Taking an Essay Exam
This fourth and final section deals with a specific essay-writing situation: the timed essay exam. You can use most of the writing strategies you’ve learned so far, but because your time is limited, this kind of essay requires a unique approach. The lessons in this section will give you specific strategies for tackling essay exams, from the crucial planning stage through the editing process.
Lessons you will find in section #4:
4.1 Preparing for an Essay Exam
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 is difficult
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 1.1–1.3 apply to any type of essay). What changes is your approach. When you have just 60 minutes (IELTS), 50 minutes (TOEFL), 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 article, 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 General Training Writing test is 60 minutes long. It has two writing tasks of 150 words and 250 words. In Task 1, candidates are asked to respond to a situation, by writing a letter, for example, requesting information or explaining a situation. In Task 2, candidates write an essay in response to a point of view, argument or problem.
Below are samples of Task 1 and Task 2. (Note that candidates for the General Training module take a different Writing test to the Academic module but in case of Task 2 section of the test, they would accomplish the same job).
Nowadays, there are many medical surveys of treatments to reduce health problems. Who should conduct them, governments, individuals or private companies, in your opinion? Give reasons for your answer and include relevant examples from your experience.
Frequently, medical surveys are directed to carry out an appraisal of the therapeutic issues that influence a specific community or demographic. In my submission, such surveys can be conducted by both non-governmental firms and the government; however, private individuals should not be authorized to do them.
Backing such surveys by governments significantly benefits people. At the point when the government conducts medical surveys, the findings will be unprejudiced. Likewise, the suggested treatment options will be more effective and affordable. Not at all like privately owned firms, governments are not centered around making a profit. Thus, the results of their surveys are more likely to profit the populace. Consequently, therapeutic surveys on grave health issues such as cancer or mental health disorder should be directed by the government per se.
Contrariwise, private establishments are money-driven. They need to further their business so they may tamper with the answers. In this way, we cannot completely confide in these institutions. For instance, when a face cream company carries out an opinion survey regarding its product, the results will feature the worthiness of their items. Therefore, non-governmental companies can possibly be permitted to direct surveys in the cosmetic field where it is anything but a question of life and death. In addition, customers who want to enhance their appearance will most likely not fret having to pay more, but permitting them to conduct surveys on serious health problems can have lamentable outcomes.
Concerning people, they are not qualified for leading health surveys. Since they are in default of the instructions, funds, infrastructure, and resources to conduct valid surveys, they should not be licensed to conduct them.
To sum up, as health surveys serve a crucial role in assisting a community stays healthy, they should be supported. Nevertheless, surveys on serious medical issues should merely be led by government organizations because surveys conducted by privately held companies are probably one-sided.
You live in a room in college which you share with another student. You find it very difficult to work there because he or she always has friends visiting. They have parties in the rooms sometimes borrow your things without asking you.
Write a letter to the accommodation officer at the college and ask for a new room next term. You would prefer a single room and explain your reasons.
You should spend about 20 minutes on this task.
Write at least 150 words.
I am a postgraduate student, and I currently live in the university dorm. I am writing to request a new room, preferably a single room, from the next term because of the inconvenience that I am facing with my current roommate.
I have been sharing my room with an undergraduate student. Unfortunately, she is party-kind. She has lots of friends visiting her every day. They organize parties in the room and since it is a single bedroom house, I am struggling and cannot concentrate on my work. Moreover, I sometimes sleep in the library because I am worried that I cannot work in my room. Although I tried to request her to stop organizing parties, she has never shown any concern towards me.
This is the reason why I decided to shift to a new room from the next term. I would prefer someone who is quiet and work-minded as my roommate. Furthermore, I decided not to share with undergraduate students. If you cannot find someone with my preference, I am good to take a single room for myself.
I hope you understand my situation, and I look forward to a positive response.
The Academic Writing test is 60 minutes long.
There are two tasks. Candidates are required to write at least 150 words for Task 1 and at least 250 words for Task 2. Both responses should be written in a formal style.
In Task 1, you will be asked to describe some visual information (graph/table/chart/diagram), and to present the description in your own words. You may be asked to describe and explain data, describe the stages of a process, how something work, or write about an object or event. You need to write 150 words in about 20 minutes.
In Task 2, you will be presented with a point of view, argument or problem. You need to write 250 words in about 40 minutes. IELTS Academic Writing is pretty similar to the General one.
The first graph below shows the weight (in tonnes) of fruit produced by a farm during each month in 2013, and also the amount (in tonnes) of fertilizer used. The second graph shows the volume of rainfall in each month (in millimeters.)
Write a report summarising the information. Select and describe the main features, and make comparisons where relevant.
You should spend about 20 minutes on this Task.
Write at least 150 words.
The charts give information regarding the tonnage of fruit produced on a farm per month in 2013, the fertilizer used and the monthly rainfall in that year.
We can see that fruit production rose steadily from just over 2 tonnes in January to a peak of roughly 4.2 tonnes by August. The output then fell rapidly, declining to around the initial 2-tonne mark in December. However, looking at fertilizer use, we see that this seasonal pattern is largely reversed: the most fertilizer (just under 1 tonne) was utilized in April, followed by a marked decline to zero in June and July. Fertilizer consumption then increased slightly in the autumn, rising to a total of around 0.7 tonnes before dipping to just below 0.5 tonnes at year end.
Regarding rainfall, this appears to reflect the use of fertilizer, with an early high of 16mm in February, falling consistently to 4mm in July, August and September. Rainfall then increased steadily to reach 14mm in December.
In summary, this farm generally employed the most fertilizer at seasons of high rainfall, and by contrast, it produced the most fruit when both rainfall and fertilizer use were around their lowest.
On the TOEFL writing section, students must complete two written essays. Total section timing is 50 minutes, which is divided into a 20-minute segment for an integrated writing task and a 30-minute block for an independent writing task. Human graders trained by ETS read all essays, which are assessed on a scale of 0 to 5 (on score reports, this is called a “task rating”). Test-takers also receive a scaled writing section score of 0 to 30 along with brief and general comments on both essays. The primary criteria used by graders to evaluate essays are development, organization, and language use.
TOEFL Integrated Writing
As denoted by the term, TOEFL integrated writing essays involve both reading passages and listening excerpts. Students first read a brief text on a general or academic topic, and then listen to a portion of a lecture on that same topic. An essay prompt asks students to summarize what was discussed in the lecture and how it either supports or undermines the content of the reading passage. On the actual test, this exercise will be referred to as “Writing Based on Reading and Listening.” The suggested length of the essay is 150-225 words.
TOEFL Independent Writing
On the TOEFL independent writing task, students write an essay in response to a prompt that can deal with a wide variety of general topics. This task is based on the essay prompt only and does not include any reading passages or lecture excerpts. Essay prompts typically ask students whether or not they agree with a certain statement, their opinions on issues of public interest, or what they would do in a given situation. The independent writing task is also known as “Writing Based on Knowledge and Experience.” As indicated by the directions that accompany the essay prompt, the most effective independent essays are usually at least 300 words in length.
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 on the Internet with a simple search. The official GED Testing Service website also offers links to your jurisdiction’s testing program, which may differ slightly from that of other states.
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. You can find a list of topics for Georgia’s Regents’ exam by a simple search on the Internet.
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 subjects 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 IELTS, TOEFL, 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 keywords that clue you into 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
💡 The Best Way to Achieve a High Score
The scorers of every type of timed essay agree on one significant point: You must support your essay with details, examples, and evidence. Not only will they strengthen your argument, but they will make your writing come alive. Common advice for essay exam takers is to include at least one sentence in each paragraph that begins with the words For example. Compare these sentences:
High school seniors should be allowed open campuses, on which they can arrive in time for their first class, leave during free periods, and come back to school for their other classes. There is no reason to treat high school seniors like children by making them stay in school all day when they don’t have classes to attend all day. Seniors can handle the extra responsibility.
High school seniors should be allowed open campuses, on which they can arrive in time for their first class, leave during free periods, and come back to school for their other classes. Seniors are given freedom and responsibility in many other areas of their lives; for example, the ability to drive a car. Seniors are also permitted to vote and to prepare for their futures through the college admissions process or vocational training.
The first example uses generalizations and unsubstantiated claims (“no reason to treat [them] . . . ,” “can handle the extra responsibility”), which weaken the argument. The second uses evidence, such as the responsibility of driving and voting, to make the case for open campuses. Remember to back up what you say with evidence, details, and other types of examples.
In a persuasive, or argument, essay, you choose one idea and show why it is more legitimate or worthy than another. Your purpose is not to merely show your side, but to convince your reader why your side is best. In order to convince effectively, you must base your argument on reasoning and logic. The most important strategy for the persuasive essay is to choose the side that has the best, or most, evidence. If you believe in that side, your argument will most likely be even stronger (although you don’t have to believe in it to write a good essay).
An important component of a persuasive essay is the inclusion of other sides or points of view. In fact, the scoring rubric for the IELTS or ACT essay notes specifically that readers will be looking for counterarguments. Counterarguments are presented in order to be refuted or weakened, thereby strengthening the case for your side. However, it is important to use reasoning and understanding to refute them. If you don’t sound fair, or simply present emotional reasons why your side is best, you have weakened your argument. You must show that your idea is most legitimate in part because other ideas are weak or incorrect.
Key verbs that will help you identify a call to write a persuasive essay include:
■ Criticize: express your judgment about the strengths and weaknesses of your topic, and draw conclusions
■ Evaluate: assess the topic based on its strengths and weaknesses, drawing conclusions
■ Justify: defend or uphold your position on the topic, using convincing evidence
■ Prove: confirm or verify that something is real or true using evidence, examples, and sound reasoning
Understanding Your Prompt
This advice might seem obvious, but it aims to correct one of the most common mistakes made on essay exams: Spend time understanding the type of prompt you’ll encounter. Remember that your score depends in large part on how well you address that prompt (all the IELTS, TOEFL, ACT and SAT essay directions note that an essay written off topic will be scored 0 to 5; a GED essay that fails to adequately address the prompt also gets the lowest score—a 1). Preparation materials, both in print and on the Internet, are available for every essay exam, so it’s easy to familiarize yourself with them.
Many students fail to address the prompt because they didn’t understand what it was asking them to write about. The best way to determine whether you understand it is to put the prompt in your own words, and then compare yours with the original. Are they nearly the same in meaning? If you have trouble with this exercise, try circling the verbs (key words) in the original prompt. These are the same key words you will look for during the exam.When you understand the key words, you can more easily write the type of essay required by the prompt.
Budgeting Your Time
As you prepare to take your exam, familiarize yourself with its timing. Whether you have 25 minutes or an hour, you should complete three distinct tasks: planning, writing, and revising. The writing stage will take the longest, and, for essays that don’t hold grammatical and spelling mistakes against you, the revising stage will be the shortest. But every essay should include all three.
Section 1 covered prewriting. Review in particular Lessons 1.3 and 1.4, and decide, based on a few practice essays, which brainstorming technique works best for you in a timed situation. Knowing exactly what you will do when you begin the exam will not only help you save time but will also take some of the pressure off, too. Some exit exams (such as Indiana’s Graduation Qualifying Exam) judge your prewriting notes, outlines, and other graphic organizers, making it even more important to choose a strategy that you know you do well ahead of time. Even if you are taking the SAT, and have just 25 minutes for your essay, spend the first 3–5 planning.
Your planning time, no matter which prewriting strategy you use should involve the formation of a thesis statement and three or four main points. Any supporting evidence for, or examples of, those points should be included. Once you begin planning, don’t be tempted to switch topics, which will waste valuable writing time. Allow a few minutes to think through the topic. You may cross off main points that don’t work, or add a new one or two as you go.
💡 Time Management
Set a schedule that allows for each step in the writing process:
■ Spend the first 1/4 of your time planning your essay.
■ Spend 1/2 of your time drafting your essay.
■ Spend the last 1/4 of your time editing and proofreading your essay.
The time you spend planning for and preparing to take an essay exam can mean the difference between a great score and a poor one. Do your homework by researching your exam: Understand how it’s scored, what type of prompt(s) you’ll encounter, what the directions say, and even how much space you’ll be given to write in. Learn how to respond quickly to a prompt by practicing: Come up with a thesis statement and outline in just five minutes or less.