Many standardized tests, including the ISEE, SSAT, Hunter College High School admissions exam, many New York State Regents, and the SAT include an essay section, and these essays are the source of a great deal of anxiety among both students and parents. To an extent, this anxiety is an unavoidable side effect of the high-stakes nature of modern testing, but at least part of the anxiety is related to the differences between writing for tests and “regular” writing. Normally, good non-fiction writing includes a process of research and revision, which these tests do not allow for. Since most test writing is done under extremely artificial conditions, it is not obvious that a student who writes well in school will be able to write well on a test.
Although I sympathize with people who get stressed out by writing standardized test essays, and I believe that they have some very valid criticisms, I also believe these tests serve several legitimate purposes. The most commonly stated reason for these essays is to give schools an idea of how well students write. I believe they do a moderately good job at this. While it is true that virtually all good writing is produced more thoughtfully and over a longer period of time than test essays are, good writers generally produce substantially better first drafts than poor writers. Students who have strong writing skills usually produce writing samples with reasonably correct grammar, sensible ideas, and a logical flow from beginning to end even when they are working under severe time pressure. On the other hand, students who are not strong writers usually produce essays that lack some or all of those desirable traits.
One important exception to the general rule of better writers producing better essays under testing conditions occurs when a student is flummoxed, confused, or even offended by a particular topic. For example, I know of a student who froze up on the Hunter College High School entrance exam because the topic that year was to write about a conflict the student had once had with her parents. This particular student was deeply uncomfortable sharing what she considered internal family business with strangers who would be judging her. This type of situation can be managed by good test preparation. When I am preparing students for an exam, one of the tools I make sure my students have is the ability to turn what appears to be an uncomfortable non-fiction topic into a light-hearted, maybe even humorous, fictional topic.
Another purpose of test essays is less commonly discussed, presumably because it’s not polite to talk about it. These essays are an important tool to help detect cheating. Even though it is natural for a carefully crafted essay written at home without a time limit to be much better than an essay written during a test, the voice of the student writing the essay will be the same. If admissions officers have two writing samples written in distinctly different voices, it surely raises red flags.
The question for me as a tutor is, what can I do to help students be better writers in general and stronger test writers in particular? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that quickly and easily teaches people to write well. The best approach that I have found is regular practice paired with thoughtful feedback. It is important that feedback be constructive and positive. Pointing out too many flaws in an essay is a good way to overwhelm and alienate a student. Instead, it’s better to focus on one or two areas to work on at a time.
Like so many academic skills, writing is not something that can be learned quickly. It is a skill that develops over years. If you are a parent who is concerned that your child does not write well, I recommend that you begin encouraging your child to write more. I particularly like the idea of setting your child up with a correspondent. Sometimes, traditional pen pals (i.e., other children, usually living in some far off place) can work well. Other times, it makes more sense to enlist a grandparent or other relative who is sure to give lots of positive feedback. Hiring a tutor can also be a good choice, particularly if you do not want to be responsible for supervising writing practice.
What I don’t recommend is requiring students to churn out large numbers of timed essays on a variety of more-or-less meaningless topics. While this sort of practice mimics test writing, and is very useful in moderation, it is not appropriate as a primary way to teach writing skills. After all, writing well is impossible without thinking well, and it is not reasonable to expect people to think deeply or clearly if they always have to think quickly.