When it comes to standardized tests, there is a core set of strategies that can be applied to any Verbal or Math section, regardless of the actual test. Whether they are called “Critical Reading” (SAT) or “Reading Comprehension” (SSAT), “Quantitative Reasoning” (ISEE) or “Math” (all), the multiple-choice sections of any standardized test can generally be approached with the same box of tools. Process of Elimination, for example, is a fundamental strategy that every 4th grader through graduate-school applicant needs to know: If you can’t find the correct answer, then look at the choices. Usually two of them will be wildly off base. Eliminate those and then, if you have to guess, your odds of getting it right just improved from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3. That is a much better position from which to work.
The Essay section, however, does not avail itself to such a strategy, because it is abstract – there is nothing to eliminate, back-solve or break down. There is only a prompt – a quote or a description of a situation – and an assignment: evaluate and write. That’s it. That, and a ticking clock. As I asked my GMAT student recently, “when was the last time you wrote an analytical essay, in 30 minutes, on spec?” Imagine being a Junior in high school, or an 8th grader applying to private school, under those conditions. For many, the essay can be the most confounding part of any standardized test.
So what will help? I have my own tools that I share with my clients, some that can be found in any “How To” book (but I explain them better!), some that are my own creations. First and foremost, are these: Write What You Know, and remember, you are writing a First Draft.
I once tutored a student whose practice test essay prompt was “What comes up must come down.” The student reported that when he read the quote, he had no idea what to write about. Gravity? The ups and downs of life? The latest Yankees season? Once he made a decision, he was stumped about what examples to use in support of his “argument.” By the time he actually put pencil to paper, 7 minutes were gone. Perfectionist that this student was, he then wrote so much and so quickly that he skipped words and had to erase entire sentences that made no sense. He then changed his mind altogether and started over. Time ran out. His essay was incomplete – for which a lot of points were deducted – and it was not proof-read, so it had some grammatical and spelling errors that the student would have caught if he’d looked over the work in its entirety. (Personally, if I got that prompt on a test that determined my scholastic future, I would write “This test will now go up and out the window and then come down onto the streets of New York…”)
This student was caught in two common traps: he had no idea what to write and he thought he had to write the best essay ever. The former is easily addressed and prepared for; the latter is an idea that must be overcome.
Write What You Know. This is the mantra of professional writers everywhere, and it is just as true here. Because it is always harder to write about something if you have no idea, or feeling for it. If you think “What comes up must come down” applies to the vicissitudes of life, then don’t write about gravity – even if you think it will make you seem smarter. It won’t. If you can’t remember who discovered it (“some guy with an apple?”) or the Physics formula for it, then you’ll just be at a loss for words. Whereas if you write about something you know, or better yet, are passionate about, then the words will flow.
I advise all my students to make what I call a Passion List: a list of books, movies, subjects they are studying (and enjoying!) in school, current events, significant personal experiences, etc. that they have a strong connection to and know well enough to write about. Essay prompts are so general that at least one of those favorites will fit into the theme. Gravity, Harry Potter, Hamlet, the history of empires, all fall under the umbrella of “What comes up must come down.” The choice of which to write about depends on the student.
Of course no one can bring their list into the testing area, but they can review it right before they go in, so the ideas will be fresh. On the SAT, the essay is the first section on the test, so that last minute review will be put to immediate use. Other tests place the essays at the end – but there are breaks in a testing period. Students can review their lists then. The point is, “I didn’t know what to write” is easily remedied by simply reviewing what “I like to write about…”
You are only writing a First Draft. In school, students are taught to be thorough when preparing an essay or research paper. Teachers (rightly) encourage them to take the time to write a first, maybe a second, draft before handing in the final version. On a standardized test that is simply not possible. The best you can do is write a great first draft.
After evaluating the prompt and deciding on two “passions” that could lend themselves nicely to the subject, you should write without editing along the way. Obviously if you catch a major error, or think of a great way to re-phrase your Thesis statement, then by all means do it. The time for small corrections, however, is after the essay is complete. The last 5 minutes of any essay should absolutely be reserved for proof reading. That’s when you can look for spelling and/or grammar mistakes, as well as how the essay flows and any small changes that might improve it. Nonetheless, in 25 to 30 minutes, the best you can do is a first draft. Pushing – or editing – yourself to do more is counterproductive – and it will show.
Any standardized test essay is about making an abstract idea into a concrete argument in a limited period of time. To do so, you need to have strong examples at your fingertips and a solid idea of what you can and cannot do. Then the only way to go is up!