Preparing for an Essay Exam Help (page 2)

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Updated on Sep 6, 2011


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 The official GED Testing Service website offers links to your jurisdiction's testing program, which may differ slightly from that of other states. Check 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

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 (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
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