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Essay Writing Basics: Classroom and Standardized Test Essays

Updated on October 15, 2013
Beginning an Essay Exam
Beginning an Essay Exam | Source

In an earlier piece, I promise to address issues of writing in classrooms and on standardized tests. Both are commonly encountered as venues for writing; indeed, many people only ever write essays in those contexts. The essays written therein also tend to take on particular significance, establishing whether or not students have to repeat classes (at ever-increasing costs to themselves and taxpayers), whether or not they can get into college, and whether or not they can get professional licensing. Writing well in the classroom and on standardized exams is therefore important.

The contexts of classrooms and standardized tests also impose upon writing some peculiar concerns. The most obvious of these is the time to mull over and review what has been written, so as to improve upon it and make it the best it can be. In-class writing and standardized tests are one-shot affairs with limited time in which to propse and support an idea, so successfully proving an idea has to happen quickly if it will happen at all. Fortunately, there are ways to help it happen.


Good writing will necessarily involve revision, and effective revision takes time. Essays for examinations rarely if ever allow such time. What is presented in this hub is not necessarily a pattern for good writing, but it is one that is likely to be effective in meeting the purpose of examination writing: demonsrating command of material.

Also, this hub responds to the kind of timed writing most commonly found in licensing exams and secondary and lower-division undergraduate classes. Higher-level work, such as graduate comprehensive exams, will take commensurately more complicated treatment that goes beyond the scope of what an "Essay Writing Basics" piece can expect to treat.

Some Concerns of Situation

Writing essays in the classroom and for examinations imposes what is usually an unpleasant set of circumstances. Time constraints promote haste, which increses the chances for error on its own through a lack of time available to detect and correct mistakes. It also prompts the flow of adrenaline into the body, which is excellent for physical tasks to be performed under duress, but far less so for the work of the mind--for the adrenal response is one of fear and anger, and the clear thought upon which the best writing depends is greatly inhibited by both. Managing the circumstances, both externally and self-imposed, is vital for success at timed writing tasks--and it can be done.

A Brief Breakdown of One Useful Process

There are many methods to address essay exam prompts available. The one I propose is one I have used and which I have had my students use. Since I passed a number of essay exams with high marks in graduate school (in English!) using the method, and students at one school at which I taught passed a mandated end-of-term essay exam at better than an 87% rate, I think it may have some value. In order, it is

  1. Analyze the Prompt
  2. Assert a Thesis
  3. Identify and Order Main Points
  4. Support Each Point
  5. Offer a Conclusion

While I tend to reject the mechanization of what is supposed to be an organic if not artistic process, I recognize that some situations call for a faster and more systematic response than is optimal. Hence, the offering.

Analyze the Prompt

The possibility does exist that the "right" answer to a given question can be happened upon through chance, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it. Successfully answering the question, though, is far more likely after understanding what the question asks. For an essay exam, the question to be answered--which should not have a "right" answer if it is written well (and comments about badly written questions can come later)--will likely be in the form of a specific prompt. Ideally, the prompt will be a springboard for thought and consideration, the results of which will be the essay written in response to it. Matters are usually far less than ideal, however, and so prompts on essay exams will generally be more overtly structured, offering insight into how they are "supposed" to be answered.

In my experience taking, writing, and grading essay exams, I have found that the prompts will consist of three parts:

  1. Materials for consideration
  2. A controlling verb/verb phrase
  3. The desired focus

The first part, materials for consideration, may not be included explicitly in any given prompt; it may exist, as in literature classes, only as reference to readings assigned to the class, or it may exist, as is not seldom the case in composition classes, as reference to previous life experiences. Whether they are included in explicit detail or not, however, materials for consideration do much to shape the available response to a given prompt; they are obligatory for inclusion in answering the question the prompt poses.

Their necessity derives from the way in which they delimit what information is available to use in response to the prompt. The limitations can be problematic if they restrict writers to information with which they are unfamiliar or insufficiently familiar (a good reason to study many things and over long periods of time is to minimize this particulat problem); it is difficult to respond well to what is not known well. The limitations can also be problematic in their restriction of possibilities; I more than once encountered problems in my own exam essays of having a solid idea that required proof and development beyond the constraints of the assignment.

Even with such problems in place, having the imposed limitations of materials can be helpful. One of the things timed writing mandates is streamlining of writing processes, and restricting the available materials shrinks the area which must be searched for ideas, streamlining the prewriting process discussed in an earlier hub. Further, the limitation provides a clear and explicit reference point for the essay; there is a set place to which to return, a fixed point to use to plot trajectories, and so it is in many senses easier to stay on topic with a narrowly defined set of materials than to do so without the guideline.

The second part of a prompt, a controlling verb or verb phrase, will always be included in a prompt. There are two reasons for this. The first is that sentence structure obliges it; sentences have to have verbs to be sentences, and writing prompts come in sentence format. The other is that the controlling verb or verb phrase determines what type of answer is available. The different verbs commonly used in writing prompts indicate different types of writing, so understanding the verb allows understanding of what is being asked--and how to answer it.

There are some general guidelines for what the phrases ask for. Being aware of them can help greatly in being able to answer the question of the prompt. A partial list (there is no way to get all of the possible controlling verbs and phrases) appears below, with comments about each entry in the list:

  • Analyze- typically calls for breaking the desired focus (see below) into its component parts, relying on the materials for consideration to inform doing so; attend mostly to the primary parts of the desired focus, examining how they function and how they are the primary parts of it
  • Argue- typically calls for the assertion of a qualitative thesis; the desired focus is good or bad, right or wrong, agreeable or disagreeable
  • Articulate how- typically calls for the specific and detailed identification of a particular process; chronological order is obligatory
  • Articulate why- typically calls for the specific and detailed identification of a particular cause; identify the primary cause and explicate how it serves as the primary cause
  • Compare- typically calls for identification of the similarities between or among items in the desired focus, although it may call for the differences; it time and space permit, put the similarities to work in service to another idea, usually that the similar items share a common background or respond to the same set of circumstances
  • Contrast- calls for identification of the differences between or among items in the desired focus; often lends itself to an evaluative thesis, arguing that one of the items is superior to the other or others
  • Define- offer a definition for the term identified in the desired focus; defining from relevant examples of usage (likely in the materials for consideration) is a good tactic
  • Describe- asks for a detailed description, one aimed at conveying a dominant impression of the desired focus; develop an idea of the most important thing to know about the focus and tailor the description to offer it to the reader
  • Discuss- a general prompt calling for the assertion of an expository or qualitative thesis supported by specific and well explained evidence; a less specific and less polemic form of "argue"
  • Discuss how- typically calls for identification of a particular process, if less exactingly than "explain how"; chronological order is obligatory
  • Discuss why- typically calls for the identification of a particular cause, if less exactingly than "explain why"; identify the primary cause and explicate how it serves as the primary cause
  • Evaluate- typically calls for a value judgment, looking at how well the desired focus performs a specified function
  • Examine- like "analyze," "examine" typically calls for breaking the desired focus into its component parts, relying on the materials for consideration to inform doing so; attend mostly to the primary parts of the desired focus, examining how they function and how they are the primary parts of it
  • Explain how- typically calls for identification of a particular process, if less exactingly than "articulate how"; chronological order is obligatory
  • Explain why- typically calls for the identification of a particular cause, if less exactingly than "articulate why"; identify the primary cause and explicate how it serves as the primary cause
  • Explicate- typically calls for an identification of the function of the desired focus and a detailed explanation of how that function is carried out; this is a favorite of literature classes, particularly when looking at pieces of poetry
  • Identify- typically calls for the specified desired focus to be pointed out among the materials for consideration; explanation of how and why it is as pointed out will be necessary
  • Illustrate- typically calls for the presentation of representative examples of the desired focus in the materials for consideration; explanation of how and why the examples serve as examples will be necessary
  • Lay out how- typically calls for identification of a particular process, if less exactingly than "discuss how"; chronological order is obligatory
  • Lay out why- typically calls for identification of a particular cause, if less exactingly than "discuss why"; identify the primary cause and explicate how it serves as the primary cause
  • Narrate- calls for telling a story; chronological order and conversational (but not casual!) tone are helpful
  • Support- typically calls for explicit agreement with a specified position; think in terms of how a reasonable person could occupy such a position, irrespective of personal agreement or disagreement with it

That some duplication and overlap occur among the verbs and phrases is to be expected, as the idea that they can be fully disentangled from one another is a bad one. While this may promote some ambiguity, it can also allow for an easier time of answering the specific prompt, which is a good thing for a timed writing exercise.

Note also that verbs will sometimes be paired together, using either and or or. For example, I have seen prompts that asked examinees to "narrate and describe" things or to "compare or contrast" other things. Similar are two-part prompts, asking examinees to do such things as "Define X and explain why X is" some particular thing. In such cases, the conjugation matters; and requires that all the listed verbs be performed, while or insists that only one of them be undertaken. I have seen students fail for missing such distinctions, so it pays to keep track of them.

The third part of a prompt, the desired focus, actually names the subject of the essay. While it does not specify what the answer must be, it does note what the answer must be about, so it is vitally important to respond specifically to it; in my experience teaching and grading essays, many students have ended up failing for no other reason than that they do not actually respond to the identified desired focus. There is no way in this hub to anticipate all of the possible foci that may be requested in essay prompts, but it can note how to find them--and easily.

The desired focus, while the subject of the essay, is usually the object of the sentence that it the writing prompt. That is to say it is the thing to which the verb happens--and in American English, that typically means it follows the verb. If the prompt is, for example, "Discuss how to ruin an otherwise good first date," the desired focus is "an otherwise good first date," so the essay that responds to the prompt needs to talk about that thing. Taking into account the controlling verb phrase, "Discuss how," means that the essay will need to offer a process to follow, and it will need to be in chronological order therefore. And, since no materials for consideration are specified, reference to personal experience or observation, or to hypothetical situations, suggests itself as a means to offer support for the thesis that will emerge.

Assert a Thesis

Once the prompt is analyzed and an understanding of the question being asked established, it is time to answer that question. That is to say it is time to generate a thesis. An earlier hub notes that theses are answers to questions even in essays which are written with significant amounts of time and the luxury of going over a piece again and again to get each word right, and much of what it says of such theses remains true even within the tighter time constraints of an essay exam. Those constraints, however, make it worthwhile to compress thinking about how to answer the question posed by the prompt--a compression likely to result in a workable thesis rather than a good one, but one that will suffice.

Some discussion of how to frame theses in response to essay prompts is given above in the discussion of controlling verbs. There is more to consider in doing so, however, and one such thing is simplification. An essay written without pressing time constraints can afford not only to work to ensure the optimal phrasing of a thesis, but to offer a nuanced thesis, one that gives a shaded opinion that takes into account the complexities of existence. An essay written under tight time restrictions, such as that written for an exam, cannot do so; it will tend to function in more absolute terms. Frequently, essay prompts will pose issues in dichotomies: yes/no, right/wrong, good/bad, X/Y. Doing so delimits possible theses conveniently even as it oversimplifies viewpoints (which is part of the reason that essay exams typically do not produce good writing; the deep thought that underpins good writing inevitably leads to complexities that exam responses tend not to tolerate well).

Part of simplification is the excision of extra wording. As the earlier hub points out, phrases such as "I think," "I believe," and "In my opinion" are extraneous in a thesis, which is supposed to be and is assumed to be an expression of the essayist's considered opinion. While an essay exam usually precludes deep consideration, it is still the expression and support of the writer's view; stating that the thesis is an expression of opinion remains redundant and therefore unnecessary. Given that essays written under time constraints tend to be shorter, the redundancy is made worse; it occupies more of the text, taking up time and space that ought to be given to other, better things. It is therefore to be avoided more assiduously in the thesis of an essay exam than in other circumstances--although it really ought not to be present in any event.

Simplification should not come at the cost of clarity, however, and the clarity of the thesis will be enhanced by a number of things. One of them is offering an explicit thesis statement; while it is not the case that a well written essay has to actually state its central idea, writing an essay well that leaves its thesis implicit takes more time and attention than an essay exam generally permits. Flatly stating the thesis eases readerly understanding in the compressed time frame and circumstances of answering exams (in addition to offering the writer a clear focus of attention).

Another way to improve the clarity of the thesis, particularly as a response to an assigned prompt, is to include elements of the prompt in the thesis. Certainly, the desired focus should appear in the statement of thesis, and it should appear in more or less the same form as it does in the prompt, usually as the subject of the sentence. If, for example, the prompt is "Discuss what the best superpower to have is," then the thesis that responds to the prompt should begin "The best superpower to have is." The explicit inclusion of the desired focus in the thesis tells the reader that the essay is set up to respond directly to the assigned prompt. While doing so does not guarantee success, failing to do so will often ensure failure--a result undesirable for writing in the classroom or on essay exams.

The thesis statement does not stand alone, though, and its clarity can be improved by the way in which it is situated in the introduction to the essay. An earlier hub discusses introductions at length, but, as with most concerns of essay writing, time constraints force compression of ideas--and an essay written in response to a specific prompt already has much of the preliminary work of essay development done. In fact, an introductory paragraph that leads into a prompt-response thesis can work well as one or two sentences before the thesis (and one afterwards, addressed in the next hub). The first can do well to respond to the materials for consideration, either recapitulating them from the prompt (if they are explicitly given) or delimiting them for the essay itself (if they are not). The second can usefully note the desired focus, if it can be usefully broken out of the thesis statement. Taking the earlier example prompt, "Discuss what the best superpower to have is," can yield the kind of introduction that follows:

Superpowers such as those found in mainstream comic books prompt no small amount of discussion. Such discussion almost always ranges to asking which of them is best. The correct answer, of course, is super speed.

Admittedly, the prose is somewhat stilted and the motion among sentences is hardly as smooth as it could be. But the paragraph introduces the general field of inquiry, limits the materials available for consideration, directly responds to the prompt, and offers a clear and decisive thesis--all of the things an introduction to an essay exam needs to do. The writing is not good, but it answers what it needs to answer and sets up for a successful exam. How that setup can be acted on is discussed in the next hub.

© 2013 Folgha


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