying attention to the reasons for a situation
- Illustrate: use examples, graphic organizers, evidence, or analogies to give meaning or answer a problem
- Interpret: explain the meaning of something or solve a problem using personal opinions, judgments, or reactions
- List: see enumerate
- Narrate: explain an occurrence by describing it as a series of chronological events
- Outline: describe in an organized fashion, systematically, highlighting only the major points (details not necessary)
- Relate: explain the associations or connections between two or more things, events, circumstances, or even people; may also be used to mean narrate (see narrate)
- Recount: see narrate
- Review: critically examine the topic, event, idea, or thing in question, discussing major points and their strengths and/or weaknesses
- State: express major points concisely, without using examples or details
- Summarize: see state
- Trace: similar to narrate; describe the chronology of an event to reveal its meaning