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Beat the Clock Essay Writing

  • Janice Campbell Home School Enrichment
  • 2009 6 Mar
Beat the Clock Essay Writing

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.

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.

Plan to divide your time like this:

     •   25% Pre-writing

     •   75% Writing

This means that for a 25-minute essay, you should spend approximately 6 minutes pre-writing and 19 minutes writing. Don’t stress over the fractions of a minute—just follow the formula as closely as possible.

At the very end of the alloted time, be sure to glance back over your paper to make sure it’s as clear and well-organized if it needs to be. If you need to make corrections or move paragraphs, just cross out words or draw arrows to indicate the changes. Never waste time erasing—the  evaluators like to see evidence of thought and self-editing, and erasing is a complete waste of valuable time.

The Beat-the-Clock Writing Process

     •   Read carefully through the question. Be sure you know exactly what it says, because if you don’t take time to fully understand the question and answer it specifically, you will earn zero points on this portion of the test! You may find it helpful to copy the assignment portion of the prompt at the top of the page of your test booklet (but not on the lines where you’ll be writing the essay).

     •   Start thinking on paper. This process is known by various terms, including brainstorming, mind-mapping, or clustering. However you do it, this is a very important part of the process and must not be skipped. The reason that you must think on paper, rather than brainstorming mentally, is that ideas that can be seen are easier to organize. If you don’t think on paper, you run the risk of losing your best ideas or your train of thought as you write. During the exam, you won’t have any scratch paper, so you may use all the available white space in the essay section of the test booklet (not the answer booklet!) to write down ideas as you think about the question. Give yourself approximately four minutes for this step. Write down every idea that comes to you, even if you are not sure it is usable. Feel free to use abbreviations and short phrases—just put down enough to help you remember the essence of the thought.

     •   Organize ideas. When you have several ideas written down, start organizing them. Select the strongest idea as your thesis, then choose up to three other ideas that offer vivid examples that will support the main idea. You can rank ideas by simply numbering your concepts in the order you want to use them, or if you have time, you can quickly list them. You may use the remaining 1-2 minutes of the pre-writing time for this step.

     •   Write your first paragraph, using your main idea to answer the question and create the thesis. You may introduce the supporting points as reasons for your answer in this paragraph.

     •   Build a supporting argument. Write one or more paragraphs for each supporting point. Use vivid vocabulary and sentences of varying lengths.

     •   Conclude gracefully. Write a conclusion paragraph that wraps it all up. Summarize your supporting points and finish with a recap of your thesis.

     •   Evaluate: Finally, glance back over the essay to see if you’ve left out anything important.

     •   Finish! When time is up, you must turn to the next section, and you may not return to make changes after this point.

Practice Makes Perfect

Well, maybe not perfect, but at least competent! I recommend that you practice writing timed essays at least once a week until you take the exam. That will give you a chance to encounter a variety of prompts and to become familiar with the timed writing process. You’ll find one sample test on the College Board Web site and many more in the books listed in the resources sidebar. These useful guides also contain sample essays that have been graded.

For additional practice, you can invent your own writing prompts by selecting one or two quotes from a book of quotations, then creating an assignment that addresses the subject. Sometimes, your assignment can simply be the question, “Do you agree or disagree? Why?” When used with a good quote, this is usually focused enough to result in an interesting essay.

The more you practice, the faster and better you’ll become at writing timed essays. If the outfielder in the softball game had practiced vaulting the fence or located a nearby gate before that ball sped by, he might have been able to enjoy his moment of glory. Similarly, you have a chance to prepare thoroughly for the timed essay exam—will you be ready when the challenge comes? 

Published on March 6, 2009

Janice Campbell, who homeschooled her four sons from preschool into college, is author of Transcripts Made Easy, Get a Jump Start on College, Evaluate Writing the Easy Way, and Excellence in Literature, a classics-based, college-prep English curriculum for homeschoolers. She is the creator of the Beat-the-Clock Essay Workshop and also directs the National Association of Independent Writing Evaluators ( Visit to learn more and to sign up for her free e-newsletter!

This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb ’09 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Get more great homeschooling help by downloading our FREE report entitled “The Secret to Homeschooling Freedom” by visiting