The test makers have done their best to create prompts that deal with abstract concepts, such as truth, labor vs. leisure, or responsibility, that should be understandable by students from a wide range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. They provide most of the necessary information in the quotes and assignment, but it’s the student’s responsibility to apply critical thinking and take a position on the issue.

For the best possible score, students need to be able to think abstractly and metaphorically. For example, one of the more unusual prompts I’ve heard provided the following quote and assignment:

“‘Every cloud has a silver lining.’ Do you agree or disagree, and why?”

For a student who is able to think metaphorically, it’s clear that the quote is suggesting that there is a positive benefit to every seemingly bad situation. A student who has not been taught to think metaphorically may be confused, and end up writing an essay about the weather. Although this may seem unlikely for students at the high school level, at almost every Beat-the-Clock workshop in which I’ve talked about this prompt, there have been one or more students who simply did not understand it until we discussed it and translated the metaphor.

Evaluation Criteria

There are five specific areas the essay readers will evaluate:

Content and Ideas:

     •   The ability to develop and adequately support a point of view.

     •   Evidence of critical thinking.

     •   The ability to think abstractly or metaphorically.


     •   The ability to organize information logically and present it coherently


     •   Writing that speaks directly to the reader.

     •   An active voice that anticipates and answers questions.

     •   A tone that is appropriate for the audience and the topic.

Sentence Structure and Word Choice:

     •   The creation of strong sentences of varying lengths.

     •   A wide, appropriately used vocabulary.

Conventions or Mechanics:

     •   The proper use of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Essay readers are instructed to evaluate each paper holistically—not weighing one factor above another or comparing one paper with another. Although handwriting is not supposed to be evaluated during the grading process, common sense makes it obvious that readers can evaluate positively only if they are able to read your writing. So write legibly!

You may visit the College Board Web site to see samples of graded essays and take a sample exam. Reading essays written by other students can be a big help in understanding what is expected of you, but don’t use them for examples of how to write well. Instead, read high-quality essays by writers such as the syndicated columnists found in the editorial pages of your local newspaper. Many editorials are nothing more than persuasive or argumentative essays, and you will likely find it helpful to study the ways in which professional writers present and support their positions. If you will be taking the ACT, visit the ACT Web site at to see sample questions and evaluations.

Time Management

You will have 25 minutes for the SAT, 30 minutes for the ACT, and 45 minutes for a CLEP essay. In this brief time, you must read the essay question, go through the pre-writing process, which includes thinking on paper and organizing your ideas, and finally, you must write your essay. Can you do it? The answer is—YES! You can do it, as long as you have a plan.