There was a sharp crack, and I turned in time to see the softball streaking for the outfield and the runners taking off from the loaded bases. I watched as the center fielder raced toward the ball, glove stretched high. It looked as if he would make the catch, but the ball skimmed past his glove, over the fence at the edge of the field, and bounced on the other side. If it hadn’t been for the fence, the outfielder could have made a spectacular catch and been the hero of the day. As it was, his team was now down 4-0.

The fence that stopped the outfielder is a lot like the deadlines you’ll encounter in timed essays on the SAT, AP, CLEP, and college exams you’ll soon be taking. It doesn’t matter how many great ideas you have or how fast you’re going; once the allotted time is up, you must immediately stop writing. However, if you know what to expect in the exam, and if you have a game plan, you’ll have a good chance for success on the essay.

There are other uses for the skills you’ll practice while writing timed essays. Imagine how much time you could save if you were able to write rough drafts for your other academic subjects in just a half hour! Being able to think quickly is a skill that will help you in college as well, because many instructors, especially in the humanities, give essay exams for some or all of their tests. Take time to learn the skills now, and you’ll be glad you did.

If there is an SAT, AP, or CLEP essay in your future, there are three primary things you need to know and do before you take the test:

    1.  Know what to expect: You need to become familiar with the type of essay that evaluators are seeking, the types of essay prompts you’ll encounter, and the criteria by which the essays will be judged.

    2.  Know how to use your time: You must learn time management techniques so that you can make the best strategic use of each moment.

    3.  Know the Beat-the-Clock process by heart: You need to practice the timed writing process until it becomes easy and automatic.

The Essay

First, it’s important to understand exactly what an essay is. It’s not a dry reporting of facts such as you would find in a research paper on Bolivia. Instead, it’s a position paper—a paper in which you take a position (express your opinion) about a subject. In most standardized tests with an essay component, you are provided with a topic, often presented as a quote. You must answer a specific question on the assigned topic and provide sound reasoning to support your answer.

There are three primary sections in any essay—the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. The introduction contains the thesis or main idea of the essay; the body contains supporting points that more completely explain the thesis; and the conclusion wraps up your argument, providing a satisfactory close for the reader.

The timed essays you write should contain all three sections, with supporting points or examples taken from your life—from the subjects you’ve studied, literature you’ve read, history, politics, current events, or sports. You may choose one major supporting point and develop it deeply over two or three paragraphs, or you may use the basic five-paragraph essay format with three supporting points, each developed in its own paragraph. Because you are offering your opinion, it is acceptable to write in the first person, that is, to use the pronoun “I.”

The Essay Prompt

Most of the essay prompts you will encounter on standardized tests will consist of one or two brief passages or quotations from an existing text, followed by an essay assignment. The assignment is designed to help you focus on and write about the issues raised in the quoted text. The quotes are there to orient you to a perspective on the issue, and they sometimes contain a question. Make no mistake, however—the only question you need to address is the one in the assignment portion of the prompt.